Many in the hockey world (including your friends at Puck Daddy) weren't expecting much from the 2011-12 Ottawa Senators. What was expected to be a rebuilding year with a new head coach turned into one of the NHL's best stories. Ottawa finished eighth in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Washington Capitals with 92 points, and came within a victory of eliminating the No. 1 seeded New York Rangers before falling in seven games.
The other highlight of the season was 22-year old defenseman Erik Karlsson's breakthrough season of 19 goals and 78 points, the most by a blueliner since Nicklas Lidstrom in 2005-06, which earned him the Norris Trophy. The day after he became the youngest Norris winner since Dennis Potvin in 1976, Karlsson signed a 7-year, $45.5 million deal.
Aside from Karlsson, the surprising Sens had many other things go right for them. Jason Spezza had his best season since 2007-08; Daniel Alfredsson was rejuvenated (and healthy) and potted 27 goals; Milan Michalek scored a career high 35 goals; and in his first full season in Ottawa, Craig Anderson provided solid goaltending.
So what to expect from the Senators in 2012-13? It all broke right last season on the backs of career best and comeback seasons from their top players, and there were no expectations on the team. Can Alfredsson continue playing like a 25-year old in a soon-to-be 40-year old's body? Is a now matured Spezza for real? Can Anderson and Ben Bishop provide adequate coverage in net?
If the answers to those questions in April are yes, then it'll be another extended season in Ottawa.
"We haven't lost anything. It's all in Coach MacLean's mustache."
Looking to help their defense, the Senators dealt forward Nick Foligno to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Marc Methot. Foligno will get a chance to be a top-6 guy with the Blue Jackets after becoming expendable with a number of up-and-comers fighting for jobs in the Sens' forward group.
Hoping to replace Foligno in the top-6 is Guillaume Latendresse, who after playing just 27 games over the past two seasons due to concussion issues signed a 1-year, $2 million deal. When healthy, he's capable of being a productive contributor, as shown by his scoring 25 goals in 55 games in 2009-10 after being traded to the Wild. It's a risk given his recent health, but on a 1-year deal, it's worth the gamble.
Zenon Konopka and Matt Carkner, two players who bring the grit, were not brought back and signed with Minnesota and the New York Islanders, respectively. Joining Carkner in the "not re-signed" category was Matt Gilroy (UFA) and Filip Kuba, who inked a 2-year, $8 million deal in Florida.
At forward … In 2010-11, the Senators finished 29th in the NHL with 2.32 goals per game. Their highest scorer was Spezza, who potted 21 goals, the only Senators who hit for more than 20. Last season it was a different story. Ottawa improved mightily, finishing fourth overall with 2.92 goals per game and featuring three players with more than 20 goals, including a pair, Michalek and Spezza reaching the 30-goal mark.
Captain Alfredsson decided to come back for another season, possibly his last, and has overcome back issues that negatively affected his game in the past. A rejuvenated Alfie is a good sign for Ottawa's postseason desires. Another veteran Senator, Spezza, is now 29-year old, married and a father of two. He's showing on the ice the form that made him successful early in his career.
While their Big 3 amounted for 96 goals and 203 points, Ottawa's contributions down the lineup were helpful. Disgruntled in Phoenix, Kyle Turris was acquired in December and flourished under head coach Paul MacLean. In 49 games, Turris put up 29 points and should be a key contributor in his first full season with the Senators. Colin Greening (17 goals) and Zack Smith (14 goals) also chipped in offensively.
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Coming up through the system and potentially able to be a factor in the lineup are 2011 No. 6 overall pick Mika Zibanejad, who after playing in Sweden last season will be in North America for 2011-12; whether it's mostly in Ottawa or Binghamton is still to be decided. Same goes for Jakob Silfverberg, the regular season and playoff MVP in Sweden's Elitserien last season, and Mark Stone, who lit up the WHL with 78 goals and 229 points the past two seasons. Each will get their opportunity to make an impact and stay with the big club.
