Like the rest of the Northeast, the Ottawa Senators come into the season with a question that, if it gets answered, gives them the best shot at second place.
While he Montreal Canadiens need to find a sustainable level of consistency, the Buffalo Sabres need to find that top-pairing puck-mover, and the Boston Bruins are simply hoping to make a seamless transition to a Kessel-less era, the Sens have the most interesting question ever.
What was this guy prepared to do if Dany Heatley didn't eventually waive his no trade clause?
2008/09 Record: 36-35-11, 83 points, 11th in East
Additions: Jonathan Cheechoo—F (Trade w/San Jose), Milan Michalek—F (Trade w/San Jose), Alex Kovalev—F (2 years/$10 mil)
Subtractions: Mike Comrie—F (FA), Dany Heatley—F (Trade w/San Jose), Alex Auld—G (FA), Brendan Bell—D (FA), Brad Isbister—F (FA), Danny Bois—F (FA)
While many think that the Ottawa Senators didn’t get enough in the Dany Heatley deal, they may have actually gotten just enough.
Yes it would've been nice to see them get a little more, but the package is a fairly good one, given the corner Bryan Murray was forced to work himself out of.
For a disgruntled 50 goal scorer who wasn’t going to be convinced to give 100 percent, the Sens were finally able to solve their secondary scoring issues—at least on paper—with two good forwards.
Then again, the San Jose Sharks look pretty good on paper. Maybe we should check back in with Mr. Heatley come May.
And for desert, a chocolate Leclaire…
Over the past few seasons, the Senators' crease has resembled more of a revolving door than anything.
Last year, Brian Elliot (31), Alex Auld (43) and Martin Gerber(14) split time for the Sens. The previous two years it was Gerber (57 and 28) and Ray Emery(31 and 59), while in 2005/06 Dominik Hasek (43) and Emery (39) split time.
Really, the Ottawa Senators haven't had a real starting goalie carry the load since Patrick Lalime shouldered the load into 2002/03—the year before Martin Prusek truly threatened to take his role.
Oh Martin Prusek...those were the days.
Contingent on whether or not he can stay healthy, the Sens may have finally found their man in Pascal Leclaire.
The biggest detraction about Leclaire, as everyone knows, is his injury problems. There have been three instances in his career where Leclaire has missed double-digit games with injury. All three have been more than 20 games, while last year's missed games total broached 50 (48 games).
When he's healthy however, Leclaire has top-level talent. In 2007/08, the then-Blue Jacket went 24-17-6 with nine shutouts, while posting a 2.25 goals-against average and a .919 on a 12th place team that went 34-36-12.
Although Mason played more games (61 to 54 in his favor) Leclaire's tangible statistics were better than Mason's last year, while Mason had the advantage in wins and winning percentage. These are things I think you should know.
The question that needs answering for Ottawa, is whether or not Leclaire is fully healed from the plethora of problems that have dogged him the past few years.
If he is, this team can jump up the standings. If not, it's once again up to Brian Elliot.
While Elliot played admirably in Ottawa last year going 16-8-3 for the Sens, the jury is still out on his long-term potential. His athleticism, poise, and confidence kept the Senators in a lot of games early on last year, but he's going to have to replicate that this season to prove that he can handle a bit of increased time.
In the instance of injury (and let's face it...it's a very real possibility) the Senators are fairly thin. Andy Chiodo hasn't played NHL hockey since 2003 (eight games with Pittsburgh) and was seen backpacking through Europe post-lockout, while Mike Brodeur still has yet to see NHL ice, leaving the Sens hopeful that Leclaire stays healthy.
You can’t keep Karlsson and Kuba under wraps for long…
Before we get to any returning players, the Sens may have one of the best (if not the best) up and coming rookie defender in the league.
The most talked-about Swedish defender not named Victor Hedman (At least who isn't currently playing in the NHL) has to be Erik Karlsson. The first round pick in 2008 carries the puck with poise and his feet always seem to know where to go. He has one of the easiest skating strides most have ever seen, and carrying the puck out of his own end he looks like Toronto's Tomas Kaberle.
Karlsson's passing ability and offensive instincts will immediately make the Sens defense better (as well as shoot him up the depth chart), as aside from mid-season acquisition Chris Campoli, no defenseman other than Filip Kuba registered more than 22 points last year.
Speaking of Campoli, he produced a nice bounce-back season after seeing his 2007/08 campaign cut short by shoulder surgery.
If Campoli receives the offensive responsibilities that he did late last season with the Sens rather than his time with the Islanders (13 points in 25 games with the Sens, 17 points in 51 games with the Islanders), a second-straight 30-point campaign is more than attainable.
Along with Kuba, the Sens have three good offensive defensemen: One with moderate upside (Campoli); one whose most-likely a future superstar (Karlsson); and one who can move the puck well (84 assists over the past three seasons) and shoot it (Kuba has a shown that can quarterback a powerplay if the Sens choose to use him that way), but is still a little soft in his own end.
If a little more offense is required, the Sens could look towards Brian Lee. The rookie defender made his much-anticipated NHL debut last season and proved that he could stick, netting 13 points in 53 games and playing fairly well.
Obviously Lee has a long ways to go in terms of development, but the fact he was able to keep up with the NHL game last year while owning a projectable offensive game could make him an attractive low-to-mid pairing defender as he acclimatizes to the NHL.
