At the end of the last season, the Ottawa Senators found themselves in a familiar place—another failed campaign resulting in a spot at the bottom of the standings. Owner Eugene Melnyk had seen his team regress from the Stanley Cup finals a few years ago to a lowly lottery-pick team.
General Manager Bryan Murray drew the ire and scorn of Senators fans, experts and analysts, as well as casual observers, many of whom were already calling for his job as soon as they read the writing on the wall in the middle of the season.
"Fire sale!" was the mantra in Canada's capital. "Everything must go!" they said.
Murray didn’t listen to the unconventional and apparently wrong advice of the naysayers and critics. Murray was unwilling to let go of longtime Sens' franchise defenseman and former first-overall draft selection Chris Phillips.
Not only did Murray defiantly keep Phillips on board, he signed the veteran defenseman to a three-year contract extension. Phillips looked like the game might have passed him on as the aging defensemen clearly lost a step or two during the season and was highly ineffective in all situations in which he was placed.
The two remnants of the CASH line, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, were also kept on board to serve as mentors and veteran presences for the supposed new faces of the franchise. Simply put, Alfredsson could have garnered some serious interest in trade negotiations, but in the end trading their longtime captain would have absolutely devastated the franchise and fan base, perhaps to a point where they might not truly ever recover.
Neither Spezza nor Alfredsson produced at the level everyone is used to nor earned the paychecks they cashed.
Another dismal piece that most would have liked to forget was Sergei Gonchar. The elite offensive-defenseman signed for $5.5 million per season and seemed like an experiment gone horribly wrong.
Gonchar was virtually untradeable due to his large cap hit and his 35-plus contract, a contract where even if the player himselfdecides to retire, the organization must pay this player in full and the money spent will go against the cap even if the player is not active.
There was not a fan in Ottawa who didn’t want Gonchar shipped out of the capital, no matter the consequences.
That was the bad, here is the good: The Senators are sitting at second in their Northeast division and are the fifth seed for the playoffs of the Eastern Conference.
This past summer Ottawa, drafted Swedish sensation and recent World Junior Championship hero Mika Zibanejad and used their extra two first-round picks on wingers Stefan Noesen and Matt Puempel. Murray found a steal in drafting Zibanejad sixth overall as the young Swede was being involved in discussions of who was most deserving of being 2011's top draft choice.
How did they do it?
Well, high-priced forward Milan Michalek is having a superb year. Once the leading goalscorer before an injury offset him, Michalek was doing the Sens' heavy lifting with the help of star center Jason Spezza, who has reaffirmed himself as a legitimate first-line center.
Spezza, who was the subject of trade talk last year, is now scoring at a point-per-game pace. Spezza currently sits at 44 points in 44 games.
Young Erik Karlsson is leading all NHL defensemen in scoring at the age of 21 years old. Karlsson is currently being considered a dark-horse contender for the Norris Trophy as best defenseman in the league. He's getting help from former lost cause Sergei Gonchar, who is putting up a tremendous amount of assists and is scoring at his usual over half-a-point-per-game pace.
Wingers Zack Smith and Nick Foligno and captain Daniel Alfredsson are all in double-digit scoring, trying to catch up to Milan Michalek who is the lone 20-goal scorer.
Towering rookie defenseman Jared Cowen has exceeded any and all expectations the Senators' management had for him in his first year on the job. Cowen is a huge body who plays a two-way game and has potential through the roof.
Murray wasn't content with the current situation. He traded prized defensive prospect David Rundblad to the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for underused Kyle Turris, who was reportedly very unhappy with his situation in Phoenix. Turris signed a two-year deal with the Coyotes out of necessity since the management in the desert was willing to let him be a contract holdout, resulting in a lost season.
So far Turris is melding well with his new team and has assumed a crucial position as second-line center. When one of the fine young wingers is ready to make the jump to the pros, Kurris will reap the benefits and prosper with top-tier talent. As one could speculate, he couldn't be happier with his current situation.
The Senators have come a long way in less than a year. The team was looking at the prospect of having to rid themselves of unwanted contracts and unloading character players and fan favorites in exchange for a bid to build for the future.
Instead, the Senators now have the No. 2 prospect pool in the league according to minor league hockey authority, Hockey's Future (http://www.hockeysfuture.com/nhl_organisation_rankings/). On top of this, the Senators are most likely going to be back in the playoffs while spending a "mere" $51 million, the fifth least amount spent in the entire league.
The Senators are enjoying a renaissance season, which is about to get even better. The Senators will host the 2012 All-Star game as Scotiabank Place on January 29. Four Senators, Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, will start for the Eastern squad.