Every publication I’ve read so far this fall has the Ottawa Senators finishing well outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. So when I was asked to pen this season preview for our website, I was tempted to play the role of devil’s advocate and pick the Sens to make the post-season.
And then I remembered that my inbox would be flooded with messages from people living in the 416-area code who would accuse me of being a homer. The nickname Ian Sen-Des would re-appear on message boards and I would be branded for life as Spartacat’s stunt double.
Picking the Sens to qualify for the playoffs this year would be about as bold and outlandish as the time I picked the Atlanta Thrashers to win the Stanley Cup in 2007. (In my defence, had the Thrashers not been swept in the first round that year, I think they could have won it all. But I digress).
So to save myself the grief, I’m not going to predict that the Sens will make the playoffs. But instead, I will use this space to break down the three main areas of the Ottawa team heading into this season.
Spoiler alert: There are no references to Paul MacLean’s mustache in this piece.
When it comes to goaltending in Ottawa, the hockey gods are a cruel bunch.
The Senators were one of the elite teams for the better part of a decade in the Eastern Conference, but their major Achilles’ heel was always their goaltending. So now that Ottawa seems destined to finish near the bottom of the standings, it only makes sense that goaltending is the least of their worries.
It’s a bizarre paradox that can only have unfolded in the nation’s capital.
Craig Anderson has finally stabilized a revolving door of goalies that has gone something like this since the lockout: Dominik Hasek, Ray Emery, Martin Gerber, Alex Auld, Brian Elliott and Pascal Leclaire. Sprinkle in a dash of Mike Morrison and Robin Lehner and you pretty much get the picture.
But Anderson seems poised and prepared to handle a 60-game workload — something no Sens goalie has done since Patrick Lalime appeared in 67 games during the club’s Presidents’ Trophy season in 2002-03. Anderson was brilliant in posting a 11-5-1 record in his 18 starts with the club, before signing a four-year contract extension.
If the Senators are going to make a playoff push — and yes, Leafs fans, that’s a BIG IF — Anderson has to play that well over the course of 60-plus games. He was the single biggest reason why the Avalanche made the playoffs two years ago, when he played 71 games and carried a young Colorado team on his back.
Of course, even the most positive goalie story in Ottawa has to contain a shred of bad news. And in this case, it’s a blunt assessment: Anderson is probably the fourth-best goalie in his own division. That’s not a knock against the Sens netminder, so much as it’s a credit to the strength of goaltending within the Northeast. Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller have combined to win the last three Vezina trophies. And Carey Price strongly deserved mention in both the Vezina and Hart conversations last year.
Anderson will have to merit consideration for some post-season hardware if Ottawa wants to challenge for a playoff spot this season.
Only the New Jersey Devils scored fewer goals than the Ottawa Senators last season. And if you were lumped in with the Devils in any statistical category last year, it was probably bad news for your team. (The worst two categories to be close to New Jersey last season: Goals scored and attendance).
To remedy the problem, Bryan Murray took a flyer on former Blue Jackets forward Nikita Filatov. Before Sens fans start whining with the ‘Here we go with another enigmatic Russian project’ (ie: Alexei Kovalev), you should remember two things:
1. Filatov is just 21-years old and full of the youthful energy and spark that seemed to be lacking in Kovalev’s game when he played with the Senators. (Except for that one day when Kovalev scored four goals against the Flyers and then did the moonwalk … because that was pretty awesome.)
2. Unlike Kovalev, Filatov has yet to accuse the Ottawa media of smuggling beer across international borders.
Filatov is a slick forward who is going to get a chance to play alongside Jason Spezza to start the season. If Filatov can score 25 goals this season, consider this reclamation project a success. After all, the club only had one 20-goal scorer last season and it was Spezza, who only played in 62 games.
Mika Zibanejad is another young forward who could have an impact this season for the Senators. The 18-year old will start the season centering a line with Daniel Alfredsson, which could inject the Sens captain with some youth. Expecting a teenager to produce 60 points is a tall order, but Zibanejad could be some sort of weird Jimmy Carson/Jeff Skinner hybrid who is ready for prime time. (I have waited years to make a Jimmy Carson reference in this space. I hope this was a good spot for it).
Bottom line: Spezza is still a world-class player, but he will need a lot of help up front if he wants to get back to the 90-point plateau.
The Senators defence can easily be divided into two groups: Those who were alive when the Berlin Wall came down and those who were not.
There are three talented young defencemen in Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen and David Rundblad. Meantime, Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips and Filip Kuba are three veteran defencemen who are trying to bounce back from difficult seasons.
How the Sens fare this season could rely heavily on how this eclectic mix of blueliners plays together. Cowen was probably the best defenceman in training camp and appears to have all the makings of a nasty, shutdown defenceman. Rundblad’s camp was not as strong but the Senators have big plans for the young, puck-moving Swede. He may be shuttled back to the AHL a bit this season, but expect Rundblad to be a full-time NHLer by the new year.
The club cannot afford to have another 27-point season from Gonchar, who had been one of this generation’s best point-producing defenceman until last season. The Senators have the ability to move the puck on the backend with Gonchar, Karlsson and Rundblad. If each plays to their potential, the Senators’ transition game could be vastly improved from a year ago.
Brian Lee and Matt Carkner will also figure into the mix on the backend this season. Carkner will be sidelined until November with a knee injury, but Lee may have a chance to seize one of the starting six spots early in the season. He had a solid training camp and could get a new lease on life under head coach Paul MacLean.
The Senators are going with a youth movement and that usually means growing pains are part of the equation. Look for the Sens to finish somewhere in the same neighborhood as they did last year — maybe 12th or 13th in the conference. But unlike a year ago, the expectations have been drastically lowered in Ottawa so missing the playoffs won’t be viewed as a disappointment by the fan base. The fans in Ottawa don’t mind a young, upstart club that finishes 13th in the Eastern Conference … just as long as Toronto finishes 14th.