Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - After losing their captain in two consecutive offseasons, the Ottawa Senators were in danger of becoming a franchise without an identity.
A week before their 2014-15 schedule was set to begin, the Sens made a valiant effort at restoring stability to the club by naming Erik Karlsson captain while also announcing a seven-year contract extension for Bobby Ryan.
With previous team captains Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza gone, Karlsson was the obvious choice to wear the "C" in Ottawa. The deadly offensive defenseman is only 24 years old but he has one Norris Trophy on his resume already and is signed with Ottawa through the 2018-19 season.
Getting Ryan to sign on the dotted line was not expected to be a sure thing, but Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk opened his checkbook and made it official.
By locking up the winger for the long term the Sens dealt with a piece of business that could have festered over the course of the season. If Ottawa struggled like it did last season, general manager Bryan Murray may have been forced to trade Ryan away at the deadline rather than lose him to free agency in the summer of 2015.
But to hear Ryan speak about it, Ottawa was never in danger of losing the 27- year-old sniper.
"We came to this decision, it was fairly easy," Ryan said at Thursday's press conference. "I know it was a little longer of a process than everybody would have liked but speaking from my point of view it was almost a no-brainer for us."
Before agreeing to an extension worth $50.75 million, Ryan's intentions were deemed to be unclear as he headed into the final year of a of a five-year, $25 million deal signed with the Anaheim Ducks. Perhaps, Ryan and his agent believed Ottawa's offer would be better than what he could get on the open market, or maybe he did simply want to stay in Canada's capital city.
Whether Ryan's decision was based on business or loyalty should be of little concern to Melnyk and Murray. With Alfredsson choosing Detroit over the Sens in the summer of 2013 and Spezza demanding a trade out of Ottawa in the offseason, the front office needed to stop the trend of talented and popular players leaving the franchise.
Ottawa may have overpaid Ryan to keep him from joining the likes of Alfredsson and Spezza but the club changed the conversation, if only for a little while. After all, naming a captain and getting one talented player to stay means little if the Senators fall below expectations like they did last season.
The Sens finished five points out of a playoff spot and Spezza's departure to Dallas means the club could be worse than its 88-point showing in 2013-14. The trade landed Murray a trio of young players who could potentially pan out in Ottawa, but counting on those pieces to help in a playoff run this season is a long shot.
Alex Chiasson offers the only chance of giving the Senators an immediate return on the Spezza trade. Chiasson, a second-round pick by Dallas in 2009, played his first full season in the NHL last season when he posted 35 points in 79 games for the Stars. Chiasson has spent time playing on a line with Ryan in the preseason, skating on the right side with centerman Mika Zibanejad in the middle. It's possible the 23-year-old is due for a breakout season in 2014-15, but it might not be enough to get Ottawa back to the playoffs.
Ryan, of course, could help the Sens bounce back with a rebound season of his own. After surpassing the 30-goal marker four times in Anaheim, the Cherry Hill, New Jersey native only managed 23 tallies in 70 games while missing the last 12 contests of the season due to a sports hernia. Considering Ryan's new deal comes with a raise of over $2 million a season in terms of annual average value (AAV), the Ottawa brass expects his production to rise along with his pay.
With Karlsson and Ryan both signed for several years, and the former player now installed as captain, the Senators have identified their cornerstones on both offense and defense. Too bad the rest of Ottawa's roster is filled with young players still figuring it out at the NHL level. It's not a recipe for instant success, but it seems Ryan doesn't mind waiting for the rest of the team to develop.
Although Karlsson and Ryan are in Ottawa to stay, the same may not be true of head coach Paul MacLean, who could be on the unemployment line if he doesn't make something worthwhile out of a team which seems to lack the depth needed to compete for a playoff spot.
The pressure may be on MacLean in the short term, but as Thursday's news made clear Ottawa is counting on Karlsson and Ryan to lead Ottawa out of this downturn.