From there it comes down to the team's two shutdown defenders: Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips. While many don't give Phillips his due, last year seemed to be (at least statistically) a down year. His -14 rating was astronomically low after a string of seasons of very high +/-'s.
Even under the argument that he was playing on some offensively inclined Ottawa teams, Phillips has been a strong defender before there was the volatile offense. Phillips is also one of the more consistent Sens, having missed just 14 games in the past five seasons.
Volchenkov meanwhile has the ability and size to be a great defender, he’s just periodically set back by minor, yet nagging injuries. Ideally the Sens would like to have him around for 75-78 games because of his ability to steer the play in his own end and clear out the front of the net, which is going to be a big asset to Leclaire.
The best thing about Volchenkov, is that he's fearless in the physical game. He'll not only lay the body, but he'll block a ton of shots as well, making him a confident deployment for Clouston and Co.
From there, Alexandre Picard will help to fill in on the lower pairings while providing a little offense as well from the back end, giving the Sens some consistent depth.
Alfie the Clown? Kovie the Clutz? Spezza the…spaz?
Alright…sometimes alliteration goes a little far. Jason Spezza isn’t a spaz. It's simply hard to find other words with the letters 's','p', and 'z' in them. Either that or I'm lazy and didn't try hard enough, but you don't know that.
Spezza suffered through a down-year like most of the Senators last year, falling from the 90-point plateau to 70. A player who’s always displayed prominence passing and shooting, Spezza’s goal-scoring never left him last year, it just seemed like his passes (Assists went from 58 to 41) weren’t finding players to put them in the back of the net anymore.
When you look at Daniel Alfredsson, a big reason for Spezza’s drop in production could be the fact that Alfie was one of those who was missing the back of the net.
While there was bit of a disparity in his shot totals between last year and two years ago, it’s not nearly large enough to account for a 16 goal difference, meaning the totals may simply be a result of an “off-year”, although some may even question if it has something to do with his age.
Expect both Alfredsson and Spezza to bounce-back however, as the Senators finally got something they haven’t had for years.
Through the Heatley trade, the Sens were able to acquire Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo. Michalek is the biggest draw in this deal, as he can (and already has been in preseason) bumped up to the first line—a role he was shrouded from by Joe Thornton in San Jose.
Michalek has proven to have all of the tools to score as a second-line center, and if he’s given the opportunity to play with top line talent like Spezza or Alex Kovalev, he could net at least 75 points.
Speaking of Kovalev, if paired with Cheechoo, he may be what helps him get back to some kind of level of productivity. After one of the fastest falls from a 50-goal season, a change of scenery along with the attention that someone of Kovalev’s talents requires on the ice may be just what he needs to open up the ice and the goal vault he’s seemingly fallen into.
That doesn't even take into account Kovalev's play-making ability.
With the way Nick Foligno has performed lately, the former Sudbury Wolf may be in line to rake in some OHL-like numbers. Although his 70 and 80-point seasons may be out of reach, Foligno could reach the 20-goal mark this year while settling into the 50-point neighborhood.
With the improvements on the top two lines, Mike Fisher may be able to sneak back onto the 40-point map as well, as the balanced scorer has been victimized in recent years by such a concentrated top-line attack in Ottawa.
The re-signing of Chris Neil ensured Sens fans that they’ll be keeping a bit of sandpaper around, along with the likes of Jarkko Ruutu and Chris Kelly. While the three of them won’t light the world on fire offensively, at least 20 points from each of them and an agitating presence is enough for the Sens.
As a prominent AHL scorer, Ryan Shannon’s abilities will find a home in the NHL this season, but he’s going to have to earn consistent ice time for the offense to settle in too. 20 points in 35 games last year is a great way to start, and if some of the younger talent can crack the Sens’ roster and produce a little with him, there could be chemistry.
When you talk about those potential players, Josh Henessy, Cody Bass, and Zach Smith seem to be at the forefront of those lists, while Jesse Winchester (once he returns from injury) will get some time as well.
While Bass is a scrappy winger that’ll endear himself to Ottawa fans and Hennessey has scored goals at every level, Zach Smith may be the prospect the sticks. Battling for time with playmaking Peter Regin, Smith’s big bad style is something that Ottawa has lacked from their top line players, and Smith has the potential to be one of those.
Of course you also can't forget flex option Christoph Schubert, who can line up at both forward and defense. Where it is up front or in behind, Schubert brings great defensive instincts to this team that will be needed for support.
Although Schubert's offensive plateau may fall within the 25-30 point range, so long as he can help out all over the ice in keeping the puck away frm the net, the Sens have other places to get the offense.
So what does it all mean…
The question for Ottawa (as we’ve been dealing with each Northeast’s team questions) is: If Pascal Leclaire is healthy, do they get the 2007/08 Leclaire?
If Leclaire is on top of his game, then the Sens have a great starting goalie that they can build around.
If not, then that’s where the holes start, while lacking a true number one defenseman (at least until Karlsson fully grows into that role) will hurt as well.
Don’t underestimate the scoring however: They're going to score more than the 213 goals they netted last year.
In Ottawa, the firepower is still there—or at least coming back. Now the goaltending just needs to follow suit, which will give Ottawa their shot at second place.
5th in North East
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also be sure to check out his previous work in his archives.