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A bumpy road to success
Senators pay the price for joining upper echelon
Posted: Monday September 27, 1999 08:00 PM
JERSEY CITY, N.J. (Ticker) -- It has been a long road to respectability for the Ottawa Senators, culminating last season with a Northeast Division title.
But that road comes with a steep toll. And it may be too much for the team, and perhaps the city, to pay.
The Senators enter the 1999-2000 campaign at a crossroads defined by last season's success on the ice and the inability of a small-market team to reap a financial profit. Their on-ice discipline, team unity and the emergence of center Alexei Yashin were some of the reasons the Senators won their first division title.
In the front office, fiscal discipline and the ability to sign players like Yashin, Daniel Alfredsson and Marian Hossa to long-term contracts contributed to three straight playoff appearances and a commitment to keep hockey in Canada's capital with a payroll around $20 million.
But Yashin wants about half of that and a long-term deal to boot. He has told the Senators he won't play the final year of his contract unless some more years and zeroes are added on.
"I'm only focusing on the present. You can only deal with the people that are here," said Jacques Martin, who won the Adams Award last season as coach of the year. "The good thing is it gives an opportunity to someone else to show their ability."
The team spent what it could by re-signing restricted free agents Radek Bonk and Magnus Arvedson. The Senators also committed $3.6 million over two seasons to promising defenseman Wade Redden. The third overall pick in the 1994 draft, Bonk finally showed signs of living up to his vast potential. Arvedson was the runner-up in Selke Trophy voting.
When the Senators hired Pierre Gauthier as general manager on December 11, 1995, the franchise had a 40-189-1 record. And it only got worse. Upon his hiring, the team lost 16 of the next 17 games.
Enter Martin on Jan. 24, 1996, and the Senators have gone 119-116-49 since. The wins total has gone up in each of his first three seasons, from 31 in 1996-97 to 34 in 1997-98 to 44 last season.
"Everyone on this team wants to get off to a good start, that's our main focus right now," said Alfredsson, the likely candidate to replace Yashin as captain. "But we also have to realize that the same thing happened last year, so we have to make sure that we continue to play hard throughout the entire year."
The Senators also lost three important role players to free agency -- wingers Ted Donato and Nelson Emerson and defenseman Lance Pitlick. And goalie Damian Rhodes was sent to the expansion Atlanta Thrashers.
"The team made some late trades and it seemed to really hurt our chemistry," he said. "We seemed fragile and weren't fighting through adversity, and that's what caused us to be knocked out early."
While the Yashin fiasco has dominated the headlines through training camp, there are positive elements about the Senators. Alfredsson is finally healthy again and Hossa was a Calder Trophy finalist. Redden and Sami Salo lead a capable defensive unit and goaltender Ron Tugnutt is coming off a career year in which he led the league in goals-against average.
Add a deep farm system, and the Senators still boast a solid foundation.
"There's a lot to be said for chemistry," Redden said. "Since I've been here three years now, winning has been the No. 1 goal. But chemistry is so important, as we proved last season."
But it all could come undone because of one player.
Yashin's holdout has pitted a hockey-mad city salivating for success against a superstar salivating for what he perceives as his due reward. Yashin scored 44 goals, amassed 94 points and was runner-up in Hart Trophy voting. Due $3.6 million this season in the last year of his contract, Yashin believes he is worth at least twice as much.
Yashin, however, was invisible in the four-game sweep at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the playoffs, failing to record a single point.
"Look, he got about 94 points last season. It's a very tough position for each guy around here," Redden said. "We keep getting asked about it and basically I think everybody's saying it's his own personal decision no matter if it's right or wrong. We just hope it gets worked out soon.
"No one is making any excuses about Yashin, everyone still has to pick up the slack. We don't talk about it in the room about it all, we just read about it in the papers. Obviously, it's going to be tough if he doesn't play for a while."
Either way, it is a situation that does not present many winning options. And that's unfortunate for a team that spent most of the last decade making the hard climb to respectability.
"We certainly know that we won't sneak up on anyone anymore," center Shaun Van Allen said. "Teams know our style, they know we're disciplined and we work hard. But I don't think there's any added pressure because we'll just continue to prepare for every game like we did last year. Hopefully, we'll have the same results."
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