The Ottawa Senators have clearly been rejuvenated since interim coach Cory Clouston replaced Craig Hartsburg behind the bench. Following last night's 3-2 victory over the first-place Boston Bruins, the Senators improved to 19-10-3 under Clouston. The win was a franchise-record ninth consecutive home victory.
Today, team owner Eugene Melnyk rewarded Clouston with a two-year contract, signing him through the 2010-2011 season. Melynk made it clear that he expects results from his Senators squad next season.
"The expectations are high and I have every belief he's going to deliver," he said at the news conference announcing Clouston's contract.
The issues to be explored prior to next season are twofold: just how high the expectations should be, and what changes need to be implemented in order to meet these expectations.
If we extrapolate the team's results under Clouston over a complete 82-game season, the Senators would end up with 105 points, a total that would place them among the top four teams in the NHL's Eastern Conference.
While only a year or two ago such a finish would have seemed not only reasonable, but expected, Ottawa fans would be wise to temper these expectations somewhat.
Ottawa has struggled since the beginning of this season. Accordingly, many of the teams have looked at Ottawa as one of the Eastern Conference's weaklings. As a result, Ottawa has frequently faced the opponents' second-string goaltender. Such was the case last night, when Boston rested Vezina Trophy candidate Tim Thomas and played backup Manny Fernandez in net.
Similarly, a number of Ottawa's recent games have been against teams that had perhaps taken their foot off the throttle after securing playoff positions.
One question that remains unanswered is the squad's intestinal fortitude. The team seemed to crumble under the weight of high expectations right from the start of the season. Hartsburg's plodding, defense-first philosophy simply didn't work with this particular group of players, but the team rebounded when the expectations were low and Clouston's high-energy attacking style was employed.
A successful run of nine victories in 10 games had fans, players, and some media speculating about playoff chances again. However, these increased expectations seemed to overwhelm the team's fragile psyche, and they responded with four losses in their next five games.
That string of futility ended any hopes of a playoff position, and the Senators have now run off another three consecutive victories.
The question will linger over the coming offseason: Can this group of players win when the expectations are high and the pressure is on?
Certainly there will be some offseason personnel changes coming, but fans cannot expect next season's team to look radically different from the current group.
Murray looks like he may have finally solved the team's goaltending woes, acquiring Pascal Leclaire from the Columbus Blue Jackets for underperforming forward Antoine Vermette at the trading deadline.
Other late-season acquisitions also look promising. Defenseman Chris Campoli looks to be the offensive blueliner the team has been missing. Speedy forward Ryan Shannon has played well since being called up, and Clouston's approach has rejuvenated Mike Fisher, Nick Foligno, and Jesse Winchester.
Clearly, the team has exhibited more secondary scoring under Clouston's direction. Ottawa's more aggressive style seems to also have benefited defensive stalwarts Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips.
Much of Ottawa's success, however, will be dictated by their "big three": Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson. Alfredsson has been their best player all year, and he brings an admirable intensity and effort level every game.
Spezza and Heatley, however, continue to be maddeningly inconsistent. A perennial 50-goal scorer, Heatley is pressing in his last few games to crack the 40-goal mark. Spezza is a gifted playmaker but a largely one-dimensional player prone to outrageous giveaways and defensive lapses.
These two players represent more than a quarter of the team's salary cap space next season, and it is unclear whether Ottawa can get the kind of leadership and scoring that their salaries command.
Equally unclear is whether Ottawa can move Spezza's hefty salary. Spezza has a no-trade clause that kicks in this summer, so Murray could move him if he can find a willing dance partner. The odds are he won't.
Ottawa has only two unrestricted free agents in Mike Comrie and Chris Neil. It is unlikely that either will be back, for financial reasons. Murray would like to have both back, but Neil will likely command money in the $2.5 million range, which is too rich for Ottawa's blood. Cody Bass will be available to fill that role for less than a quarter the price.
Comrie is currently earning $4 million, and I doubt Ottawa will offer much more than half that. Comrie likes the city, but there's a limit to how low a salary he will accept. He'll clearly test the free agency market.
The most promising rookie on the horizon is puck-moving defenseman Erik Karlsson, who played with Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League this year. Karlsson is listed at 162 pounds, so the team would like him to bulk up this summer.
Murray does not have a lot of flexibility to sign big-ticket free agents this offseason. The current salary cap commitments give him around $8-10 million in cap space. Some of that is slated for signing restricted free agents Brendan Bell, Mattias Karlsson, Shannon, and Brian Elliott.
Murray would love to sign a stud defenseman to anchor the blueline. Florida's Jay Bouwmeester is probably at the top of his wish list, but Ottawa may not be able to afford him without freeing up cap space.
It promises to be an interesting summer in Ottawa, where the Senators are almost always a topic of interest any time of year. Ottawa has made moves in the right direction by acquiring Leclaire and inking Clouston to a contract, but unless other moves are made, expect that Ottawa will be fighting for a playoff spot at this time next year.