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.

Streit and Del Zotto could get Flyers something at deadline

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 09:  Mark Streit #32 of the Philadelphia Flyers completes a pass against the Carolina Hurricanes on April 9, 2015 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
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With just three wins in their last 10 games, the Philadelphia Flyers are going to need one heck of a finish to make the playoffs.

In fact, according to Sports Club Stats, they’ll need to go around 14-5-3 in their remaining 22 games to grab the second wild-card spot in the East.

Oh, and by the way, the second wild-card team is probably going to match up with the Washington Capitals in the first round, so even if the Flyers do somehow make it, their postseason appearance would likely be a quick one.

Looking ahead to the March 1 deadline, the Flyers have a couple of pending unrestricted free agents that GM Ron Hextall could turn into draft picks or prospects. D-man Mark Streit can still run a power play, and Michael Del Zotto could add depth to a good back end. Veteran Nick Schultz is unlikely to bring much of a return, but he’s a pending UFA too.

Up front, only fourth-liners Chris VandeVelde and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare would be pure rentals. The Flyers also have a couple of goalies on expiring contracts in Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth; however, neither netminder is enjoying a strong season, and that’s an understatement.

Philadelphia plays twice more before the deadline, Saturday in Pittsburgh and Tuesday at home to Colorado.

“I believe 100 percent we’re capable of making the playoffs,” Streit said, per the Courier-Post. “In saying that, it’s out of our control. It’s up to Hexy. We have such a great group. I know it’s going to be a huge challenge, but I think we’re up to the task.”

Trade: Pens acquire d-man help, get Hainsey from Carolina

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 29: Ron Hainsey #65 of the Carolina Hurricanes yells at the referee after receiving two minor penalties in the third period against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 29, 2016 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Hurricanes 2-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Pittsburgh has added another veteran presence on the blueline in advance of a second consecutive Stanley Cup.

Ron Hainsey, the 35-year-old ‘Canes rearguard, has been acquired in exchange for a second-round pick and AHLer Danny Kristo, per TVA. Hainsey, a pending UFA, is in the last of a three-year, $8.5 million deal with a $2.83M average annual cap hit. Per Sportsnet, Carolina will retain 50 percent of his salary.

The Hainsey acquisition comes with the Pens down several key d-men. Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz are sidelined with a hand injury and concussion, while Trevor Daley suffered a lower-body injury on Tuesday night.

UPDATE:

And that makes the trade all the more important.

Hainsey — who holds the current active record for most regular-season games played (891) without appearing in the playoffs — makes a lot of sense for the Pens.

He played under GM Jim Rutherford in Carolina, has decent offensive capabilities (14 points in 56 games) and can log some significant minutes. Hainsey played over 22 per night this year for the ‘Canes, a carryover from last year when he averaged 22:19.

Schultz and Daley, you’ll recall, were two of Rutherford’s key defensive upgrades last year that helped put Pittsburgh over the top. The season prior, Ian Cole was acquired from St. Louis and turned into an important blueline piece.

So the hope, obviously, is that Hainsey can replicate some of that success.

For the ‘Canes, this deal allows them to further stockpile picks for the ’17 draft. The club now has 10 selections overall, including six in the first three rounds. Kristo, 26, was at one time considered a prospect but now is pretty much a career AHLer. He scored 11 points in 32 games this year for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

 

NHL on NBCSN: Jonathan Toews looks to stay hot against Coyotes

GLENDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 07:  Jonathan Toews #19 of the Chicago Blackhawks skates with the puck against the Oliver Ekman-Larsson #23 of the Phoenix Coyotes in the second period at Jobing.com Arena on February 7, 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)
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NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2016-17 campaign tonight when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Arizona Coyotes at 8:30 p.m. ET. If you want to watch the game online, you can do so here.

From an offensive perspective, October through December was a relative quiet time for ‘Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. But when the calendar turned to 2017, something changed in his game.

He’s coming off an incredible five-point effort (three goals and two assists) in a win over the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday night and he’s now up to 24 points in 20 games since Jan. 5.

