Ottawa Senators: Why They Can Contend For The NHL's Atlantic Division Title

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Ottawa Senators: Why They Can Contend For The NHL's Atlantic Division Title
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For the Ottawa Senators, the offseason free-agency exit of longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson is far from tantamount to other recent cases of NHL teams losing their leaders and faces to transaction.

The Senators of 2013 are not the Boston Bruins of 2000, who were in the middle of back-to-back playoff no-shows while Ray Bourque found thicker ice in Colorado. They are not the current Calgary Flames, who finally let Jarome Iginla go to a more reliable contender this past spring.

These Senators are not even the current Columbus Blue Jackets, who turned heads in 2013 by nearly making the playoffs in the wake of trading Rick Nash.

Ottawa has much more immediate promise than that.

In fact, a combination of internal structure and external circumstances points to this team emerging as one of the premier powerhouses in the newfangled Atlantic Division this season.

Yes, that division does include Alfredsson’s new allies in Detroit, which makes it easy enough to assume the Red Wings will be effortlessly elevated by his presence. And, yes, there are also the defending Eastern Conference champions from Boston, 2013 playoff entrants Montreal (last year’s Northeast Division champ) and Toronto.

Coming off a pair of impressive performances as playoff underdogs in 2012 and 2013, the Senators are an energetic bunch with plenty to build on and plenty to prove. That formula equals danger for their adversaries.

This assessment is not to belittle Alfredsson’s inspirational leadership and veteran presence. Besides continuing to lend his share of practical assets, the 40-year-old offered vital intangibles that will take some effort to replenish in his absence.

That goes for defenseman Sergei Gonchar, whom Ottawa dealt to Dallas in June, as well.

That notwithstanding, it is also crucial to have a host of rising and peaking players who inspire and feed off one another with their actions at least as much as their words. The 2013-14 Senators will have no shortage of that in a group that will look to reigning Jack Adams Award winner Paul MacLean for tutelage.

So far, in the regular season, MacLean’s tenure has consisted of an 18-point turnaround from 2010-11the final year of Cory Clouston’s reignand an injury-defying ride to seventh place in the Eastern Conference.

As its final impression in his first season, the novelty of MacLean’s presence and approach translated to a near-upset in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. The eighth-place Sens raised a 3-2 upper hand on the top-dog Rangers before New York regrouped and took back-to-back elimination games in tight 3-2 and 2-1 decisions.

Amidst a shorter-than-usual 2013 campaign, Ottawa often lacked the input of forwards Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza, reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and goaltender Craig Anderson.

Those four combined to miss 123 contests over a 48-game itinerary. Spezza sat out 43, Karlsson 31, Michalek 25 and Anderson 24.

But all that meant was asking several prospects to hasten their graduation and step up their game.

In turn, the Senators should have a more confident collection of young, energized talent this fall and winter in forwards Cory Conacher and Mike Zibanejad, defensemen Eric Gryba and Patrick Wiercioch and goaltender Robin Lehner.

The forwards will join a returning core on the strike force that also includes Kyle Turris, Michalek and new captain Spezza. Then there is flashy newcomer Bobby Ryan.

As a 26-year-old bona fide first-liner, Ryan will essentially provide a happy medium between the advanced age of Alfredsson and the greenness of Jakob Silfverberg, who was Anaheim’s compensation in the trade for him.

Ryan’s import is a microcosm of the delicate balance between youth and energy as well as veteran presence and experience that the Sens are establishing.

The burgeoning defensemen, Gryba and Wiercioch, figure to provide depth on the blue-line corps at the very least. Lehner, meanwhile, will further a desirable challenge for Anderson, whowhen not injured last seasoneasily turned in his best performance of his decade-long professional career.

The Anderson-Lehner tandem has every reason to cement its presumptive status as the stablest duo in the division.

No other Atlantic tenant possesses both a seasoned starter coming off a career year and a young backup with a bevy of promise and whose growing pains may already be out of the way. Some have one or the other, but not both.

That alone can give Ottawa a head-to-head edge against a team like Montreal, which bears its similarities in young offense (Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher) and Norris-caliber defense in P.K. Subban.

Anderson’s 1.69 goals-against average and .941 save percentage dazzled statistically, but came within a fairly small sample size of 24 games. He knows he will need to stay within top-notch boundaries over a longer slew of contests in order to win an ongoing battle for crease time with a promising prodigy whose development is ahead of schedule.

In other words, complacency projects to have a difficult time working against the likes of Anderson.

The same notion ought to apply to the heavily leaned-on Michalek, Spezza and Karlsson, who ought to be especially hungry after so much lost time.

Karlsson, in particular, figures to bring more of the explosive offensive flair and understated defensive soundness from his Norris campaign in 2011-12. As such, he will fill one critical void on the defensive corps and complement the defensively dependable veterans in Marc Methot and Chris Phillips.

Contrast that with, say, Boston and its blue-line brigade that looks great on paper but is coming off a draining playoff run and short recovery period.

Besides opening the door to Ottawa by those means, the Bruins and their 2013 playoff run also lend the Senators an intangible asset worth copying.

The aforementioned Iginla may be in Boston now, but he went to Pittsburgh prior to the last trading deadline when everyone initially believed he would be a Bruin.

Whether anyone admits it or not, it is hard to dismiss the notion that Boston’s sweep of the Penguins last spring was partially inspired by a searing incentive to ensure Iginla lost the gamble he took at its expense.

The Senators can and should employ the same self-drive in this year’s season series with Alfredsson and the Red Wings.

If they do that and capitalize on any bouts of residual fatigue among such Bruins blueliners as Zdeno Chara (another ex-Sen), then their hopes of finishing first in the division will be automatically emboldened.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics and past playoff results courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com. 

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