On defense … The blueline needed to improve, which is why Methot was brought in. The 27-year old fell out of favor in Columbus and will get a fresh start with the Senators. It's unlikely Karlsson matches his 78-point season from a year ago, but another strong year offensively will be needed and expected after his new deal. Sergei Gonchar was improved from 2010-11 and along with Karlsson is the only other returning Senators defenseman who netted more than 19 points.
Overall, the defense was seventh-worst in the NHL with 2.88 goals allowed per game. Chris Phillips isn't getting any younger at 34, but with the emergence of Karlsson and a promising rookie season from Jared Cowen (17 points, 3:08 shorthanded time on-ice, 89 games played, including playoffs), there is hope that ranking will improve in 2012-13.
In goal … When Craig Anderson was given the lion's share of the load in net with Colorado in 2009-10, he regressed the following season and ended up being dealt to the Senators. Last season, Anderson started 60 games and put up strong numbers, helping Ottawa to a playoff berth, like he did for the Avalanche in 2010. Will his stats slide this season? Possibly not if Ben Bishop can live up to expectations as Anderson will be pushed by the 25-year old, who the Senators acquired from St. Louis in February.
Then there's Robin Lehner waiting in the wings. The 21-year old is 35 lbs. lighter and says he's grown up a bit. He'll get extended playing time with Binghamton during the lockout and could get a call up should Anderson or Bishop struggle.
"They said rebuild, rebuild because ya gonna come last / Teams dream they can do it this fast."
Paul MacLean studied under Mike Babcock with the Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings, earning a Stanley Cup ring in two appearances in the Final. Like Babcock has done with the Ducks and now the Red Wings, MacLean was able to get the Senators to buy into what he was selling, despite the thought around the team being in the middle of a rebuild. MacLean's success earned him a Jack Adams Award nomination in his rookie season.
After a disastrous 2010-11 campaign when the Senators finished 13th in the conference, GM Bryan Murray was on the hot seat, but owner Eugene Melnyk handed him a surprising 3-year extension. So when he was looking for a replacement for the departed Cory Clouston, he wanted a change. He wanted a communicator and that's what he found in MacLean. Murray knew exactly what he was getting when he hired MacLean thanks to a background check he did that included speaking in-depth with Babcock and so far it's paid off. With the team ahead of schedule, Murray will be hoping that last year's success wasn't a fluke and instead is the start of good things to come.
Turris showed promise last season and played himself into a fresh 5-year, $17.5 million contract. After a lengthy holdout in Phoenix that ended with him playing six games for the Coyotes before being dealt, the focus can now be on his growth in Ottawa. Just 23-years old, there's plenty of room for improvement.
Marc Methot returns to his hometown of Ottawa and was deemed expendable after the emergence of Nikita Nikitin and the drafting of Ryan Murray. He has three more years at $3 million per season still left on his contract and not known for his offensive abilities, Methot will have to stay healthy if he's to help improve the Senators' backend.
Paul Maclean's moustache is a menace. It's suspicious. Look at it, so unruly, so bushy. Has he ever been seen without it? When was the last time anyone saw his upper lip?
What's under there? What's he hiding? Chemical warfare? Weapons of mass destruction?
Has Paul Maclean ever gone on record as saying there aren't weapons of mass destruction under his moustache?
Why did Paul Maclean take the job in Ottawa? To coach the Senators? Or to get close to Parliament Hill? We will not let you endanger this nation's leaders, Paul. Not on our watch.
Paid for by the Bearded Men's Lobby.
There's enough promise up and down the Ottawa lineup to believe they can make a return trip to the postseason. If the offensive leaders in Alfredsson, Michalek and Spezza don't take big steps back and the defense improves slightly, the Senators will find their way into the Eastern Conference's top-8 again. Anderson will once again need to play at a consistent level, with Bishop (or Lehner) providing reliable spot duty. If the youngsters like Zibanejad, Silfverberg and/or Stone are able to help make an impact offensively, there won't be any questions about whether or not this team will be playoff-bound.
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