Captain comeback

Once word of Daniel Alfredsson’s return for another kick at the Stanley Cup trickled out in Sweden Friday morning, Ottawa Senators players quickly joined the chorus of fans in welcoming their captain back with open arms for his 18th NHL season.

Captain comeback
Daniel Alfredsson is introduced to the crowd as the Ottawa Senators take on the Florida Panthers in NHL action at Scotiabank Place. (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

NEW YORK — Once word of Daniel Alfredsson’s return for another kick at the Stanley Cup trickled out in Sweden Friday morning, Ottawa Senators players quickly joined the chorus of fans in welcoming their captain back with open arms for his 18th NHL season.

“I think he can play more than one more year,” said right winger Chris Neil. “It’s great. Having a guy with that kind of experience and skill on your team is unbelievable. He has been the leader in the dressing room for a long, long time and with the way he played last year, he still has a lot left in the tank.”

Defenceman Marc Methot said Alfredsson is “the best captain I’ve ever had,” suggesting the leadership abilities of the 40-year-old Alfredsson can’t be overstated.

“He’s great on the ice, no question, and he proved a lot of people wrong when they said it wasn’t possible for him to play the way he does at his age,” he said. “But it’s also about what he brings for younger players, even myself. I’m learning how to be a leader by watching him, with all the little things he does on and off the ice and in the community.”

Senators general manager Bryan Murray will offer in-depth comments on Alfredsson’s return Saturday here in New York. The Senators captain is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on July 5, though a return to Ottawa isn’t in doubt. The hope is Murray and Alfredsson’s agent, J.P. Barry, can come to an agreement over the weekend.

“We now will begin the process of negotiating a contract, which we hope to have completed in the near future,” Murray said in a statement issued Friday afternoon.

Salary numbers aside, the playing numbers put up by No. 11 during his career have been outstanding — perhaps good enough to eventually put him in the Hall of Fame.

Alfredsson has played in 1,178 regular season games, scoring 426 goals and 682 assists. His playoff resume includes a franchise record 121 games, a franchise high 51 goals and 49 assists. Accordingly, he owns his own chapter in the Senators’ record books.

Clearly though, he’s not quite done yet.

The fact Alfredsson led the Senators in playoff scoring in April and May, registering four goals and six assists in 10 games against Montreal and Pittsburgh, showed that the 40-year-old could still compete at a high level in the most competitive, pressure-packed environment in hockey. The opportunity to also win a second Olympic gold medal for Sweden next February in Russia also played a role in his decision to come back for at least one more season.

Alfredsson didn’t rush into it, even though his teammates were pressuring him to come back.

He wanted his body to heal and he wanted his mind to clear following the Senators’ second-round playoff exit to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He also wanted to make sure his wife and four young boys were content with him playing on.

He had been mulling over the “should I stay or should I go now?” question with his family in Sweden over the past week. He has also been increasing the intensity of his off-season workouts, making sure he has the necessary commitment to properly prepare for another gruelling campaign.

Any doubts are now gone: The news broke in Sweden and Barry later informed Murray that Alfredsson had given a thumbs up to playing in the 2013-14 season.

“For him to say he’s coming back, obviously his body feels good,” said Neil. “That’s half the battle, being able to train in the summer. It’s not just what he’s done already, but that he’s always trying to get better, even by doing little things, whatever he can.”

Expectations will be high for the Senators when they attempt to improve upon their surprising 2013 season, during which they qualified for the post-season despite a steady string of serious injuries to star players.

The Senators should be one of the more competitive teams in the Eastern Conference, and Murray is also in the hunt to find another front-line forward, either through a trade here during draft weekend or when free agency opens July 5. Having Alfredsson back improves the odds for success next season.

“There would have been a huge hole without him,” said Methot.

“He’s hilarious, with a dry sense of humour. He doesn’t say that much (in the dressing room), but everybody shuts up when he talks. He’s a generous, giving guy and that stuff is contagious.”

Considering Alfredsson’s longevity and commitment to the organization, it’s hard to fathom his thoughts during his turbulent Calder Trophy-winning rookie season in 1995-96, when the club played out of two arenas, had three head coaches, two general managers, a mere 18 wins and lengthy list of 59 losses.

Alfredsson has said that, during the worst stretches when Dave Allison served as coach, he was seriously contemplating returning home to Sweden for good when the season ended.

In the early portions of his NHL career, he was somewhat injury prone, missing long stretches of action. He survived a contract holdout at the start of the 1997-98 season, along with loud and long speculation that he was on the trade block before the Senators made their one and only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 2007.

It’s also intriguing that on the eve of that final series against the Anaheim Ducks, Alfredsson certainly had no plans on becoming part of that rare group of NHL players who extend their careers into their 40’s.

“I might be one of those guys who might surprise people by just quitting one year,” he told the Citizen in May, 2007, back when he was a relative youngster at 33 years old.

The end appeared near during the 2010-11 season, when he didn’t finish out the year due to never-ending pain. That issue was eventually solved by off-season back disc surgery, but there were plenty of question marks about his ability to recover when he began the 2011-12 season under new coach Paul MacLean.

Last summer, he also spent several months contemplating whether to return, with the possibility he might never have played again if the lockout had wiped out the entire season.

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