This time around, the Senators won’t be sneaking up on any … prognosticators.
Life was grand back when Ottawa was written off by so many experts that a finish of 12th would have seemed like progress. Some of the most esteemed among those who stick their necks out for a living had pencilled the rebuilding Senators into the 15th and final slot of the Eastern Conference.
To finish eighth and then extend the first place New York Rangers to a seven-game series that was decided in the end by a single goal was a thing of beauty to the organization, eventual disappointment aside. And if the cake needed icing there was this: An organization not known for seizing media attention outside the National Capital Region, the Senators were tickled to have freewheeling Erik Karlsson win the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman in 2011-12, rookie head coach Paul MacLean nominated for the Jack Adams, while captain Daniel Alfredsson scooped the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for his significant humanitarian contributions to the community.
Pretty sweet hat trick.
So, now what? Is it onward and upward over the learning curve, or a completely understandable and forgivable step backward, as these rebuilding efforts sometimes experience?
Whatever the case, the bar has been raised on expectations, which Alfredsson and MacLean say they welcome as further motivation to build on the “identity” of a hard-working team that can come back to win games it trails early.
After the Senators “shocked the world” with that 8th place finish, as one hockey analyst labelled it during a recent pre-season show, they are viewed by many as a playoff team in the east. Nevertheless, several things will have to go right if the Senators are to secure their first consecutive playoff berths since 2008. (Missing the dance in 2009 ended a string of 11 straight playoff appearances by Ottawa). Three areas to watch are:
PUCK STOPS HERE
The Senators have created a minor media circus by heaping praise on not one, two, but all three of their goaltenders, leading to speculation that if Robin Lehner or Ben Bishop is the goalie of the future — the future could be sooner than we think. The fact is that Craig Anderson was everything the club hoped he would be — and then some — in 2011-12, his first full season in Ottawa. Paul MacLean has called Anderson his “No. 1,” but left open the question of who would start the regular season opener.
Why? Because Anderson, who did not play during the lockout, does not get the benefit of even an one exhibition game while Bishop and especially Lehner, have been outstanding in AHL play. Seems to me the Jets would be a nice way for Anderson to ease his way into the season, while Lehner and Bishop will get plenty of chances to play during a busy schedule. Goaltending will have to be the plus category it was last season, when the Senators gave up more shots per game (32) than every team in the league except the Carolina Hurricanes (32.4 shots per game). As a group, Ottawa’s goalies are big. They will have to play big, too.
Everyone wants to know what Karlsson can do for an encore. A bigger question is how this defence corps performs as a group after losing Jared Cowen for the season following hip surgery, and also bidding farewell to tough guy Matt Carkner and Karlsson’s partner, Filip Kuba. Local boy Marc Méthot gets that job, and he has looked good in camp. More physical than Kuba, he just needs to be as steady.
In an interview, Cowen said he could possibly return if the Senators were to go deep into the playoffs, but is likely to stay on the sideline.
“I could come back, depending how we do, but it’s too risky,” said Cowen, who turns 22 this month. “I’m so young, there’s no point risking my health for the future.”
With veteran Mike Lundin still nursing a broken finger, AHL-tested Patrick Wiercioch, Andre Benoit and Mark Borowiecki will get opportunities to fill in at the two open spots. Veterans Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar provide needed experience. Senators general manager Bryan Murray could make a move to strengthen what is clearly Ottawa’s Achilles heel, the blueline, but he said on Monday, “the priority right now is to promote our own people. We’ve got a number of young guys that are probably deserving of a look early on.”
Over to you, kids. Even if Murray does bring in help, patience is in order, here. Defence pairings need time to get in sync, and starting the season with a couple of rookies will be tricky.
Fans have heard so much about the promise at the forward position, one of them is going to have to blossom this season. Is Jakob Silfverberg the guy? He will get every opportunity, starting the season on the first line with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek. Newcomer Guillaume Latendresse is an interesting experiment, alongside Kyle Turris (who looks very sharp) and Alfredsson. If the Senators have to count on their veterans alone to do all the scoring, it could be a bad sign.