Where do the Ottawa Senators go from here?
This is a team that was built to win the Stanley Cup this year. But it's certainly not a team built to win the Stanley Cup next year.
Goaltender Dominik Hasek probably will be gone -- and if he isn't, he should be. The two workhorse defencemen, Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara, are free agents. And so is Martin Havlat, the guy who gives the team the powerful second line that sets it apart from the norm.
Even if general manager John Muckler wanted to bring back the entire team, he'd be hard-pressed to do so thanks to the salary cap, the artificial device which was supposed to save teams such as Ottawa but may in fact be the cause of its downfall.
And for that matter, there's no reason to think Muckler will be allowed to use all the available cap room.
Owner Eugene Melnyk easily could afford to run the Senators in a philanthropic fashion, but so far, he has chosen to not do so. It's his money and his right to use it as he sees fit.
But without a commitment from Melnyk to take the team to the brink of the cap limit, and commit to hockey rather than Dora the Explorer, the Senators will lose too much talent to take a serious run at the Stanley Cup in the immediate future.
So that answers the first question. We know where the Senators are going from here. Down.
But it begs another question. What does Muckler do to build a team that can be a power not too far down the road?
Muckler is one of the sharpest hockey minds in the game. When he took over the Senators, he realized that it did not have the kind of mindset necessary to win a Stanley Cup.
It need more grit, more heart. To that end, Muckler moved some people out and some others in.
But he still doesn't have that one key ingredient -- the heart-and-soul guy who, with apologies to Dylan Thomas, will not go gentle into that good night, and will rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Clearly that man is not Dany Heatley, who was invisible for most of the Senators games against the Buffalo Sabres. And apparently, it's not Daniel Alfredsson, either. Even though the captain picked up his play as the series progressed, his earlier ineffectiveness had a lot to do with the Senators being in a hole that simply was too deep.
Chara? No, not really. Redden? Not him, either. Both logged big-time minutes and both played well. But neither has the kind of fire -- on or off the ice -- that makes him the kind of player the Senators so badly need.
Mike Fisher comes close. He gives the team plenty of energy, plays with heart and is one of the best two-way centres in the world. But the kind of guy the Senators need doesn't miss an empty net with less than a minute remaining in Game 1. He puts that puck in the net and ices that game even if he has to push it in with his nose.
Obviously, there is no one in hockey who can singlehandedly make any team into a winner.
But there are people who refuse to settle for anything less than a total commitment from all those about them. They play with passion every night and they demand that every player on the team use his ability to the utmost.
On the Senators there is -- or has been -- plenty of ability. When it comes to pure talent, this is an aggregation that probably is the best in the league.
But when the chips are down and it's time to prove to the world that no adversity can prevent this team from achieving its ultimate goal, it invariably fails miserably.
There is not one man on the Ottawa roster who can lift the team by its bootstraps and refuse to accept defeat.
As a result, defeat gets accepted. Again and again.