After a number of positives from the 2009-10 season – a fifth place finish in the Eastern Conference, and a return to the playoffs after a one year absence (and a first round sweep the year before that) – the Ottawa Senators of 2010-11 are looking to build on a number of good things, and have mostly positioned themselves to succeed in those efforts. They are most likely a playoff team again in 2010-11, and have the potential to compete for the Northeast Division title. They are not yet in the conversation for ‘best team in the NHL,’ (think Pittsburgh, Washington), but at this point appear ready to move to the top of the second tier of highly competitive and entertaining teams that have the potential to beat anybody when things go right for them. Here is a rundown of where the Senators stand, what you need to know about them, and their keys to success going into this season.
While goaltending may be the most important aspect of an NHL team, it is the one area where the Senators truly do not know where they stand. In Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott, they have two competent NHL goalies. However, neither one has been able to grab the title on ‘number one goalie’ and run with it. Both men have high skill levels, and the potential – when they’re on their game – to shut down any team in the league. However, both have also shown the potential for their play to turn on a dime, and not be ‘on their game’ at all. Both have struggled with consistency, and Leclaire – ordained the #1 goalie, mostly because of his contract – has had a career long struggle with injuries.
If we were only taking the 2009-10 regular season into account, Brian Elliott would likely be the Senators starting goalie coming into this season. With Leclaire missing extensive time last season with a broken jaw, and a concussion; Elliott handled himself like a veteran in the Sens’ net, and was a major reason that they made the playoffs. He won 29 games, with a 2.57 GAA, five shutouts, and a .909 save percentage – all very solid numbers – through the regular season. However, as soon as the playoffs came, Elliott appeared positively Lalime-esque, seeming to collapse under the pressure; winning only one of his four starts, and doing so with a 4.14 GAA, and a .853 save percentage. Leclaire elevated his play when called upon in the playoffs – enough where he will almost certainly start this season as the starting goaltender – however, his history of injuries indicates that it likely won’t be long before Elliott is called upon again to carry the mail for some period of time. Leclaire has six NHL seasons under his belt, but in only one of those years has he been durable enough to stay in the lineup for more than 50 games.
Until Saturday, the Sens’ defense corp looked like the one area where they had no question marks. They had six solid NHL defensemen in place and ready to start the season with one of the Eastern Conferences better defense corps. Then Filip Kuba caught his skate in a rut on the first day of training camp, and there is now at least one question mark. If Kuba starts the season on the injured list, and misses any significant amount of time, this means the Sens must fill one of their top six defense spots with someone with limited NHL experience; and also that the other defensemen previously in place must step up to fill the void left by the loss of a top-four defender.
If Kuba is out of the lineup to start the year, his spot on the blue line will likely be filled by Brian Lee, or Jared Cowen (though Patrick Wiercioch and David Hale will also be in the mix). Also, either Chris Campoli, or Matt Carkner will have to step up and take on some extra minutes as part of the second defense pairing.
While the Sens lost a defensive stalwart when Anton Volchenkov left in free agency, they replaced him by going an entirely new direction in picking up Sergei Gonchar on July first. Gonchar will not hit or block shots like Volchenkov, however he can move the puck, and contribute to the Sens’ ailing powerplay in ways his countryman never could have; and also adds veteran leadership, and a Stanley Cup ring to the mix. Overall (assuming Kuba isn’t missing for an extended period), the Sens are likely improved on defense this season. They may be a bit soft physically, but seemingly not enough where it will become a liability. They’ll certainly be exciting to watch if nothing else, as they boast a number of fast, offensively gifted players on the blue line. Cross your fingers that Erik Karlsson is not effected by a sophomore jinx, and can pick up where he left off from a fantastic rookie season.
Perhaps the weakest area of the Senators lineup, the Senators lost some of their already questionable forward depth over the offseason, and weren’t able to do much to replace what they lost. Their buyout of Jonathan Cheechoo gave them some salary cap flexibility, but with a number of restricted free agents to resign, they weren’t able to add any significant parts at forward; and also lost Matt Cullen to unrestricted free agency. If they’re going to scare their opposition this year, the Sens will need increased production from the young forwards they have been developing over the past few seasons. Nick Foligno, Peter Regin, and Jesse Winchester were all retained on new contracts last summer, and the Sens will look to each of them to play an increased role, and produce more offense this season. The Senators are also looking to last years unrestricted NCAA acquisition, Bobby Butler to compete for a spot on the roster out of training camp.
One area where the Senators will hopefully improve this season is that their forward unit will simply stay healthy for the majority of the season. That the Sens had a solid regular season record last year has to look like no small miracle when you consider that almost every one of their significant forwards – Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Alex Kovalev, and Milan Michalek (not to mention Filip Kuba and Pascal Leclaire) – were hampered for significant periods of time by injuries last season. At their ages, Alfredsson, and Kovalev are in the autumn years of their careers, and declined production can be expected; however Michalek and Spezza are supposed to be in their primes, and can hopefully bounce back well, as both are reportedly coming into this season with a clean bill of health. Their injury luck couldn’t get much worse than it was last year, so this should spell some improvements.
Most of the Senators team that takes the ice this season will be the same personnel that too the ice in Ottawa a year ago. With that in mind, don’t expect much to change in the result. Much like they were last year, they’ll be in a race for a playoff spot most of the season, and should wind up in the middle of the pack in the East (likely somewhere between fifth and seventh place). With no clear cut favourite to win the Northeast Division, the Sens should be in the hunt for the division title. Doing that would greatly increase their chances of getting out of the first round of the playoffs. You can’t expect much more than that from this team – fighting their way into the playoffs, and maybe winning a round – but they’re at least good enough to give themselves a chance to do better.
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