September 21, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester (see also Senators eulogy): Seventh in the Eastern Conference (43-31-8, 94 points). Wicked hangovers can sometimes end with a regrettable tattooing. Such was the case for the Ottawa Senators, who followed up their trip to the Stanley Cup finals with a contentious and underwhelming regular season, before getting curb-stomped by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference quarterfinals. They were outscored 16-4, and resembled a first-round bye dressed in RBK uniforms.
GM Bryan Murray had a decision to make after the season; a vital one for the franchise: Blow up the team and take things in a new direction, or tweak the team and hope some important subtractions can get the Senators back on the championship path.
When the free agent frenzy saw Ottawa all but stand pat, and when young guns like Peter DeBoer were passed over for an old horse like Craig Hartsburg, Murray's message was clear: There's still enough talent here to win, and win now.
Even if the goaltending pretty much blows.
Homecoming King (Top Player): After consecutive 50-goal seasons, Dany Heatley "slumped" to 41 tallies last season and 82 points. He's as potent an offensive player as you'll find in the NHL; consider that the Senators average 4.37 goals for every 60 minutes Dany Heatley plays. That's a better average than Ovechkin had with the Capitals last season.
His power-play numbers took a tumble, so it'll be interesting to see if, and how, they rebound. Also keep an eye on how Hartsburg manages his lines, as the Heatley-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson monster might be split up. (Something I wouldn't expect to last.)
If nothing else, Heatley could be the only player in the NHL who had his name spelled incorrectly on his own autobiography. Top that, Hossa.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): After Joe Corvo was traded last season and both Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros found new homes this summer, the Senators are without their top three scoring defensemen from last year.
Someone has to pick up the slack.
Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov and new Ottawa D-man Jason Smith aren't exactly Orr, Coffey and Housley out there. Barring a trade, someone's going to Pothier their way to a solid statistic season. So here are two names to watch as far as the redistribution of points: Christoph Schubert and Filip Kuba.
Schubert's ice time jumped by two minutes per game last season and should continue to rise.
Another name to watch for the Senators, at the forward position: Nick Foligno. He didn't set the world on fire offensively in 45 games last season, but if he earns a prominent role coming out of camp it could be a breakout campaign.
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Wade Redden's time in Ottawa was over. His numbers were in decline, his salary demands were too high and fans were all too eager to see him leave for the New York Rangers.
But obviously the most important subtraction of the off-season was that of goaltender Ray Emery. You don't have to read between the lines (so to speak) to understand that Emery had made some seriously detrimental lifestyle choices that affected his play in the NHL. It's hard to remember another player who squandered as much goodwill and respect as Emery earned in the Stanley Cup playoff run. His departure to the KHL was a surprise, but speaks volumes about how poisonous a distraction his plight had become.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): The Senators made three new additions by choice. Jason Smith is one of the NHL's true defensive warriors, and an asset to any blueline on which he patrols. Jarkko Ruutu comes from a winning Penguins team and adds a level of agitation and unwavering grit that was missing from last year's Ottawa club. Alex Auld comes from the Bruins' goaltending logjam to share time with Martin Gerber.
But the Senators have two new additions they probably weren't expecting to add: Kuba and defenseman Alexandre Picard, acquired from the Lightning for Meszaros once those contract talks went to hell. Murray did a good job getting a solid return from the Bolts without taking on any extra salary than he needed to. Picard, in particular, has a huge upside.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Ruutu is one of the NHL's preeminent pests; we approve of any player with his own theme song.
The Senators had 33 fights last season. Their second-leading pugilist, Brian McGrattan, has moved on. But Chris Neil, the team's leading fighter, remains poised and ready for cheap shots and the ensuing fisticuffs that follow:
Teacher of the Year: That Hartsburg was an uninspired choice is immaterial once the season begins. He's the coach management wanted, and here he is. But it doesn't change the fact that he's a selection made in order to fix the past rather than move the franchise forward. He's a disciplinary that's attempting to reeducate a team that lost its way in its post-Finals campaign. This isn't reinvention; it's "fix what's broke."
It's reminiscent of when the Devils would take Tom McVie out of mothballs to whip a lackadaisical group of underachievers into shape. In baseball, it's like when the Mets hired Dallas Green to scare the crap out of the Bobby Bonilla-era team.
Perhaps Hartsburg is the right guy to get this team on message. Or perhaps he's just an average NHL coach taking on a team with deeper issues than a barking dog in the locker room can fix.
The Custodians (Goalies): "At the end of the year, we think we'll have had great goaltending." That's Hartsburg's assessment of the Senators between the pipes, which makes one wonder if he has some precognitive ability to see what Ottawa will do at the trade deadline.
The problem with Martin Gerber and Alex Auld isn't that the Senators don't have a No. 1 goalie; it's that they have two No. 2 goalies and are hoping one of them can play well enough to be a reasonable facsimile of a No. 1 goalie.
Auld and Gerber both have exactly one postseason victory to their credit; Gerber is, of course, infamous for yielding his starting job to Cam Ward during the Carolina Hurricanes' Cup run. He's been outstanding in international competition, and competent in the regular season. But Gerber turns to mush in the postseason, and that's a problem.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov and Jason Smith give the Senators a core of defensive defenseman as good as any in the conference. Volchenkov's shot-blocking ability is the stuff of legend.
Kuba and Schubert are, at the moment, the two defensemen that could pick up some points after this summer of transition for the unit. Former first-round pick Brian Lee is in the mix, as is former Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Brendan Bell. Don't forget the ageless Luke Richardson, in camp on a tryout.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Antoine Vermette is coming off his best offensive season, but he's one of the players who will determine if Ottawa can afford to split up Heatley-Spezza-Alfredsson. (Mike Fisher is also on this list, too.) Should he falter, it could trickle down the rest of the lineup.
AV Club (Media): The Ottawa Sun is equal parts interesting reporting and NY Post-style hysterics. The Senators are blesses, however, with an active and impressive blogospshere. Check out Sens Army, Black Aces, Five for Smiting, Sens Chirp, and the wonderful Scarlett Ice. And a special shout out to the brilliant Erin Nicks at the Universal Cynic.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Excusing the mechanic concerns of the goaltending and the lack of a true offensive defenseman, what if there are just some systemic problems plaguing this team that go beyond a post-Finals hangover? Problems with motivation, with off-ice concerns. Problems with basic leadership that haven't been addressed, other than adding a stern new coach. What if this team needed to be blown up?
The Senators have some cap space to play with, but not much. The addition of another player, preferably on defense, that can add a little gravitas to the roster would be advisable.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B-
Prom Theme: "All Down the Line" by the Stones. Because the Senators have concerns on the blueline, on the goal line and down the line should this team make it back to the postseason. Speaking of which ...
Expected Graduation: Whether the Ottawa Senators make or miss the postseason depends on how you view the rest of the Eastern Conference. Montreal will likely win the division. The Boston Bruins, if healthy, could be good enough for second place. That leaves Ottawa battling the No. 2 team in the Southeast and the No. 3 or No. 4 teams from the Atlantic for the final playoff spots. I don't see the Senators amassing more points than the second-place team in the Southeast; and I don't think Ottawa is a better hockey club than anyone in the Atlantic not named the Islanders.
Hence, I believe the Senators are going to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 12 seasons. This was a team that was one Carolina victory away from missing the cut last year. I just don't believe they've addressed the problems that plagued the roster in 2007-08, and the defense is tad too retro for a league that's all about the two-way, puck-moving D-men.
Oh, and their goaltending pretty much blows. We can't stress that enough.