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.

Report: Vegas isn’t interested in trading defensemen Theodore, Schmidt

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The Vegas Golden Knights enjoyed another busy day on Thursday, moving the likes of David Schlemko and Trevor van Riemsdyk. That doesn’t mean that all their defensemen are necessarily for sale, even with some pressure to trade a way a few more.

Now, it’s plausible that someone merely hasn’t found the right price to entice Golden Knights GM George McPhee, but TSN’s Pierre LeBrun indicates that he’s shooting down offers for especially enticing young defensemen.

Specifically, McPhee gave a hard “No” to at least three teams regarding Shea Theodore and also stonewalled offers for Nate Schmidt, according to LeBrun.

It’s probably not fair to say that McPhee hasn’t been willing to move younger players altogether. After all, Trevor van Riemsdyk is 25, much like Schmidt.

Even so, one could infer that McPhee would be quicker to trade away a veteran whose value may not ever be higher, such as Marc Methot or Alexei Emelin.

For what it’s worth, let’s break down the Golden Knights’ current defensemen in two camps (30-and-under, 30-and-older) along with their contract situations, with help from Cap Friendly.

Under 30

Luca Sbisa, 27, $3.6 million cap hit through 2017-18
Brayden McNabb, 26, $1.7M through 2017-18
Jon Merrill, 25, $1.138M through 2017-18
Colin Miller, 24, $1M through 2017-18
Theodore, 21, $863K through 2017-18
Griffin Reinhart, 23, RFA
Schmidt, 25, RFA

30 and older

Methot, $4.9M through 2018-19
Jason Garrison, $4.6M through 2017-18
Emelin, $4.1M through 2017-18
Clayton Stoner, 32, $3.25M through 2017-18
Deryk Engelland, 35, $1M through 2017-18

Considering the options at hand, it’s still feasible that someone might convince McPhee to ship Schmidt and/or Theodore over, anyway. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been connected to Schmidt and Colin Miller in rumors, though it’s unclear how likely such moves might be. Vegas isn’t tied to many players beyond this coming season, so they have plenty of flexibility to change their minds.

The Golden Knights may also view the trade deadline as a more fruitful time to move a veteran such as Methot.

Even so, it sure sounds like McPhee would at least prefer to build around his youngsters, and Theodore might be the clearest keeper of them all.

NHL may punish failed offside reviews with penalties next season

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It wasn’t a good look for the league, and it wasn’t captivating television, particularly for casual hockey fans intrigued by a fresh Stanley Cup Final matchup.

P.K. Subban seemed to score the first goal of the Penguins – Predators series, only for the 1-0 tally to be overturned after a lengthy offside review. Plenty of people in Nashville were never convinced that the league made the right call, and even if it was correct, Filip Forsberg would have been offside by a tiny margin. The fact that it came mere hours after Gary Bettman praised the process only exacerbated the issue.

(You can watch that agonizingly minute discussion in the video above. Predators fans might not want to re-live it.)

Colin Campbell presented an interesting question for next season on Thursday: would a team like Pittsburgh make such a marginal challenge if a failed review would result in a minor penalty?

It’s something the executive will bring to the competition committee and then the Board of Governors; Campbell believes such a tweak has a strong chance of being instituted in 2017-18.

Previously, a coach would lose his timeout if an offside goal review failed. If this change is implemented, a team would keep that timeout but suffer a minor penalty.

Campbell notes that this tweak would apply to offside challenges, not goalie interference reviews.

Ultimately, for Campbell, it comes down to the spirit of the offside rule. Amusingly, the Predators also suffered from an infamous offside goal that would have benefited from an obvious review, as this Matt Duchene goal from 2013 inspired the NHL to admit that a mistake was made.

The logic is pretty simple. If a goal was glaringly offside, then a team will view a challenge as worth the risk of possibly being penalized. If it’s a matter of inches or some other marginal question, a penalty would – ideally – deter a team from making a flimsier challenge. Specifically, Campbell pointed to offside reviews in which goals came long after the infraction had a significant impact on play.

Now, sure, you could make some wise cracks about the idea, especially considering how the NHL’s suffered from a painful roll-out of a change here and there. And perhaps some coaches will still believe that it’s worth the risk to flip that coin.

Still, the league’s heart is in the right place, and it could very well succeed in two goals: getting things right and not boring everyone to tears.

