Ottawa Senators Could Be This Year's Sleeper Team

Hamilton BolducContributor IAugust 18, 2010

OTTAWA - APRIL 10:  Daniel Alfredsson #11 of the Ottawa Senators takes the ice against the Buffalo Sabres during their NHL game at Scotiabank Place on April 10, 2010 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  The Sabres defeated the Senators 5-2. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)
Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

The Ottawa Senators are looking to continue their surprising success and join the league’s elite teams.

Last season’s playoff series against Pittsburgh showed that the Senators could hang with the previous season’s champs and also highlighted their areas of need in order to take the next step toward a Stanley Cup run.

Just like every team, it begins with finding the right mix of players and putting the right coaches in place to guide them.

While the Senators lost blue-liner Anton Volchenkov, they brought in the highly regarded defensemen Sergei Gonchar. Gonchar, 36 years old, will serve as a point man on the Sens' power play and give another veteran in the locker room. While Gonchar will provide more scoring, it also opens the door to more goals allowed since they will lose Volchenkov’s defensive grit.

Gonchar will join a cast of capable veterans including Jason Spezza, Alex Kovalev, Chris Phillips, and Milan Michalek as the leaders of this club transitioning back to contender status. This transition will move along quicker with less underachieving, increased cohesion, and recovery from injuries. Both Michalek and Kovalev are coming back from major off-season knee surgery and are currently on track to be ready for training camp.

The enigmatic Alex Kovalev should be expected to play at a high level since this is a contract year and that happens to be one of the few driving forces he understands. His potential was never questioned, and his desire has never been beyond reproach. Kovalev, 37 years old, is essentially playing for his last good contract and needs a comeback campaign that resembles his 2000-01 campaign with 96 points, or 2007-08 with 84 points. 

Michalek, 25 years old, came over in last year’s Dany Heatley deal and was supposed to be an impact player. Now he looks to regain the form of a couple years ago and expect him to become a factor as he enters his physical prime.

The younger players are also ready to contribute and play more significant roles. Forwards Peter Regin and defensemen Erik Karlsson are ready to regularly contribute to a team poised to make another step forward in a competitive Eastern Conference. Both proved they were ready to stay and expect them to receive more ice time and help carry the burden when the aging veteran core needs rests during the 82 game season.

In goal, a position battle will be a major story line as Brian Elliot looks to prove last year was no aberration and reclaim the starting job over Pascal Leclaire. Elliot, 25 years old, was serving as the team’s backup goalie over stretches of the three seasons. In his first shot to start regularly, Elliot thrived and was a major factor in the Senators' surprising success last season. Unfortunately, he struggled in the playoffs, opening the door for a training camp competition sure to be the talk of the Ottawa media.

Leclaire was a major disappointment last season and needs to build on his strong performance in the final two playoff games. He also needs to play well to ensure his ability to get another multi-year contract so expect a high level of focus missing during stretches of this season.

Another potential story to follow is the Senators' potential flood of cap room going into next offseason. This space can be leveraged to help them acquire talent from teams looking to acquire expiring contracts if they are in the playoff hunt. However, if they were to start slow and be on the outside looking in, the Senators could become sellers at the deadline and then make a huge splash next offseason.

With the veterans ready to rebound and the young guns ready to take the next step, the Senators are in a good spot to make a deep run next season. A serious run that will be fueled by off-the-ice forces, contracts and new marriages (Mike Fisher), and the chemistry building on the ice. So feel good about picking this team as a sleeper for the Cup.