At the conclusion of an unexpectedly successful season that saw the Senators finish within one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, the team must now face the reality that it may never have as good an opportunity in the near future as it had this year to win a championship.
In a down year for the Atlantic Division, Ottawa took advantage during the regular season, finishing comfortably in second and securing home-ice advantage through the first two rounds of the postseason. After knocking out a severely depleted Boston Bruins team in Round 1, a favourable playoff structure helped Ottawa dodge the first-place Canadiens and instead draw the fourth-best team in the Metropolitan Division, avoiding the powerhouse Blue Jackets and Capitals.
Despite facing the defending champs in the Eastern Conference final, the Senators lined up with Pittsburgh in its most vulnerable state—without No. 1 defenceman Kris Letang, a question mark in starting goalie Matt Murray, while top forwards Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist, Conor Sheary, and Chris Kunitz were all battered and in and out of the lineup at points during the playoffs. Had the Senators won the series, they would've faced the lowest-seeded team to ever reach the Stanley Cup, in the Predators.
The odds of the Senators seeing a road with less resistance than the one they travelled this season are slim, and the chances of the team—the only one of 16 playoff clubs with a negative regular-season goal differential—bouncing back from a campaign in which it finished in the bottom third of the league in Corsi are low, too.
Unexpected success from teams with poor possession metrics, specifically Corsi, typically come back down to Earth the following season. There are several examples in the past five years alone, including the Maple Leafs and Flames, who both fizzled out badly the year following surprising playoff appearances. In 2012-13, Toronto grabbed a wild-card spot in the East and took Boston to seven games despite a league-worst Corsi. The team's poor tendencies caught up with it the following campaign, when the Maple Leafs finished 23rd overall and didn't return to the playoffs until four seasons later. Calgary also made the postseason in 2014-15 despite the third-worst Corsi in the league, but flamed out the following season and finished near the bottom of the West.
The Avalanche suffered a similar drop a season before the Flames, and there is no real indication that Ottawa is the team to buck the trend. It's almost a certainty Ottawa won't have as good a chance to win the East as it did this year, especially with a group of teams primed to bounce back after uncharacteristically poor seasons.
In the Atlantic, Florida and Tampa Bay will no doubt be trending up and back in the mix after a pair of turbulent and injury-riddled seasons. Toronto will almost certainly be there, too, while Boston will also be in the conversation, and that's just in Ottawa's own division. Pittsburgh is the top dog in the Metropolitan as long as Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are running the show, Washington is a perennial force (in the regular season, at least), and Columbus has just scratched the surface as it promises to contend with the big guns in the East for years to come—leaving a pack of teams willing and able to drive the Senators down the Atlantic and conference standings next season and beyond.
As great as Craig Anderson was in goal—and he was sensational—he'll be 37 years old by this time next postseason, and that's an age that has been historically unkind to goaltenders with his type of workload over the years. The Senators have some diamonds at the top of their system, including top-15 prospects Thomas Chabot, Colin White, and Logan Brown, but it drops off heavily after that, as the organization boasts one of the thinnest pools of high-end prospect talent in the league. It's been a battle to attract star free agents to Ottawa as well, with the team's inability or unwillingness to spend to the cap playing a major role.
What the Sens do have working for them is a solid core up front in 20-plus goal scorers Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, and Mark Stone, along with centers Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Derick Brassard. Toss in Chabot, Cody Ceci, and the best defenceman in the world in Erik Karlsson, and there's little doubt Ottawa has built a sustainable playoff-calibre team. The long, grueling road to a championship, however, is a much tougher one to navigate, and Ottawa likely won't see a path as clear as the one it fell just short of this year. Even an upstart Oilers team that's bound to be a beast may have missed the best opportunity its core will get to reach the Cup when Edmonton fell short to the Ducks in seven games.
The Senators had a fun and surprising run but there's nothing at the moment that indicates they have a realistic chance at doing it again next season. That's just life in an NHL these days that boasts more parity and unpredictability than ever before.
Corsi stats via Corsica Hockey