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.

Blues GM: We may take ‘half a step back,’ while young veterans grow into leadership roles

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 12:  Alex Pietrangelo #27 of the St. Louis Blues celebrates with Jaden Schwartz #17 of the St. Louis Blues, Dmitrij Jaskin #23 of the St. Louis Blues and Jori Lehtera #12 of the St. Louis Blues after scoring the game-winning goal against the Dallas Stars in overtime at American Airlines Center on March 12, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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After a few early exits from the Stanley Cup playoffs, the St. Louis Blues were finally able to make a long run. Granted, they didn’t win the Stanley Cup or make it to the final, but they did manage to reach the Western Conference Final.

Unfortunately for the Blues (and a lot of other teams), the NHL’s salary cap number didn’t increase very much and it forced the organization to part ways with a number of key veterans. Gone are captain David Backes, winger Troy Brouwer and goalie Brian Elliott.

There could be even more change between now and the start of the year, as Kevin Shattenkirk could find himself elsewhere.

Those key departures mean that the Blues will need some of their younger players to step up and take on more of a leadership role starting this fall. How will the team respond? Nobody knows, not even GM Doug Armstrong.

“It’s going to be an interesting case study on how quickly this group takes up the leadership,” Armstrong said, per the Boston Globe. “Can they do it in September? Or does it take them a year? There’s certainly a faith that over time, they’re going to pick it up without any issue. Obviously you want them to pick it up as quickly as possible. We don’t want to take any backwards movement in our organization. But sometimes you do expose yourself to maybe taking half a step back to take a couple steps forward.”

Young leaders like Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Alex Pietrangelo will need to “step up” in the leadership department, but the Blues aren’t completely out of veterans. Jay Bouwmeester, Paul Stastny and Alex Steen are all still on the roster. Still, it’ll be interesting to see if the Blues take that “half step back” that Armstrong was talking about.

Related:

Jake Allen still needs to prove he’s a ‘legit’ number one goalie

Blues sign Schwartz to five-year deal

Backes doesn’t want to ‘sling mud’ at Blues on his way out

Newest Coyote Schenn is looking forward to playing in a market with no ‘outside added pressure’

SAN JOSE, CA - APRIL 20:  Luke Schenn #52 of the Los Angeles Kings looks back at Joe Thornton #19 of the San Jose Sharks after Schenn was called for roughing in Game Four of the Western Conference First Round during the NHL 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at SAP Center on April 20, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Since coming to the NHL as an 18-year-old in 2008, Luke Schenn has had the opportunity to play in Toronto, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Playing in cities that love hockey is great, but it also comes with a certain amount of pressure.

Schenn, who is a former fifth overall pick, hasn’t lived up to his lofty draft status and when you underachieve in Toronto and Philadelphia, the fans and media make sure you know it.

On Saturday, Schenn signed a two-year deal in Arizona, which is a non-traditional hockey market. It sounds like it may have been done by design.

“I’m looking forward to coming to a market where I can just worry about playing hockey and not outside added pressure, and hopefully growing with the team,” Schenn said of signing with the Coyotes, per the team’s website. “I know they have a lot of upside and I still feel like I’ve hopefully got some upside, too. (I’m) still at a good age where I can continue to grow with them and evolve.”

The Coyotes have Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Alex Goligoski who are more than capable of moving the puck up the ice and players like Schenn and Zbynek Michalek will be counted on to provide some defensive stability.

“They’ve got a lot of guys who can shoot the puck and move the puck well and (who’ve) got a good offensive instinct for the game, so I just want to try to play solid defensively and help out in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill and play physical,” added Schenn. “Obviously, the way the game is now there’s a lot of skating so you’ve definitely got to pick your spots to be physical, but I still think there’s definitely still a need for that.”

Arizona still needs to work out deals with restricted free agents Michael Stone and Connor Murphy. Even if both players return next season, Schenn should still have a role as a four, five or six defenseman with the ‘Yotes.

Flyers’ Couturier has street named after him in his hometown

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Most people will never be able to say they have a street named after them, but Flyers center Sean Couturier isn’t most people.

The 23-year-old’s name is now on a street sign in his hometown of Bathurst, New Brunswick. Sean Couturier Avenue leads to the rink where he began his minor hockey career.

“It’s special, it’s a great honour,” Couturier said, per CBC.ca. “It’s not something you dream of growing up, but if you can be an example for other young kids and remind them even coming from a small town like Bathurst, anything is possible if you make the sacrifices and believe in what you can do.”

The month of July has been kind to Couturier for the second straight year. Last year at around this time, he signed a six-year contract extension worth $26 million. The new deal kicks in at the start of the upcoming season.

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Report: Veteran center Moore says he has offers on the table

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The chaos of free agency has subsided. And the list of notable players out there has thinned down as the summer has carried on.

Still looking to sign an NHL deal is veteran center Dominic Moore, who is about to turn 36 years old next month and is coming off a two-year deal with the New York Rangers that paid him an AAV of $1.5 million. It was evident way before free agency that Moore likely wouldn’t be back in New York, and would go to the open mark.

“The free agency period goes in fits and starts. Things open up and close along the way. You just try to be proactive but patient. You also don’t want to put yourself in the wrong spot, so you wait to find the right fit, the right role,” Moore told Sportsnet.

“You want to be on a good team that has a great chance to win but you also want to have a responsibility, some value on that team. It’s about marrying all of those factors and making the best decision.”

Moore has never been known for offence. With the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010-11, he hit 18 goals. That was a career high. His highest point total? Forty-one in 2008-09 with Toronto.

But a team looking for a veteran player in the middle, on a reasonable contract and among the bottom six group of forwards, that can have success in the faceoff circle and play on the penalty kill may eventually get him under contract.

According to Sportsnet, there have been offers made to Moore. Now, it appears, the ball is in his court.

Related: Patrick Eaves bests big hockey names at Smashfest V