Following two seasons where the rebuilding Ottawa Senators exceeded expectations by reaching the playoffs, their sputtering start (4-6-2) certainly isn't what the team or its fans anticipated this season.
Their character and depth in promising talent helped them overcome injuries last season to stars like center Jason Spezza, defenseman Erik Karlsson and goaltender Craig Anderson.
Head coach Paul MacLean's ability to get so much out of his young, injury-ravaged team last season earned him the Adams Trophy as coach of the year.
Their regular season performance - coupled with their first-round playoff upset of the Montreal Canadiens - prompted some observers to predict bigger things for the Senators in 2013-14.
Puck Daddy's Sean Leahy included the Senators on his list of top ten Stanley Cup contenders, while SI.com's Allan Muir ranked them (along with St. Louis and Washington) among three potential Cup contenders on the rise. The Sports Forecaster went all in, predicting the Senators would win the Cup next spring.
With Spezza, Karlsson and Anderson healthy and a roster filled with promising, well-coached talent, the Senators seemed poised to take a big step this season toward Stanley Cup contention.
So why are they off to a poor start?
One reason is their usually solid goaltending tandem of Anderson and Robin Lehner has struggled early, sitting 23rd overall in goals-against per game.
Over the past two years the Senators ranked among the league leaders in shots-against per game. They were 29th in 2011-12 (32.0) and 22nd overall last season. Only a dozen games into the season, the Senators are 30th in shots-against per game (37.0).
Strong goaltending used to offset those high shot-against numbers, but with Anderson and Lehner struggling early, it's becoming a serious problem.
Last summer's departure via free agency of former captain Daniel Alfredsson left a leadership void they're still struggling to address.
Alfredsson was popular, more experienced and considerably older than most of his young teammates, some of whom were small children when he made his NHL debut in 1995-96. Every player respected “Alfie” and looked to him for guidance and leadership over the past two seasons.
His departure was a shock, leaving his former teammates struggling to adjust. They were undisciplined defensively throughout October, giving up the first goal in nine of their 12 games to date and blowing two-goal leads in their final three games of the month.
With experienced leadership, those issues would have been addressed sooner.
New captain Jason Spezza is doing his best, calling a players-only meeting before their 6-5 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, but it could take a little more time until he's fully comfortable in the role.
Another factor is Erik Karlsson has struggled to play up to lofty expectations following his Norris Trophy win in 2012.
Karlsson missed most of last season to a sliced Achilles tendon. He returned to the lineup in time for the playoffs, but it was obvious he rushed back before he had fully recovered.
While he entered this season with a clean bill of health, Karlsson is struggling to regain his consistency. While posting solid offensive numbers (11 points in twelve games), he's been prone to costly defensive lapses.
Karlsson also recently blamed the media for pumping up expectations, claiming they were making him out to be “some kind of (expletive) god or something”.
The Senators also appear guilty of buying into the off-season hype, developing poor on-ice work habits and getting away from the style which worked so well the past two years.
Earlier in the month MacLean told the Ottawa Sun the club was still searching for an identity, acknowledging part of the problem was players expecting the healthier stars to shoulder the load this season.
Fan and media expectations have undoubtedly cast their early-season struggles under a harsher-than-usual light.
Fortunately for the Senators, there's a long way to go until the regular season ends next April, giving them plenty of time to overcome their stumbling start.
Over the past two seasons the Senators learned to handle adversity, but they must now learn to play under a much brighter spotlight.
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