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.

Karlsson among those choosing to stay put, avoid free agency

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Erik Karlsson wanted some time and space.

When the San Jose Sharks acquired the Norris Trophy-winning defenseman in a trade last September, he and his wife told them up front they wouldn’t sign a long-term contract until they played a season to see if it was a fit. They gave general manager Doug Wilson their word they would make a decision in enough time let the Sharks plan their offseason.

Karlsson signed two weeks before free agency opened.

”They were letting me play hockey and getting adjusted to everything, and that meant the world to me,” Karlsson said after signing for $92 million over eight years . ”I’m very happy with how everything happened and that they didn’t force me into making a decision earlier than this.”

Karlsson is one of several players who might have landed richer contracts via free agency and opted instead to re-sign with their teams. For Karlsson, Philadelphia’s Kevin Hayes, Vancouver’s Alex Edler, Buffalo’s Jeff Skinner, Washington’s Carl Hagelin and Tampa Bay’s Braydon Coburn, staying put won out over the risk of the open market.

”You never know what’s going to be out there if you go to free agency,” Edler said. ”There’s a lot of factors coming up here in the next few years with the potential lockout (and) there’s an expansion draft (for Seattle).”

A lower than expected salary cap set at $81.5 million also means there will be less money available all around July 1.

Of course, it’s not like most of these deals were hometown discounts. Karlsson got the richest salary for a defenseman in NHL history, Hayes signed for $50 million and Skinner turned a career year into $72 million . No matter the cap, the possibility existed that free agent frenzy could land them bigger deals.

They just didn’t want to find out.

”Going to July 1 is nice, (but) it’s kind of nice to be able to get it over with and sign with a tremendous team,” Hayes said. ”July 1 and unrestricted free agency is definitely an intriguing idea. But when I sat down with my agent and we kind of thought about what type of team I’d want to go and where I’d fit into the organization and the team, the Flyers were at the top of the list.”

The Flyers acquired the rights to Hayes from Winnipeg in early June and had to sell him on the benefits of playing in Philly. Elsewhere, familiarity helped. Just as Karlsson and wife Melinda got to know the Bay Area and Sharks organization over nine months, Skinner’s 40-goal season in Buffalo convinced him to stay.

”Going through the process, you think about everything, you weigh the pros and cons,” Skinner said. ”We just didn’t feel the need to get to that point because I like it here and I didn’t feel like it needed to get to that point where I wanted to look elsewhere.”

Coburn, who took a pay cut to sign a $3.4 million, two-year contract , said Tampa feeling like home off the ice and ”unfinished business” on the ice made staying his family’s top choice. After finishing 21 points ahead of the rest of the league and getting swept in the first round of the playoffs, the Lightning are the early favorites to win the Stanley Cup next season.

”We have an unbelievable team here and I want to be a part of it,” Coburn said.

Hagelin feels the same way about the Capitals after playing only 27 regular-season and playoff games with them since late February. The 30-year-old feared Washington’s salary-cap squeeze might impede him from sticking around but was willing to take a lower salary than he could’ve gotten on the open market to get an $11 million, four-year deal with a team he believes can win a championship in that time like it did in 2018.

”I wouldn’t have signed with Washington if I didn’t believe there’s still a good chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Hagelin said.

Edler last played a playoff game in 2014 and the Canucks are in the midst of a rebuild. Combine that with him being 33 and it might have been easy to understand Edler wanting to test the market. Instead, he had no wanderlust and agreed to a $12 million, two-year deal after 13 seasons with the Canucks.

”I’ve said from the beginning that if a deal was available with Vancouver, that was my No. 1 priority,” Edler said.

Wilson, the Sharks GM, traded for Karlsson and now locked down an elite offensive defenseman for the rest of his prime. Wilson related to their situation because his wife is from Chicago, where he played his entire career, and took the chance that the Karlssons would enjoy San Jose enough to want to stay.

”We trusted in that process,” Wilson said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Devils introduce Jack Hughes to New Jersey after big week

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The Devils introduced No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes to New Jersey on Tuesday – even though he is already sharing the spotlight.

The Devils have given notice they might be re-emerging as a contender with an encouraging draft and the stunning acquisition of six-time All-Star defenseman P.K. Subban. It has all gone a long way in turning pessimism into optimism for a team that finished with the league’s third-worst record and out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

”Adding a talent like Jack Hughes on Friday night and Saturday, P.K. Subban, obviously I think the Devils are back in business,” general manager Ray Shero said.

