2010-2011 NHL season preview: Ottawa Senators

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danielalfredsson1.jpgLast season: (44-32-6, 94 points, 2nd in Northeast Division, 5th in Eastern Conference) If anyone thought the Senators would be fifth in the East at the start of last season, we all would’ve happily called them liars and been done with it. Instead, the Sens took advantage of well-timed win streaks and rode the goaltending hot hand in Brian Elliott.

Head coach: Cory Clouston’s first full season was a successful one and his tenure in Ottawa has been a surprise hit. After taking over with 34 games left to play in the 2008-09 season, Clouston’s teams have been more than solid and downright pesky to deal with on a nightly basis. That said, consistency is the bugaboo for the Senators and locking that down will be Clouston’s next trick.

Key departures: D Anton Volchenkov, F Matt Cullen, D Andy Sutton, F Jonathan Cheechoo. All right, so they won’t miss Cheechoo, but losing Volchenkov is a big blow for the defensive play of the team. Cullen and Sutton were deadline acquisitions lost to free agency.

Key arrivals: D Sergei Gonchar, D David Hale. Gonchar is the one big signing the team made causing a definitive shift in how they will handle their work along the blue line. Switching from a defensive stopper like Volchenkov to an offensive-minded power play quarterback like Gonchar puts the emphasis on offense for the Senators. Gonchar had 50 points for the Penguins last year. The Sens top scoring defenseman last season was Filip Kuba with 28 points. Upgrade time, y’all.

Under pressure: It’s almost unfair to pick him, but Jason Spezza carries a lot of the weight in Ottawa. After a crazy summer that saw rumors about him supposedly wanting to be traded because of having difficulties dealing with the Ottawa fans and media (yes, really) to all those issues being settled finally, there’s no doubt that the relationship is a bit strained.

Spezza already plays in the shadow of Daniel Alfredsson and with Mike Fisher having a breakout year last season, Spezza has become the third or fourth banana in Canada’s capital yet still takes the heat as if he was the prime minister. Life sucks sometimes and, in the paraphrased words of Denis Leary, perhaps Jason Spezza should just get a helmet. Playing to his potential would give Ottawa a very dangerous top line. Playing while sulking helps make the Sens very inconsistent.

Protecting the house: If one thing is going to be the undoing of the Senators this year, it’s goaltending. They’ll start the year with Elliott and Pascal Leclaire dueling for the No. 1 job, but in reality will just split time until someone proves that they want it bad enough. Waiting in the wings in the minors will be prospect Robin Lehner who has turned some heads during the preseason. If things bottom out fast with both Elliott and Leclaire, don’t be shocked if Lehner gets a call to see what he can do to keep the Sens going.

Defensively, Gonchar leads the way and young Swede Erik Karlsson has stolen some of the spotlight away from the likes of currently injured Filip Kuba as well as Chris Campoli. While Kuba is out, Campoli figures to get a lot more work as does ‘Prime Time’ Brian Lee. Long-time Sens stalwart Chris Phillips is still holding down the fort in Ottawa and making the Sens decision to keep him over Wade Redden a couple years ago look that much smarter.

Top line we’d like to see: Milan Michalek-Spezza-Alfredsson. OK so this is the top line we’ll see this season. Of course, a lot of that hinges on how well Michalek returns from surgery and how healthy Alfredsson can stay. Never mind the mental mettle of Spezza in all this, this is a scoring line that should be able to run with any top line in the NHL. That said, there’s still an awful lot of ‘what if’s’ that surround this unit. They’re basically a microcosm of what it’s like to be the Ottawa Senators.

Oh captain, my captain: Alfredsson is the face of the franchise and you’ll have to behead him like the Highlander to make him not be captain. He leads them by example and whether or not you’re a believer in his style, the fans in Ottawa would at least follow him into any fire. You’d have to think the players feel the same way after all these years.

mattcarkner1.jpgStreet fighting man: The Sens main combatants are defenseman Matt Carkner who fears no punch and agitator extraordinaire Chris Neil. Carkner dropped the gloves 24 times last season, meanwhile Neil did so just 13 times. To say that there’s not a fight that Carkner doesn’t like would mean you were lying through your lack of teeth. Those of you thinking that pest Jarkko Ruutu would make this list would be wrong. He’s merely a dangerous pest with just two fights to his credit last year.

Best-case scenario: The top line has a complete breakout season with Alfredsson regaining his old form and helping Spezza and Michalek have career years. The injury bug that plagued the Sens last year goes away while young forwards like Nick Foligno and Peter Regin fulfill their promise and become solid second- and third-line performers. Mike Fisher picks up where he left off last year. Gonchar helps the team become more effective on the power play and one of either Elliott or Leclaire takes the reins and becomes the consistent goalie the Senators have always desired while leading the Sens to a division title and deep run through the playoffs.

Worst-case scenario: Alfredsson shows his age and Spezza struggles under the pressure of having the captain not do well on his wing. Elliott and Leclaire both play miserably while the defense shows how much it misses Volchenkov and his leadership. Regin and Foligno both tread water while the Sens desperately seek some kind of extra help while their top line struggles. Not even Robin Lehner can save the season and the Sens miss the playoffs after not having enough hot streaks to get them through.

