2009-10 Team Preview: Ottawa Senators
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10 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE SENATORS
By Pierre LeBrun
The Sens missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996 last season and found out a few weeks later that their top goal scorer wanted out. Welcome to the offseason, Bryan Murray.
But credit the Senators' GM. The veteran hockey man worked the phone all summer long and waited for his best possible deal just as training camp opened, making sure Dany Heatley didn't stick around and become a distraction that could have ruined Ottawa's season out of the gates.
Now the focus shifts back to the rest of the team. Is it good enough to get back into the postseason?
1. Balanced attack
The Sens have been fighting the "one-line team" tag for a few years and have been painfully unable to find secondary scoring. Heatley is gone, but the free-agent signing of star winger Alexei Kovalev and acquisition of wingers Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo from San Jose as part of the Heatley deal may help finally give Ottawa a more balanced offensive attack. Kovalev, Michalek and Cheechoo beef up a top-six forward group that includes Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher.
"There's no question we lost a lot in Dany," Murray told ESPN.com. "He was the finisher that most often had the advantage of playing with Alfie and Spezza. We'll miss that part. But I believe that Kovalev can get points even if he doesn't shoot as much. He doesn't look to score as often as Dany, but I believe he looks to do other things that will create offense.
"Michalek is a hard worker, a fast-skating guy that should bring some offense to the table. And we're hoping, although we don't know at this point, that Cheechoo can rebound from a poor year statistically and maybe get into the 20-goal range, which would help us a lot. Mike Fisher is the other guy in this squad that I think will rebound from a not-very-good productive year."
2. The heat is gone
Heatley's trade request dominated sports talk in Ottawa all summer long. There's no way Murray could allow it to overshadow the start of his team's season.
"I was anxious to get it done after I talked to him that first day of testing [on the eve of camp]," Murray said. "I thought before I met with him that day that maybe we could sit down and talk and start the year and wait for a deal that we might have been happier with. But when he came into my office, it was obvious he was unhappy, and the media was asking him questions and also asking his teammates about it.
"After he left my office, I just knew it would be a circus, if that's the right word, until something happened. So rather than wait, once [Sharks GM] Doug Wilson put Michalek in the deal that week, I just felt if I could get a second-round pick to go with it, why would I wait? So we were able to get it done, and I thought it was very important to do."
3. Welcome, Mr. Leclaire
From Ron Tugnutt to Tom Barrasso to Patrick Lalime to Ray Emery to Martin Gerber, the Sens have been unable to find elite goaltending despite a decade-plus-long string of playoff appearances. It's always been their weakest link. Perhaps until now. The trade-deadline acquisition of Pascal Leclaire last season may have finally filled the void.
"We had to make a move, there was no question," Murray said. "The big drawback a year ago, Alex [Auld] played well for us and Gerber played well at times, but we never had the confidence from our players that goaltending could win games. I thought the deal was important. He comes in with a great reputation; he's got a great work ethic. He looks 100 percent healthy. He's a big upgrade over what we had."
Down the road, keep an eye on Swedish teenager Robin Lehner, the 46th overall pick in this past June's draft. The Sens' front office is drooling over this kid.
4. Which Kovalev will we see?
The Montreal Canadiens, in the end, finally had enough, just like the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins before them. For a player with so much talent, Kovalev leaves his employers wanting more. One great season is almost always followed by a subpar season. What will Ottawa get?
"He much prefers, it appears, to make plays rather than take the puck to the net and score himself," Murray said. "But he adds a nice dimension to our team, in particular because we lost Dany. He won't get as many goals, but he may create as much offense overall. Our power play will benefit greatly from him."
5. Nick of time
Nick Foligno quietly put up 17 goals last season, his second in the NHL. The 21-year-old winger continues to improve and can be used both in a top-six role on the first two lines or in a third-line checking assignment.
"Foligno looks like the most improved player on our team right now," Murray said. "He's quicker. He's a guy that I think will provide some offense."
6. Better blue line?
Ottawa's defensive corps took a large part of the blame for last season's struggles, not so much for its defensive play, but rather for its inability to move the puck up in the transition game. To that end, Murray added Chris Campoli this past February in a trade with the Islanders, hoping the 25-year-old fit the bill as a puck-moving type. Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Filip Kuba, Brian Lee and Alexandre Picard round out a group that has a lot to prove this season.
Erik Karlsson, Ottawa's first pick (15th overall) in the 2008 draft, is likely headed for the AHL to start the season, but figure to see him at some point in 2009-10 with Ottawa.
