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.

Paul Fenton hired as new Minnesota Wild GM

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Almost exactly one month after firing Chuck Fletcher, the Minnesota Wild have found his replacement as general manager. During a Tuesday press conference, the franchise will introduce Paul Fenton as the man who will take over the job.

Fenton, who was the first person owner Craig Leipold interviewed last month, will also oversee the team’s hockey operations department and act as alternate governor

“It is my distinct pleasure to welcome Paul Fenton as the General Manager of the Minnesota Wild,” said Leipold in a statement. “Paul is uniquely suited for this job having played 10 years of professional hockey and holding 25 years of management experience in the NHL. His gift of evaluating talent is obvious in Nashville’s roster and recent success. My relationship with Paul goes back to my early days in Nashville and I know that Wild hockey fans are going to love Paul’s infectious passion for the game and unsurpassed work ethic. He’s the right person to deliver a Stanley Cup to the State of Hockey.”

It took a while — 20 years to be exact — but Fenton finally decided to leave the Nashville Predators where he spent the last dozen years as the team’s assistant GM. He played a role in building that franchise into a Stanley Cup contender and turning around their minor league system. Now in Minnesota he’ll have his work cut out for him.

The Wild made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the past six seasons, but could not get past the second round. This spring they were knocked out in the first round for the third straight season, costing Fletcher his job after nine years.

Fenton will have to deal with restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Mathew Dumba with this summer, as well as face plenty of challenges in carving his roster into something that could look like a perennial contender. The long-term, cap space-eating contracts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter won’t help things. According to Cap Friendly, the Wild have about $7.5 million in cap space for next season, and that’s before new deals for Zucker and Dumba and potentially a $3 million increase in the ceiling.

“We want to win a Stanley Cup,” Leipold said last month via the Pioneer Press after the Wild’s first-round exit. “That doesn’t mean that that’s going to be next year. I want someone to help me with a plan for the next three or four years to win a Stanley Cup. That’s what I’m looking for.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Islanders to hire Lou Lamoriello to run hockey operations: report

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It’s expected this week that the New York Islanders will officially announce the hiring of Lou Lamoriello to run their hockey operation department, according to Arthur Staple of The Athletic.

It’s unclear at the moment what specific role the 75-year-old Lamoriello will have within the organization. It’s possible he takes over the role of president of hockey operations or general manager, or potentially both. His son, Chris, is the Islanders’ assistant GM.

Last month, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Lamoriello would not return as their GM after three seasons at the helm.

Staple also confirmed a Hockey30 report that Lamoriello met with Islanders captain John Tavares last week ahead of this move. Tavares is set to become an unrestricted free agent only July 1.

There are many questions to be answered as we wait for the Islanders to announce this move. First, what does this mean for the beards of Nick Leddy and Andrew Ladd, as well as the mustache of Cal Clutterbuck?

Next, where does current GM Garth Snow stand? He’s been running the show since 2006 and has a contract for at least four more seasons. The team has made the playoffs only four times during his tenure and advanced out of the first round once. The fan base demanded change once this season went off the rails, with billboards purchased in Brooklyn calling for Snow’s firing. During an end-of-season press conference in April, Islanders co-owner Jon Ledecky said Snow and head coach Doug Weight would be staying for now, but that he would be “evaluating all aspects of our hockey operations.”

The next question is the biggest and that has to do with Tavares. He’s said time and time again that he wants to re-sign, but hasn’t inked an extension and hasn’t given any indication what factors would sway him one way or the other. A new arena on Long Island is coming. But is this change in management and whatever Lamoriello told him in their chat enough to convince him to not explore free agency and commit to staying with the franchise? Only time will tell. But this change could be a good first step forward for the franchise.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals have to conquer postseason demons one more time

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Let’s just start with this statement of fact: Sports fandom is all about dealing with failure and disappointment.

At the end of every season there is only going to be one team that is celebrating a championship which means everybody else is left stuck in the same pit of misery. The odds are overwhelmingly against you and your team. Just consider that there are currently 123 professional sports teams in the four major North American sports leagues, and that over the past 30 seasons only 60 of them (just a little less than half) have actually experienced a championship season. That is over three decades. If you have seen your favorite team win a championship in your lifetime, you are incredibly lucky. If you have seen them win more than one … well … don’t take it granted.