Keeping it real: The Sens can be a very good team. Not a great team, but one that flies just far enough under the radar to not get noticed while continuing to win games and land at the low end of the race for the playoffs. The Senators had a lot of good luck go their way last year not to mention clutch scoring to avoid going to shootouts. Banking on that helping you out two years in a row is a fool’s bet. This team truly will only go as far as the goaltending will take them as the rest of the team is decent.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Senators are a perfect 3. Playing in the weaker Eastern Conference helps make things a bit easier to deal with and while lots of things can break right to get Ottawa into the playoffs and possibly win a round or two, lots of things could go wrong and sink this team hard. Too many questions that could go either way make the Senators a perfectly average team.

The Buzzer: Shutouts for three, Dubnyk gets win No. 200

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Players of the Night:

Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins, Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils and Curtis McElhinney, Toronto Maple Leafs: Where do we begin on the night of the shutout? Rask didn’t have a particularly busy night making 23 saves, but when you’re facing names like Kucherov and Stamkos, it’s always dangerous. Still, Rask kept rolling along. He is 27-3-2 in his past 32 starts. That’s just silly. … Kinkaid, meanwhile stopped 38 — including 19 in the first period — in a 3-0 win against the Kings for his fourth career shutout. … No Frederik Andersen for Toronto? No problem. McElhinney stepped in and pitched a 33-save performance as the Leafs down the Montreal Canadiens 4-0.

Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis Blues: The Blues defenseman scored twice in regulation and then assisted on Brayden Schenn‘s overtime winner to cap off a three-point night.

Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota Wild: While he didn’t get a shutout, Dubnyk did stop 30 of 31 en route to his 200th career NHL win. The win was also important for the Wild, who moved to within five points of the Winnipeg Jets for second place in the Central Division, and moved five points ahead of the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche for third place.

Highlights of the Night:

Filthy pass:

First-goal celebrations are always the best:

Voracek with a slick move in front:

Save of the year candidate:

Factoids of the Night:

Home is where the wins are:

A legend passes a legend:

Believe in McJesus:

Scary Scenes of the Night:


Sabres 5, Blackhawks 3

Oilers 4, Panthers 2

Devils 3, Kings 0

Maple Leafs 4, Canadiens 0

Bruins 3, Lightning 0

Flyers 4, Hurricanes 2

Blue Jackets 2, Senators 1

Blue 4, Rangers 3 (OT)

Wild 3, Coyotes 1

Sharks 5, Canucks 3

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Senators’ Ryan Dzingel drilled in the head with a puck (video)

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We already saw one lacerated leg, and now we have a one-timer drilling a player in the back of the helmet.

Saturday night hasn’t been so kind.

Ottawa Senators forward Ryan Dzingel was forced to leave the game after some friendly fire against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 2-1 loss.

Dzingel was drilled in the back of the head from teammate Mike Hoffman‘s one-timer of the back of his helmet around the mid-way point of the third period.

Dzingel remained down for a time but was able to skate off the ice with some assistance from Ottawa’s trainers.

He did not return to the game.

If you watch this closely, you will see Dzingel’s No. 8 on the back of his helmet fly off after contact with the puck.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Bruins’ David Backes suffers leg laceration in collision (video)


A scary scene unfolded in the first period between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the visiting Boston Bruins on Saturday night.

David Backes and Yanni Gourde came together in the Lightning crease, with Gourde’s skate appearing to cut Backes on the outside of his right leg.

Backes was able to make his way to the Bruins bench on his own, but he was clutching the back of his leg before getting some help down the tunnel.

Backes did not return to the game.

The Bruins said that Backes suffered a laceration above his right knee, which required several stitches to close.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Dundon, Hurricanes suspend search for new GM: report


The Carolina Hurricanes’ search for a general manager is on hiatus.

Sportsnet’s John Shannon reported Saturday that the process of replacing former GM Ron Francis is being put on hold for the time being, citing that owner Tom Dundon needs more time.

“Tom hasn’t had the time he needs to do face to face interviews and feels that waiting will pay off,” Shannon wrote in a tweet.

Francis was removed from his post as GM on March 7 and “promoted” to a new role as president of hockey operations. There was only one catch: whoever replaced Francis would bypass the Hurricanes’ legend and report directly to Dundon.

The search, thus far, hasn’t been going that well, with three potential targets already withdrawing any interest they were thought to have had.

Part of that problem could be how hands-on Dundon appears to want to be. Part of it could just be timing. Fenton, for instance, could be on his way to a Stanley Cup ring this year in Nashville.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman touched on the situation in a recent 31 Thoughts column.

“I think what I’m looking for, is we have to be comfortable with each other. That’s the most important thing,” Dundon told Friedman when asked what he wants in a new GM. “I actually like to disagree and argue. I don’t want someone to come in and just do what I say, and I don’t want to make decisions. Someone to create a structure of how something is a good idea, and now we are going to get it done.”

You can add Pittsburgh Penguins assistant GM Bill Guerin to the list:

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that Dundon wanting his hands all over the team — including whatever the GM is doing — isn’t the best selling point.

There’s some good, young talent on the Hurricanes for a new GM to come in and build around, but there’s also some dead weight, including what’s turned into a bad contract with goalie Scott Darling.

No GM wants to play puppet for an owner.

TSN’s Pierre LeBrun said the Hurricanes will suspend their search until the summer when a larger crop of candidates reveals itself.

Still, you have to wonder who’ll be willing to take that plunge. Someone will, of course, but people haven’t exactly been lining up to fill the role.

UPDATE: On Headlines on Saturday, Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported that the salary being offered to a prospective GM in Carolina is $400,000, to which he said he doesn’t see any GM taking as it’s too low. Friedman, meanwhile, believes the search for a new GM is not on a complete hiatus.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck