After the debacle that was the 2007-08 season it is easy to quickly dismiss this years edition of the Ottawa Senators—if you weren't paying attention.
And it seems many people weren't.
If you weren't really paying attention you might have just noticed that the Sens backed into the playoffs, losing their last game and finishing in seventh place in the East.
What you perhaps missed was that the team, on the strength of a core of players that is still in place today, ripped up the league for the first 20 games until Ray Emery came back and started whining. It was internal struggles, not a lack of talent, that brought this team down.
If you weren't really paying attention you might have simply noted that the Sens got swept by the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
What you missed is that the team was without its captain and emotional leader Daniel Alfredsson for most of the series (although he did make a heroic comeback in game four) and was also missing the likes of Mike Fisher, the team's number two center and on ice workhorse, and Chris Kelly, one of the team's best checkers and penalty kill specialist.
If you weren't really paying attention, you might have noticed that the Senators lost one of their best defencemen over the summer in Wade Redden.
What you missed is that Redden had been the Sens top defenceman in salary only, as his play had steadily declined since 2006 when Zdeno Chara left. Redden twice used his no-trade clause to squash potential deals as Brian Murray was trying to ship the overrated defenceman out of town. There is a reason why the Sens didn't re-sign him (they had the money) and a reason they offered him a low-ball $4 million contract. Rangers fans are already finding out why.
If you weren't really paying attention you might suggest that Ottawa is a one line team that can easily be shut down.
What you missed is that the “one line” you downplay has been the highest scoring trio over the past three seasons. The team's problem has been defence, the offence will be just fine.
If you weren't really paying attention you might have noticed that Ottawa's blue line lost a lot of players over the summer—Redden, Meszaros and Commodore.
What you missed is that the Sens upgraded their blue line in the area that was needed, defensive ability, by adding the likes of Jason Smith, Filip Kuba and Alexandre Picard.
You may also have forgotten that the Sens still have one of the best shut down pairings in the league in Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, and now boast three of the top 15 shot blocking defencemen in the NHL—Volchenov, Smith and Kuba.
The 2008-09 Ottawa Senators are may not be as offensively dynamic as last year's team, but they will still score plenty enough to win. The key is the upgraded defence with a focus on physical play, defensive responsibility and good positioning.
Heatley - Spezza - Alfredsson
Vermette - Fisher - Winchester
Foligno - Kelly - Neil
Ruutu - Bass - Schubert
Extras: McAmmond, Donovan
As mentioned, the oft-dismissed “one line” is not just any line, it is the number one scoring line over the past three seasons.
It is often suggested that if you can just shut down that line you're going to be OK. True, but that is the case with virtually every team in the NHL, shut down their top players and they are likely not going to win.
However, considering that despite this very obvious opponent game plan of shutting down Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson, they still were the top scoring line in the NHL last season, so what does that say about how easy such a task is?
Look for Spezza and Heatley to both have big seasons as they have both come to camp looking for more responsibility (killing penalties, etc.) and want to play more of a leadership role. Dany Heatley was just named assistant captain by coach Crag Hartsburg, filling the vacancy left by Redden.
As for the remainder of the forwards on this “one line team” there are multiple 20-25 goal threats such as Vermette, Fisher and Kelly. Vermette in particular has the skills to put up 30 goals, and with the extra time he will see this season on the second line, that number should be in reach.
Another interesting stat for the doubters, the Ottawa Senators had the second highest scoring top six forwards in the NHL last season, behind only Detroit—so much for no secondary scoring.
This is a point that really bugs me—secondary scoring. With the exception of a very elite group of teams such as Pittsburgh and Detroit, very few NHL teams have this elusive “secondary scoring” unless they are putting first line players on their second line (as Ottawa has experimented with in Alfredsson).
As for role players, Ottawa has them in abundance, and they have become far more difficult to pay against.
Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Neil, Cody Bass and Christoph Schubert are some of the hardest hitting, most annoying players in the league. The Sens lost their resident tough guy in McGrattan, but he could barely skate anyway and was usually a healthy scratch. The tough guys Ottawa has now can all drop the mitts if necessary but can also skate, forecheck and pot the occasional goal. Neil has already shown that he is poised to come back strong from a 2007-08 campaign that was one of his worst.
The Sens also have some wily veterans up front in Deam McAmmond and Shean Donovan, both of whom can play an aggressive style and provide some on-ice leadership.
And there are a couple of young guns who are poised for breakout seasons in Nick Foligno and Jesse Winchester. Foligno in particular has looked great in preseason, scored a highlight reel goal on Montreal last week and could also join the 20 goal club with some increased ice time.
