(To be published in the upcoming SportsGrumblings.com free preseason fantasy guide. My assignment was the Northeast division...)
2006-07 record: 48-25-9, 105 points. Second in division/fourth in conference. Lost in Stanley Cup Finals to Anaheim Ducks.
Coach: John Paddock
General Manager: Bryan Murray
Home arena: Scotiabank Place
The often-underachieving Senators finally broke out of their playoff funk last season and became Eastern Conference champions, reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in their modern existence. For a change they played the underdog role all year; three months into the season it looked as if the Senators would be in a dogfight all season to simply make the playoffs. However, a powerful second-half put the rest of the division on notice that the Senators were every bit the powerhouse they had imagined themselves over the better part of the last decade, and hit their stride in the playoffs – steamrolling the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, and Buffalo Sabres in five games each before falling to the Anaheim Ducks in the finals. Yet the disappointment of flaming out in the final round shouldn’t be the final epitaph for Ottawa in 2007 – with the vast majority of the team’s talented core returning, the capital region has high hopes that perhaps this season will be the one where they bring home the title.
Last season’s changes (losing Zdeno Chara, Dominik Hasek, and Martin Havlat) looked to be backbreaking but clearly after an adjustment period the team rolled, playing five months of stellar hockey. The Senators didn’t suffer as many big changes during this off-season; forwards Mike Comrie and Peter Schaefer as well as defenceman Tom Preissing being the only standouts who will not return to the conference champions. As it stands, the Senators are poised to defend their crown and take it one step further this season.
|Dany Heatley||Jason Spezza||Daniel Alfredsson|
|Chris Kelly||Mike Fisher||Patrick Eaves|
|Shean Donovan (RW)||Dean McAmmond||Chris Neil|
|Antoine Vermette||Brian McGrattan|
rookies/callups: C-Josh Hennessy, LW-Jim McKenzie.
Once again this season, Ottawa shouldn’t have to worry about offence. Their output (averaging 3.5 goals per game last year, second in the league) should remain constant, as their core talent remains young and even perhaps improving. No team boasts an elite three combination like Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson. While they were split up on occasion last year to try to spread the offence around, it was clear that together they formed a devastating combo, one that perhaps only lacks a quality nickname to earn historical distinction. Each of the three finished comfortably within the top 20 in league scoring, with Heatley being only one of two (Vincent Lecavalier) to notch at least 50 goals.
While the dropoff in talent after the big three is obviously great, the Senators do boast offensive threats after the first line. Mike Fisher has become one of the better two-way centers in the league; known for his speed and tight checking, Fisher’s second straight 22-goal campaign places him as a solid threat in every zone. Youngsters Patrick Eaves and Chris Kelly each made strides last year, contributing 29 goals between them – with the departure of late-season acquisition Mike Comrie (New York Islanders), look for Eaves and Kelly to increase their ice-time and be relied upon for solid depth scoring. Antoine Vermette is another young speedster on the rise – his 14 even-strength goals last season were fourth-best on the team. With more power-play time this year, Vermette could and should crack the 50 point barrier. Chris Neil is known more for his mouth and fists, but the truth is that Neil is a talented player when he controls himself; as the main policeman on the team (perhaps slowly ceding that role to Brian McGrattan) he can be good for roughly 15 goals while opponents look over their shoulders and watch their chins.
|Chris Phillips||Wade Redden|
|Joe Corvo||Anton Volchenkov|
|Christoph Schubert||Andrej Meszaros|
For an elite team, Ottawa’s defencive corps are underrated as a whole. Their top two defenders - Wade Redden and Chris Phillips - are well-known (being drafted 2nd and 1st overall in 1995 and 1996 respectively), but their supporting cast stepped out of the ominous shadow of the departed Zdeno Chara last season and helped the team keep to a tidy 2.6 goals allowed per game, outstanding for such an offensive powerhouse. While no individual was a big scorer (the departed Tom Preissing (Florida Panthers) led the defence with 38 points), the contributions were spread out on the scoresheet, with each of the top six getting at least 25 points. Four defensemen sported a +/- of +30 or more (Preissing +40, Anton Volchenkov +37, Phillips +36, Christoph Shubert +30), which if anything shows more of a team-wide commitment to quality defence. The playoffs were where the group really shined, especially in the conference finals against Buffalo, keeping the Sabres horribly frustrated on the power play throughout the five games.
One year ago Ray Emery was the easy scapegoat for Ottawa’s shocking flameout in the second round at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres. While he was hardly the only Senator to play poorly, the sight of him on the ice as Jason Pominville scored the series winner was seared into the minds of Senators’ fans all summer. So when Ottawa signed Martin Gerber to challenge Emery for the top position last season, most figured the job was Gerber’s to lose. Which is exactly what he did – after a poor start to the season, injuries shelved him and Ray Emery came in and absolutely took over, leading the Senators the rest of the way and leaving no doubt as to who the new number one goalie was, and is. Emery was just signed to a three-year deal and will remain their netminder for the foreseeable future. Yet for all the progress Emery has made, his flaws are apparent: he relies too much on his athletic ability to make saves, as his positioning is well below-average for an NHL goaltender. He also has a maddening tendency to leave glaring rebounds, and as a result – even though the team is now “set” in goal – and perhaps due to the overall strength of the club - Emery remains the team’s one question mark.
While the on-ice changes have been minimal this off-season, the firing of General Manager John Muckler was seen as a bit of a surprise. Coach Bryan Murray was bumped up to the GM spot and John Paddock takes over the reigns, hoping to lead the club to three more postseason victories. Can they do it? It’s easy to make the case for the Senators being a top team once again – they will feel the pressure from a young(er) Buffalo club, but the relative weakness of the rest of the division and the likely adjustment period for the Sabres should mean Ottawa will once again reign supreme in the Northeast division. This might be their last opportunity with this core of players, as a number of their big names are in line for free agency next summer, most notably Wade Redden and Dany Heatley, who will likely break the bank with whichever team he signs with. Undoubtedly there will be a sense of urgency to win it all this year, and as this year’s team bears a strong similarity to last year’s, look for Ottawa to once again be in the mix for the elusive Stanley Cup.