“I think for me the biggest change in my approach to the game is just my expectations,” Toews said, per the Chicago Tribune. “Just try to go into every game with no expectation, focus on the process, focus on playing well, playing the right way, staying in the moment, especially if things don’t go in or things don’t go your way. You’re just building one game after another to try and follow up good efforts and put weeks together, multiple games back to back.”

Toews has had the opportunity to play with guys like Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, but believe it or not, he’s doing all this damage with Richard Panik and Nick Schmaltz on his wings.

The Blackhawks dropped their first game out of the bye (a 3-1 loss to Edmonton), but they’ve been able to rattle off impressive wins over Buffalo and now Minnesota.

Despite the win over their division rival, Chicago is still five points behind Minnesota for the Central Division crown. If the ‘Hawks are going to make a push up the standings, it’ll have to be sooner than later.

Arizona is in a completely different situation. They’re 15 points out of a Wild Card spot, so expect this team to look significantly different by next week’s trade deadline.

Pending unrestricted free agent Michael Stone was the first player to be moved, but Shane Doan, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata might all find themselves on new teams by the start of next month.

On the ice, the Coyotes have actually been much better of late. They come into tonight’s game having won five of their last six contests.

Their latest victory came on Monday night, when they took down the Ducks 3-2.

The Coyotes had to overcome adversity in that one, as they lost goalie Mike Smith, who blasted the NHL’s concussion protocol after that game, to injury.

Arizona might not have anything to play for, but that’s what often makes teams more dangerous down the final stretch of the season. We’ll find out if Chicago and their red-hot captain can overcome the team trying to play spoiler.

PHT Morning Skate: Flames play hoops with the Harlem Globetrotters

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–The Calgary Flames are currently in Florida for upcoming games against the Lightning and Panthers. During their off-day on Wednesday, some of their players got to play basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s safe to say that Calgary’s players should stick to hockey. (BarDown)

Jarome Iginla is running out of time to win the Stanley Cup. The 39-year-old definitely won’t be winning it all if he stays with Colorado this year, so his current teammates are rooting for him to be traded before the March 1st trade deadline. “Iggy wants one last shot at the playoffs. Everybody in this dressing room, around the league, feels the same way,” Gabriel Landeskog said. “We’d love to see somebody like that win.” (ESPN)

–The Washington Capitals dropped their first two games after their five-day break, but they were able to get back in the win column by beating the Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night. You can watch the highlights from that game by clicking the video at the top of the page.

–Ever wonder what NHL coaches do during intermissions? Barry Trotz explains that he addresses his team and tells them what they need to clean up before he heads into the video room. Trotz says he gets information on his team’s zone exits, zone entries and special teams. (CSN Mid-Atlantic)

–You’ve got to see SKA Saint Petersburg’s promotional video for the upcoming KHL playoffs. It includes some nice goals, a few big hits, a long-haired fan playing the electric guitar, a motorcycle and even a horse. You really need to see it to believe it. (Sportsnet)

–Eight NHLers have had the privilege of playing for 10 teams or more throughout their career. Lee Stempniak is one of those guys. Instead of letting it get to him, the ‘Canes forward embraces the fact that he’s moved so much. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in. Some guys go somewhere, they go somewhere else, and if it doesn’t work out they flush out of the league. I feel like I’m pretty adaptable and I take pride of that.” Michel Petit, J.J. Daigneault, Jim Dowd, Mathieu Schneider, Olli Jokinen, Mike Sillinger and Dominic Moore are the other seven. (Sports Illustrated)

–Coyotes GM John Chayka already made one trade this week, as he sent pending UFA Michael Stone to the Calgary Flames for a pair of draft picks. Expect to see the young general manager to make more moves before the trade deadline. The Coyotes have a few other potential free agents to deal, but don’t be surprised if they also trade guys with term. “I don’t deal with ‘untouchables’. Practically speaking, there are players who are difficult to move because then you have to find someone to replace them for a role. I’d move anyone for the right deal.” (The Hockey News)