It started with winning the draft lottery in early April to the selection of Hughes, a center, with the top pick Friday to the trade for Subban, who immediately steps into the role as New Jersey’s top defenseman.

With 2017-18 MVP Taylor Hall expected to return to form after an injury-marred campaign, 2017 No. 1 pick Nico Hischier continuing his development and leading scorer Kyle Palmieri playing his best hockey, the Devils have a shot to do something in a league where the St. Louis Blues come out of nowhere to win the Stanley Cup.

Devils majority owner Josh Harris can’t wait to the season to start, adding Devils’ fans are used to winning Stanley Cups – the last was in 2003 – and now is the time to start doing it again.

”Jack joining the franchise represents another turn in our goal to be elite,” Harris said at a news conference for Hughes at the Prudential Center. ”We said that we’re here not to do anything other than consistently compete and ultimately win the Stanley Cup.”

With parents Jim and Ellen sitting in the front row, the 18-year-old Hughes was soft spoken, confident and composed speaking on a stage that included Harris and Shero.

The Florida-born Hughes said he had no doubt he would be playing next season in the NHL for the Devils and he hopes to play a creative game.

It is just what the talent-starved Devils need. The past week was a major step in Shero’s rebuilding plan over the past four years. It started soon after he was hired with the trades for Hall and Palmieri, the draft of Hischier, another center, and now the selection of Hughes and the trade with Nashville for Subban and his $9 million cap hit for each of the next three seasons.

Hughes hasn’t stopped going since the draft. He returned to New Jersey with Shero, Harris and his parents on a private jet and spent the next few days making media appearances. He attended the New York Yankees game against Toronto on Monday night, sitting for 30 minutes with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and actor Adam Sandler.

He is eager now to return to suburban Toronto, where he grew up, and begin preparations for an 82-game season against men, and being a part of a team.

”I want to be Jack Hughes, not Patrick Kane or Matt Barzal,” Hughes said. ”I want to have my own flavor, my own excitement to my game.”

The 170-pound playmaking center mixed poise, drive, and sheer skating ability to score 74 goals and 154 assists in 110 games with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.

It will be interesting to see what he does with the Devils. Hischier had 20 goals and 32 assists as a rookie.

Hughes doesn’t see himself as competing with Hischier for the job as the top-line center.

”I think to win you have to have 1A and 1B,” said Hughes, who will wear No. 86 with the Devils. ”No team wins with just one really good center. Travis Zajac has been a really good center for a long time and I think the Devils are in a really good spot. In the NHL, I feel whoever I play with will be a really good player.”

Coach John Hynes is looking forward to using all his new talent.

”It’s exciting,” Hynes said. ”It’s what you want. You want guys to come in and give you a chance to win and coach some excellent players.”

And who is to say the Devils are done? They still have $25 million available in cap space.

”I feel with the pieces we have at this moment, we are a much better team than we were on Thursday,” goaltender Cory Schneider said. ”That’s encouraging.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Hughes picks No. 86; Gritty surprises fan

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Why did the Avs trade Carl Soderberg? (Mile High Hockey)

• Breadman will get dough wherever he ends up. (Postmedia)

• Jack Hughes to wear “flashy” No. 86. (ESPN)

• The Winnipeg Jets face cap challenges this summer. (Sportsnet)

• Breaking the free agent goalie market. (TSN.ca)

• One Toronto draft pick once trick-or-treated at Mike Babcock’s house. (Sportsnet)

• First-round pick says sister is better than him. (CBC.ca)

• Jarome Iginla atop the list of Hall of Fame candidates for 2020. (TSN.ca)

• The NHL’s secret spending cap: How a shift in escrow acts as a hidden force that discourages spending. (The Athletic)

• How the United States Hockey League prepared Ronnie Attard for the big time. (USA Hockey)

• A seven-year-old hockey fan wanted a prosthetic leg that repped his favorite team, and Gritty was happy to surprise him. (CNN)

• A list of the five frontrunners to sign Matt Duchene. (The Hockey News)

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck.

