Risk Factors: Ottawa Senators edition

From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Ottawa Senators

1. Are they running headfirst into a goaltending controversy?

There’s obvious value in having two strong goaltenders as opposed to just one and that’s what Ottawa thinks they have after inking Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner to three-year deals (Anderson’s doesn’t start until 2015-16) over the summer. The problem is that having two netminders that feel like they should be the starter can lead to tension and ultimately become a distraction.

So far both goaltenders have said all the right things. Anderson spoke in August about how this competition will bring out the best in both of them and when Anderson was named as the team’s starter at the beginning of training camp, Robin Lehner took the news in stride. But that’s what’s happened so far, before a game of consequence in the life of their new contracts has been played.

What happens if Anderson, whose deal is worth almost double Lehner’s, doesn’t bounce back after his rough 2013-14 campaign in the way that Ottawa’s hoping? Will he be comfortable warming the bench most nights? He won’t be a free agent again until the summer of 2018 when he’s 37, so if Lehner has a breakout season and firmly takes the starting job, then that might mark the end of Anderson’s days as a starting goaltender. Unless of course he asks to be traded.

What if Lehner is clearly outplaying Anderson, but still doesn’t get regular starts. How long will he be comfortable with that?

This could prove to be a headache for coach Paul MacLean as his handling of the goaltending situation will be heavily dissected by the media. Granted, that’s not a unique scenario, but it’s one that’s amplified when a team puts itself in this kind of situation.

2. Can Paul MacLean right this ship?

An argument could be made that it’s unfair to put the Ottawa Senators’ shortcomings last season on MacLean. Sure, they didn’t make the playoffs, but they weren’t a great team on paper to begin with. Yes, they regressed compared to their lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, but they almost certainly overperformed that season, especially when their injuries were factored in.

There is a reason why MacLean got the Jack Adams Award for his work guiding the battered, underdog Senators in 2013 and because of that, you might assume that his job is secure. As we’ve seen in the past though, winning the Jack Adams Award doesn’t buy a coach immunity. For that matter, the talent-level of the team isn’t always a acceptable excuse either — or at least that sometimes seems to be the case in the eyes of general managers. Sure, the Senators will have a tough time making the playoffs with their roster, but will MacLean be made an example of anyways if they fall short?

That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that MacLean wasn’t able to get the most out of his relatively young group last season and if he can’t fix that going forward, they’ll continue to underwhelm.

“Every day we come to work, it’s ‘why don’t we play harder, why aren’t we a better group?’ That’s the things that we discuss every day, and we’re still searching for a solution,” MacLean remarked back in March. Is it the fault of the players for not trying hard enough or at a certain point does it become the fault of the coach for not sufficiently motivating them?

Later that month, GM Bryan Murray passed on the opportunity to put his support behind the bench boss, which can be interpreted as a signal that he didn’t view MacLean as blameless for the Senators’ shortcomings.

It is worth adding that the Senators finished the season with a five-game winning streak, but they were all-but eliminated already when they got hot. Winning when the pressure’s off is one thing. Let’s see if MacLean’s Senators can consistently perform when it really matters.

3. They were 11th in goals per game last season, but their top-six looks pretty underwhelming.

Ottawa has one amazing offensive threat on its roster and that’s defenseman Erik Karlsson. The top line though will be a shadow of the Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfreddson, and Jason Spezza glory days. With the last player of that once dynamic trio gone, Ottawa doesn’t have a forward on its roster that reached the 30-goal or 60-point mark last season.

At this point Kyle Turris is looking like the top center and while he both has potential and has been progressing nicely, he’s still not a forward that’s likely to lead a squad to the playoffs. Bobby Ryan has a more impressive resume with four 30-plus goal seasons under his belt and the Senators clearly felt they couldn’t afford to let him walk, but his first season with Ottawa was nevertheless underwhelming.

Even if we assume that Turris still has another level in him after recording a career-high 58 points last season and Ryan’s struggles last season were primarily due to the sports hernia he was playing with for most of the campaign, they still have plenty of major question marks on their top two lines.

The Senators aren’t in a dire position offensively, but there’s no question that losing Spezza and Ales Hemsky over the summer hurt. Given that they were a facing an uphill battle to begin with, they really can’t afford to regress in this area despite their losses.

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