Phillips - Volchenkov
Kuba - Smith
Picard – Lee
The Sens defence has changed dramatically, trading some puck-moving ability and offence for physical play and defensive responsibility—which is exactly what they needed.
The Sens problem in 2007-08 was defence, not just from the blue line but from the whole team. Ottawa has the worst goals against average of any team that made last year's playoffs, this will change in 2008-09.
Gone are more recognizable names such as Redden and Meszaros, in are steadier, more defensively sound additions such as Jason Smith and Filip Kuba.
The coup-de-grace by general manager Brian Murray over the summer was the trade of Meszaros, a kid who had a great rookie season (playing with Chara) and has gone downhill ever since. From Tampa, Murray was able to get promising young defenceman Alexandre Picard, veteran Filip Kuba and a first round pick—and absolute steal.
Kuba produced only slightly less points than Meszaros last season and on a much worse Tampa team. Picard provides a young physical presence, something the Sens desperately need, and the first rounf pick is just gravy.
Of course the Sens still have what has to be considered one of the top five shutdown defensive pairings in the NHL—Phillips and Volchenkov. With the addition of Smith, Picard and Kuba, the emergence of Brian Lee—a Wade Redden before he started to suck clone – and the veteran presence of the surprisingly durable Luke Richardson, the Sens defence has been given the exact tune-up it required.
The Sens will lose some offensive capability on the back end, but gain the positives outweigh the negatives as team that had to get better defensively, did.
No one is going to sugarcoat it, Martin Gerber has not been great, but there is reason for optimism between the pipes in Ottawa.
Martin Gerber seems to have a problem with confidence, whenever he was pushed for the number one job by Ray Emery he fell apart. Perhaps he felt that by signing his three-year deal with John Muckler in 2006 he was assured the starting job. Of course we all know what happened, Ray Emery stole the starting job in 2006-07, leading the Sens to the Stanley Cup Finals, got injured (his wrist as well as his swelled head), was lazy in his rehab, lost his job to Gerber, started to pout and eventually brought the entire dressing room down with infighting and negativity.
Emery is gone, eating borscht somewhere in Siberia.
This season Gerber has a few things going in his favour, he is the clear cut number one, was no malcontent behind him, has a strong defensive core in front of him and has a coach that is implementing a system of team defence.
Gerber does have the ability to steal a game now and them, but overall he is a good goaltender (not great) that give his team enough support to let the offence do the rest.
Alex Auld is probably as good of a back-up as you could want, he's confident enough to take on the job if needed, but modest enough to know his role and be a good team guy. What a refreshing thought.
Craig Hartsburg has come into Ottawa stressing one very important theme, accountability, something that was lost on this team in 2007-08.
The lack of accountability last season came straight from the top as coach John Paddock allowed negatively to fester in the dressing room for too long without addressing it.
When Ray Emery was thrown out of practice for being late it was not the first time, just the first time anyone had done anything about it.
Players who show up on time and work hard had to be looking at Emery and wondering “why does he get away with that?” That was the beginning of the end for the 2007-08 Senators, and is a mistake that won't be repeated.
Don't work hard? You won't play.
Don't want to be here? Goodbye, you're traded.
Don't want to backcheck? You can sit on the bench.
That is the difference that Crag Hartsburg will bring to the Ottawa Senators, and the reason why the problems of last season are long gone.
2007-08 was a gong show in Ottawa, an absolute disaster of epic proportions, but all is forgiven, there is a clean slate.
The negativity, lack of accountability and excessive partying that brought down this team last season was exorcized with the departures of Emery, McGrattan, Redden and Meszaros. This year the Sens will be all business.
Heatley has an 'A', Spezza is asking to kill penalties and Alfredsson will soon sign a contract to remain a Senator for life – these guys are serious and are looking to redeem themselves.
This is a pivotal year for guys like Spezza and Heatley, they both just signed seven year deals to stay in Ottawa, this is their home (Spezza literally just bought a $6 million home in downtown Ottawa) and they want to prove themselves worthy of the admiration and money they get.
There are some holes in the line-up, an additional second line scoring threat and a puck-moving defenceman will both be trade deadline targets (along with the rest of the league) and the Sens still have about $3 million in cap space to make those moves.
The bottom line is that last year's failure was not due to a lack of skill but due to a lack of accountability, something that has been addressed. And that skill, the same skill that ripped through the NHL, going 15-3 at the beginning of last season is still here, and they are a bit pissed off.
The Senators should challenge the Canadiens for first in the Northeast, and will be right up there with the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers and Capitals at the top of the conference.
Second in the Northeast, Fifth in the Conference.
I don't do playoff predictions at the beginning of the season, I don't see how anyone can.