Blackhawks’ defense suddenly looks respectable

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Look, adding Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan doesn’t transform the Chicago Blackhawks’ defense into, say, the Nashville Predators’ group before they traded P.K. Subban for cap space, frankincense, and myrrh. These tweaks do make a return to the playoffs a whole lot more likely for Chicago, though.

[More: Blackhawks trade for De Haan, send Kahun to Pens for Maatta.]

Because, honestly, the Blackhawks’ defense was astoundingly terrible in 2018-19. To the point that it’s impressive Chicago even created the illusion of being semi-competitive.

In allowing 291 goals, Chicago finished second-worst in the NHL, only ahead of the putrid, sieve-like Senators. Their 72.7 penalty kill percentage was comfortably the worst in the league, which was quite uncomfortable. Things don’t get any better when you delve into deeper stats, either. Chicago’s high-danger chances percentage at even strength was league-worst at miserable 42.77 percent (686 for; 918 against), according to Natural Stat Trick.

Not ideal.

Again, all things considered, it’s surprising Chicago finished 10th in the West, technically two spots out of the postseason. That’s a bit of a mirage since the Blackhawks had 84 points versus 90 for Colorado as the final wild card, but the Blackhawks flirted with playoff contention quite a bit for a team with such an ugly defense.

What if the Blackhawks can merely improve to “meh” in 2019-20 from the “my house is on fire” rating they earned last season?

While offseason shoulder surgery might force Calvin De Haan to miss some time and/or start slow, the bottom line is that he could be an enormous upgrade over Gustav Forsling, who was also part of the Carolina trade.

(And that’s assuming that De Haan won’t play even better. He was hurt for at least some of 2018-19, likely diluting his stats.)

Both Maatta and De Haan were expensive luxuries their teams parted ways with. For Chicago, each could provide the sort of steady defense the Blackhawks rarely enjoyed in 2018-19.

It’s true that Maatta’s skating has been criticized, yet his all-around struggles might have more to do with mediocre defense partners than personal failings.

We can debate how much of a bump Chicago gets from adding these two, but these are two steps up, whether they be baby steps or giant leaps for hockey kind.

And it generally changes the discussion from having next to nothing to maybe having too many options on defense, as Charlie Roumeliotis discussed for NBC Chicago.

The Blackhawks now have some interesting options as left-handed defensemen, as Maatta and De Haan bolster a group that includes veteran Duncan Keith and younger option Erik Gustafsson, who quietly had a breakout season. The Blackhawks have plenty of right-handed options to sort through, too: Brent Seabrook and his troubled contract, joins younger options Connor Murphy, Henri Jokiharju, and Adam Boqvist. Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom are also on the fringe of this conversation.

Roumeliotis goes into greater detail on that crowded situation, but again: too much sure beats not enough, and if there’s any chance that this influx also inspires Chicago to work harder to remove some problems (*cough* Seabrook *cough cough*), then even better. As is, this group seems upgraded in nice ways. Don’t expect excitement from De Haan or Maatta, aside from their ability to improve the Blackhawks’ chances of winning games.

Again, the “how much better?” argument is fairly interesting. The Predators lost Subban and the Jets didn’t get much more from trading away Jacob Trouba, so suddenly the Central Division is a little less foreboding — at least for now. We won’t really know if the path to a wild-card spot is clearer, but perhaps it could be.

That’s not to say that GM Stan Bowman should just snooze through July 1, mind you, as there’s still some work to do. For all the blueline improvements, Chicago’s roster is far from perfect, especially when you make that forward group even more top-heavy by removing a nice find like Dominik Kahun:

Bowman’s had a decent knack for finding supporting cast players for Chicago over the years, so it’s conceivable that the Blackhawks can make things work this summer. Perhaps third overall pick Kirby Dach could make an immediate jump to the Blackhawks, providing a big body and some talent while carrying a thrifty entry-level deal?

Adding some forward support is important, and frankly, Corey Crawford‘s health challenges should probably push Chicago to find a better backup option than Cam Ward. And, yes, if there’s any way someone would absorb Seabrook’s brutal deal, that would be nice for Chicago.

Expecting a team to clear all of that up before July is likely asking too much. The bottom line is that the Blackhawks have done a nice job of improving their team so far, as they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in substantial ways. Adding De Haan and Maatta doesn’t confirm a seat in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but that trip is far more probable for Chicago now than it was back when their season ended in April.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.