Mendes: 10 burning questions for the Senators this season

Every team in the National Hockey League is facing plenty of questions as the schedule gets underway.

Mendes: 10 burning questions for the Senators this season
Ottawa Senators' Jean-Gabriel Pageau skates the puck around Montreal Canadiens' Darren Dietz during second period pre-season NHL hockey action in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Every team in the National Hockey League is facing plenty of questions as the schedule gets underway.

In Pittsburgh, they’re wondering if their star players can stay healthy for an entire season. In Toronto, there is a healthy debate over who should be the starting goaltender. And in Boston, there are doubts the Bruins still have what it takes to make ti to the Stanley Cup final for a third time in four years.

Here in Ottawa, there are several storylines swirling around the club as it heads into Friday’s opener in Buffalo. And the answers to these questions will determine whether the Senators take the next step, becoming a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.

1. Which Erik Karlsson will we see?

While Karlsson returned in time for the playoffs last spring, it was clear that he was merely a shadow of his former self. Prior to suffering his Achilles tendon injury, his name was included in debates about who the best player was in the league. If the 23-year-old gets back into the Norris Trophy discussion this season, the Senators will be one of the most entertaining teams to watch on a nightly basis.

2. Can Craig Anderson stay healthy?

In each of his first two full seasons with the Senators, Craig Anderson suffered a freak injury that sidelined him for extended period of time. In 2011-12, he accidentally severed a tendon in his finger while cutting frozen chicken at home. And in the lockout-shortened campaign, Anderson missed 18 games with a high-ankle sprain after he was bowled over in his crease. Anderson suited up in 71 games for the Avalanche in 2009-10 and the Senators would benefit greatly from that type of durability this season.

3. Will Spezza and Ryan find chemistry?

Ever since Dany Heatley demanded a trade in the summer of 2009, the Senators have been on a fruitless search to find Jason Spezza a sniping winger. With all due respect to the likes of Bobby Butler and Nikita Filatov, the talent level just has not been there for Spezza over the past few seasons. Could Bobby Ryan, added via trade this summer, be a 40-goal man playing with Spezza?

4. How will re-alignment affect the Senators?

The Senators are now in the rejigged Atlantic Division, which includes five clubs that qualified for the playoffs last season. Since only the top three teams are guaranteed a spot in the post-season this year, with two more wild cards to be shared with the Metropolitan Division, Ottawa will be in tight race to make the playoffs again. The Senators could be pushing for one of those wild card spots, and a plausible scenario sees them battling down to the wire with archrivals Toronto and Montreal.

5. Can Wiercioch and Cowen handle a top four minutes?

The organization opened up its wallet to two young defencemen this summer, signing Jared Cowen to a four-year, $12.4 million contract and Patrick Wiercioch to a three-year, $6 million deal. The young duo only has a combined 139 games of NHL experience, but it looks like they will start the season as Ottawa’s second defence pairing. Ottawa needs them to adapt quickly.

6. What can Paul MacLean do for an encore?

In each of his first two seasons with the Senators, Paul MacLean has been a Jack Adams award nominee — and he walked away with the trophy last season. The head coach has taken the word “rebuild” out of the Senators’ vocabulary and transformed them into a team with playoff expectations. The pressure will be on to avoid a letdown after a surprisingly successful season.

7. Is Jean-Gabriel Pageau a full-time NHLer?

Jean-Gabriel Pageau became an instant fan favourite in Ottawa after he scored a hat trick against the Canadiens in the playoffs. The 20-year-old has only nine games of regular season experience in the NHL, however. He’ll start the season centring a line with Colin Greening and Erik Condra.

8. Can the second line produce offence?

The club believes Kyle Turris can put up enough points to help ease the pressure off the top line. Turris will have two new wingers to start the season in Clarke MacArthur and Cory Conacher. Both have the potential to be 20-goal scorers, but they need to show they can deliver.

9. Could this be the final season in Ottawa for Chris Phillips?

Ottawa fans have spent the past few years wondering if they would be seeing a farewell season from Daniel Alfredsson. Now, that question shifts over to Chris Phillips, who is entering the final year of his contract with the club. The 35-year-old has been a fixture on the roster for 16 years, but with the club going younger on the blueline, it could be the final season for the dependable Phillips here.

10. Can the Senators add any pieces at the deadline?

There are some pundits who believe the Senators could challenge for the division title and become a legitimate contender this season, but the club is at the bottom five of payroll spenders. That usually doesn’t bode well for teams with Stanley Cup aspirations. Will Eugene Melnyk open his wallet at the trade deadline if Bryan Murray wants to add a key piece or two? Based on the owner’s recent comments, the answer appears to be “probably not.”

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