The numbers and that reality do not mean it is any less disappointing when your team loses. Even with that there are different levels of anguish that sports fans can experience in a given season or playoff.

There is the anger that comes from a team that is so incompetently run that it never gives itself a chance to consistently compete for a championship and never gets close to it. Eventually that leads to apathy where you just stop caring and become numb to the losing.

Then there is the soul-crushing disappointment that comes from having a team that is consistently good enough to win, consistently competitive, seems to have all of the ingredients every year, gets right to the edge of winning the whole thing … and then finds a way to completely fall flat on its face for one reason or another.

Sometimes it is bad luck. Sometimes the other team is just a little bit better. Sometimes things just happen that are beyond a team’s control.

No team has done this more to its fan base than the Washington Capitals, and they are on the verge of finding a way to have it happen again if they can not come back in the Eastern Conference Final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

They enter Game 6 on Monday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, live stream) facing a 3-2 series deficit, having dropped three games in a row after winning the first two games of the series in Tampa.

It is at times difficult to comprehend just how good the Capitals have been at times throughout their history, and how close they have come to reaching the top of the mountain, and how they can just never seem to get there.

They have won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best team three times in the past 10 years. Each time they ended up losing in the second-round of the playoffs. In 2010 they were the superior team only to run into one of the best individual goaltending performances in recent memory. The past two years they lost what were basically coin-flip series to a Pittsburgh Penguins team that has tormented them in the playoffs for more than two decades.

Over the past 10 years the Capitals have won more regular season games than all but one team in the league (Pittsburgh). They are one of just two teams in the top-10 that has yet to reach a Stanley Cup Final during that run (St. Louis being the other). The other teams in the top-five have combined to win seven of the past 10 Stanley Cups.

Their top players have performed admirably in the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin is one of the most productive players in the league when it comes his playoff production, while Braden Holtby has some of the best individual numbers of any goalie in the history of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Usually that level of play from two superstars — including a goalie! — and the overall team success in the regular season results in more playoff success.

They have had what seemed to be commanding leads in playoff series time and time again only to have them slip away, losing 3-1 and 2-0 leads with stunning regularity that it leads to a stat like this.

It is remarkable because it is never the same cast of characters involved.

Coaches change. Players change. General managers change. Everything changes. Everything except the result and the heartbreaking method in which it is reached. It is one thing to be a team stuck in a championship drought. It is something else entirely to keep getting that close and losing the same way over and over again. When that happens it builds a reputation. It builds a narrative. It follows that team — and its best players, no matter how well they perform as individuals — around relentlessly until something happens to finally change it.

What has made this run by the Capitals seem so different is that, for once, things finally seemed to be going their way in the playoffs. Everything seemed to be falling in place no matter what obstacle jumped in front of them.

In the first-round they lost the first two games to the Columbus Blue Jackets on home ice (while losing multiple goal leads in both games) and seemed to be teetering on the edge of a disastrous early exit. Then, where past Capitals teams would have totally fallen apart, this group roared back to win four consecutive games setting up yet another second-round matchup with Pittsburgh, the point where their season had come to an end so many times before (10 of the previous 11 postseason matchups with them, to be exact). Then they exorcised that demon in Game 6 when Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s overtime goal sent them to the Eastern Conference Final.

Finally, things were different. This really was going to be the year. But even after all of that the Capitals still find themselves facing their playoff demons one more time and trying to avoid the soul-crushing disappointment that comes with potentially blowing a 2-0 series lead (after winning the first two games on the road), something that only two teams have done in a Conference Final series since 1975.

Already this postseason these Capitals have shown that they have been able to conquer those long-standing playoff demons. They did it in the first-round when they overcame the crushing losses on home ice in the first two games. They did it in the second-round when they finally beat the Penguins. Now they have to do it one more time in the Conference Final against Tampa Bay and avoid what would be another crushing collapse.

They have to start by winning Game 6 on Monday.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

What the Golden Knights’ success tells us about the NHL

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The Vegas Golden Knights are on their way to the Stanley Cup Final and you, the hockey watching fan, probably have some thoughts, opinions and maybe even questions about this shocking development.

Maybe you think it’s an amazing story, or maybe you are a part of a long-suffering fan-base and are angered that a team that just showed up on the scene less than a year ago and is four wins away from winning a championship.

Maybe you are asking questions like: How did a first-year team reach this point, and what does it say about the NHL that it could happen?