Related

NHL might crack down on slashes, too

Blackhawks on ‘huge loss’ of Hossa, lingering salary cap questions

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If any team could seamlessly move on from Marian Hossa, it would be the Chicago Blackhawks.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville lack appreciation for perhaps the best two-way winger of this era. Quenneville likely said it best to NHL.com: “I don’t think you replace [Hossa], because he’s a special player.”

MORE: Skin condition will sideline Hossa for 2017-18

Instead, it’s a testament to how the Blackhawks continue to contend, year after year: a willingness to make the tough choices that allow your team to compete. So, Chicago can merely “rebuild and reload” by taking that $5.275 million cap hit from Hossa’s seemingly inevitable trip to the LTIR, right?

Not exactly. At least not yet, as CSN Chicago’s Tracey Myers discusses:

Here are two basics about the cap: a team can be 10 percent over it during the summer, and a team must be at or below it the day the regular season begins. If the Blackhawks place Hossa on LTIR, it wouldn’t take effect until the second day of the regular season. So on Day 1 of the season, the Blackhawks would still be carrying Hossa’s $5.275 cap hit.

Once the LTIR would take effect, though, the Blackhawks would have wiggle room. If they spent to the $75 million cap, they could utilize Hossa’s entire $5.275 million cap hit on other players.

Myers notes that Bowman said he wishes it was as simple as merely replacing Hossa’s cap hit – if not his impact – during the summer. Instead, things could be a bit more complicated.

Things could get even messier if the NHL decides to impede Chicago’s progress.

If the Blackhawks get to send Hossa to the LTIR, it won’t be the easiest situation. Before you get too gloomy about it, there still could be some creative options.

Brainstorming a few ideas

For one thing, what if the Vegas Golden Knights decide to keep James Neal around for a little while?

Now, Neal and Hossa are very different players, yet both are wingers that can help your team win. Neal’s $5 million cap hit matches up remarkably well with that Hossa $5.275 million hit once it would go to LTIR, and the former Predators winger is in the last year of his contract.

As Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee is wont to do, Neal would cost more than just money. Still, that’s just one example, and it’s plausible that other teams might want to sell off a piece but find summer offerings undesirable.

In other words, a rental could be a good way to make lemonade from all of this.

There’s also the possibility that the Blackhawks could look into players who didn’t get signed during the summer, including guys who just missed on PTOs.

This isn’t to say that these are ideal scenarios, but the point is that the Blackhawks could still navigate this difficult situation, particularly if they show the flexibility and creativity they’ve displayed in avoiding salary cap challenges before.

Even if it doesn’t mean another Hossa’s walking through that door.

As a reminder, the Blackhawks may still have some moves in mind even before getting that delayed cap relief. We still need to find out if they are ridding themselves of Marcus Kruger‘s cap hit, something that Bowman wouldn’t address.

None of this is necessarily easy, yet this franchise frequently aces tests like these.

For Oilers, trading Eberle was about ‘long-term thinking’

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CHICAGO —  Peter Chiarelli was there to talk about one thing, and one thing only.

That was today’s big trade that sent Jordan Eberle to the Islanders in return for Ryan Strome.

Not surprisingly, the Oilers’ general manager liked a lot of things about the deal — starting with Strome.

“He’s got some things to his game that we feel can help us in our division,” Chiarelli said Thursday. “He’s got good size, a terrific wrist shot. Very, very cerebral player. He can play center or the wing. Very good on the half wall.”

Not that Eberle doesn’t offer a few good things himself. Like scoring goals. That’s pretty important, right? Eberle’s scored 165 goals in his NHL career.

But with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl requiring extensions soon, the Oilers needed to be wary of their cap situation. In Chiarelli’s estimation, Eberle’s $6 million hit had to go.

“This is about cap management, and this is about replacing good players with good players, and this is about long-term thinking,” said Chiarelli.

When he’d finished selling the trade, reporters naturally took the opportunity to inquire about the rest of his team.

Does he want to get Kris Russell re-signed?

Yes, he does. Still hoping to get that one done.

How would he characterize negotiations with McDavid and Draisaitl?

“Not going to characterize.”

What about Patrick Maroon? Could he get an extension this summer?

“This isn’t the state of affairs for who I’m signing, who I’m not signing.”

Fair enough. Onto the draft then.

Friday at United Center, the Oilers will have the 22nd overall pick. It’ll be the first time since 2008 that they don’t make a top-10 selection.

“Certainly not as high a pick,” said Chiarelli. “We’ve got a cluster of four players and we think we’re going to get one of them.”

That pick in 2008, by the way?

Jordan Eberle, 22nd overall.

Related: Strome pumped for opportunity to play with McDavid and Draisaitl