7. More offense
Despite the presence of stars such as Alfredsson, Heatley and Spezza last season, the Senators ranked a dismal 23rd in goals per game, averaging only 2.60 per game. Don't blame the power play (10th overall) but rather Ottawa's five-on-five scoring, which was 26th overall and unable to muster any attack at even strength. The hope is a more balanced attack up front and better puck-moving ability from the back end will alleviate some of those problems.
8. GM pressure
Murray took over as GM for John Muckler after the team's trip to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. Since then, he has had four different coaches behind the bench in only two seasons, including himself. He did well, considering he was under the gun, in getting a nice package in return for Heatley after the star winger asked for a trade. The Leclaire trade last season was also a good one. But if the Sens miss the playoffs for a second straight season, it would surely be hard to stomach for hot-tempered owner Eugene Melnyk.
"I've had a good relationship with Eugene, he's on board," Murray said. "We know we had a terrible year last year; right from training camp on, we didn't look very promising for whatever reason. Of course I want the team to be successful, and I put pressure on myself all the time for that to be the case. But beyond that, I'm certainly not worried about it."
9. Olympic exposure
The Sens might be a tired bunch after the Olympics, given their possible participants: Alfredsson (Sweden), Kovalev (Russia), Volchenkov (Russia), Christoph Schubert (Germany), Spezza (Canada), Michalek (Czech Republic), Kuba (Czech Republic) and Jarkko Ruutu (Finland). Alfredsson won gold in the 2006 Torino Games.
10. A scheduling note
A mid-March test could have a huge bearing on Ottawa's playoff chances. The Sens play six of seven games on the road from March 9-22, with stops in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Atlanta, Dallas and Montreal, and a home game against rival Toronto sandwiched right in between.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 36-35-11
• Division: Fourth in the Northeast
• Conference: 11th in the East
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• A more balanced offense and better goaltending will help the Sens get back into the playoff dance. They'll finish third in the Northeast Division and eighth in the Eastern Conference, barely beating out Montreal, New Jersey, Toronto and Atlanta for the final spot.
NORTHEAST DIVISION PREVIEW
Experience: Entering first full NHL season (coached 34 games in 2008-09)
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Cory Clouston enters his first full season behind the Senators' bench, and any coach will tell you how important it is to be there from the first day of camp to implement the proper system.
"I don't think there's any question that the advantage of this time of year is that you can work your players as hard as you can to get them ready for the season," GM Bryan Murray said. "You can put your plan in place and your structure in place. Obviously, Cory is big on that. You also get to know a variety of people in the group, not only the NHL players, but the minor league players as well. The whole year, for me, is what you do in your preparation for the season, and that starts at training camp."
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE IT
F -- Milan Michalek
• Has averaged 25 goals a year for three seasons. Time for the 24-year-old to eclipse 30?
F -- Jason Spezza
• A last-minute Canadian Olympic camp invitee with plenty to prove this season now that 50-goal man Heatley is gone.
F -- Daniel Alfredsson
• His better years are behind him, but the 36-year-old captain still can put up 70 points.
D -- Chris Phillips
• Remains one of the NHL's most underrated shutdown men.
D -- Anton Volchenkov
• Keep your head up when entering the Ottawa zone if this guy's on the ice.
Best Bet: Daniel Alfredsson, F: Alfie is as Alfie does. He'll approach, but not quite get, 80 points and put in a decent showing on the power play. That lumps him in with a large group of No. 3 and No. 4 fantasy forwards. With concerns over how the Senators shape up this year following the Dany Heatley trade and the injection of the mercurial Alexei Kovalev, we're content with projecting Alfredsson to match last year's numbers for now. As with all Senators this preseason, if there are signs the club will be better defensively and allow for an improved plus/minus, start moving Alfie up your draft list.
Risky Move: Alexei Kovalev, F: So many questions exist when it comes time to Kovalev for the coming season: How will he fit in to Ottawa's offense? Will he be motivated? Will he get Dany Heatley's old spot on the top line? Or will it go to Milan Michalek because Kovalev plays right wing? Is Ottawa going to remain defensively inept? At this point in time, it's safe to say Kovalev has the skills to put up 65 points regardless of his surroundings, so we'll project him for that. Depending on the other factors, that 65 could go up, so take Kovalev as a No. 4 fantasy forward, knowing there is some chance he exceeds your expectations, or fails miserably to meet them.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
INSIDE THE PROJECTIONS
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Ottawa Senators finish this season in Northeast Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.