Let’s try to tackle that a little bit because there is one massive lesson here that we can take from the success of the Golden Knights: This sport is almost impossible to predict and is more prone to randomness and luck than any other. This is true when it comes to the people running the teams, and those of us watching everything that happens as both partial and impartial observers. Basically, nobody knows anything.

We already discussed the disastrous moves that a lot of NHL teams made throughout the expansion draft process when several of them gave up more than they needed to or made bizarre decisions when it came to their protected lists. All of those criticisms are not only fair, but are richly deserved even if they are made with the benefit of hindsight. On one hand, it was the job of the teams to know what they had as far as protecting the right talent and making smart moves. But not even the Golden Knights front office expected this. Even with there being a lot of head-scratchingly bizarre decisions there was almost nobody that looked at that roster at the start of the season and said “yes, that team is going to be playing in the Stanley Cup Final this season.”

[Related: Don’t blame expansion draft rules for Vegas’ success]

But that is part of the craziness that makes the NHL what it is. It is a sport and a league that is driven by luck and randomness more than most will ever care to admit.

That doesn’t mean that skill and talent and having the best players isn’t important. Because it is. It is just that sometimes the game comes down to a player having a career year at the right time, or several players all having everything click for them at the same time.

It is, by nature, completely unpredictable. It is a game of bounces, mistakes, hot and cold streaks, and at times completely wacky results that do not make any logical sense. This can happen of course of a single game, or a playoff series, or even a full season. Goaltending can be one of the biggest and most important factors in all of that, and Vegas has been the beneficiary of some outstanding goaltending this season, particularly when it comes to the play of Marc-Andre Fleury. And at no time has he been better than he has been during these playoffs where he is authoring one of the greatest postseason performances in league history.

Nothing elevates a team — or sinks it — more than a goaltending a performance. A great one masks flaws and makes a team look better than it might otherwise be. A bad one can sink a contender. Both teams that played in the Western Conference Final this season were perfect examples of that this season. The Jets, with largely the same roster that missed the playoffs a year ago and hadn’t made the postseason in four years, were able to power their way to the NHL’s final four because they finally received a competent goaltending performance. That team should have been a playoff team long before this season, and likely would have been with better goaltending.

That is the biggest thing to draw from Vegas’ success — goaltending drives everything.

The other thing we can take from this season is the power of opportunity and what an increased role can do for some players.

How many players around the NHL are capable of big-time performances are being buried in another team’s lineup or organization without getting a serious look?

In Vegas we saw Erik Haula go from being, at times, a fourth-liner in Minnesota (still capable of scoring 12-15 goals) and end up scoring 29 goals this season for the Golden Knights.

Nate Schmidt was mostly a depth defenseman in Washington and when given an opportunity to be a top-pairing defender has shined for Vegas. The same can be said for Colin Miller.

William Karlsson was mostly an afterthought in Anaheim and Columbus, and even if you accept that he is not going to score 40 goals again because he will probably never have another season where he scores on 23 percent of his shots, he is probably better than the ice-time he was given in his previous two stops showed.

Even though his “breakout” season happened a year ago in Florida Jonathan Marchessault is another example of what opportunity can do for a player. A talented, productive player at every level of hockey he played at that was passed over and discarded probably for no other reason than the fact he is undersized. How many players like him have been stuck in the AHL in recent years or been passed over in the draft?

How many players are there around the NHL like Haula and Schmidt that are buried in another lineup never being given an opportunity to do more, either because they are stuck on good teams with deep depth charts, or simply through poor talent evaluation from their teams?

There are probably quite a few!

Vegas’ success is going to up the pressure on every general manager across the league because people are going to look at this season and say, “if they can go from nothing to the Stanley Cup in one year, what is our excuse?” But nobody is going to get a clean slate with an opportunity build a team like this (at least not until Seattle enters the league, and I don’t envy their general manager trying to follow up this act). And there really is not anyway to replicate or duplicate what they did this season. That doesn’t mean there still aren’t lessons about the league to take from this success. The two biggest ones are to embrace the unpredictability that comes with the sport and how much luck and randomness can drive it, and to understand just how important it is for some players to simply get an opportunity to play a meaningful role.

The Golden Knights aren’t a team of misfits.

They are a team of talented players (and a great, game-changing goalie) that finally received a bigger opportunity.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.