Last 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.
Street 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.