When the Ottawa Senators failed to make the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, it officially closed the window of opportunity for a franchise that was built through the draft and held up by many in the hockey world as a model for others to emulate.
Cory Clouston prepares for his first full season behind the bench.
The Senators' streak of 11 straight playoff appearances ended. Only the Detroit Red Wings have a longer current streak – 18 consecutive playoff appearances – and New Jersey broke a tie with Ottawa by qualifying for the 12th straight time last spring.
The elevator reached the top when Ottawa arrived at the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007, and headed back down shortly after losing to Anaheim in five games. The departure of dominant defenseman Zdeno Chara(notes) was the big blow. One by one the pieces didn't seem to fit as well and it was just a matter of time.
When the Senators were swept in the first round of the playoffs by upstart Pittsburgh in 2008, the writing on the wall became more clear. Hired as general manager the previous offseason, Bryan Murray ended the campaign wearing two hats as GM and bench coach. His hiring of Craig Hartsburg to start last season lasted only 48 games into a three-year contract. He became the easy target to blame. Cory Clouston was promoted from the team's top minor-league affiliate and another fresh start ensued.
Fast-forward to the early portion of the offseason when Dany Heatley's(notes) trade demands became public, and Ottawa's dirty laundry had been laid out for everyone to see. Heatley got his wish, but it wasn't until every ounce of the summer was used up, and there was much carnage along the way.
Heatley had to bring everyone up to date on his situation three days before the start of Canada's Olympic orientation camp as to not be a distraction there. He had to stay away from Ottawa's season-opening golf event to again not be a disturbance. And the last thing the Sens wanted was to bring him to the opening of camp knowing full well a deal had to be struck.
Ottawa pulled the trigger on what it felt was the best deal out there. The acquisition of Milan Michalek(notes) and Jonathan Cheechoo(notes), in addition to a swap of draft picks, gives the Senators a young left wing who has been inconsistent and non-productive in the playoffs along with a former goal-scoring champ in Cheechoo who has slowed down and battled injury as the league has gotten faster.
The Senators could get burned in this deal, although they didn't have much choice since Heatley forced their hand with his request. The answer to who got the best of a deal is generally answered with who got the best player, and that clearly is San Jose .
All Ottawa can worry about now is whether tweaks here and there can put the franchise back on track. But the downward spiral might not have stopped.
Last season: 36-35-11 (83 points), fourth place Northeast Division, 11th place in the Eastern Conference and 22nd in the overall standings. Missed out on the Stanley Cup playoffs to end a streak of 11 straight appearances.
Exports: LW Dany Heatley (San Jose), C Mike Comrie(notes) (Edmonton), G Alex Auld(notes) (Dallas), D Brendan Bell(notes) (St. Louis), D Drew Fata(notes) (Boston) and C Greg Mauldin(notes) (N.Y. Islanders).
Salary cap: The trade of Dany Heatley didn't do much to create cap space since the $7.5 million dumped in the disgruntled winger's departure was quickly replenished by the combined $7.33M earned this season by Michalek ($4.33M) and Cheechoo ($3M). So Ottawa is paying approximately $55.9 million in payroll for a pad of about $1.35M before it hits the ceiling.
Three keys: With new top-six forward help in Kovalev, Michalek and Cheechoo, assuming the latter can rediscover his scoring touch and stay healthy, the Senators have the making of an offense that is not stereotyped as a one-line attack like before when the group of Heatley-Jason Spezza(notes)-Daniel Alfredsson did all the damage but received too little support.
Clouston has the three newcomers along with Mike Fisher(notes), Nick Foligno(notes), Chris Kelly(notes), Spezza, Alfredsson and possibly a youngster who makes the roster to mix and match to come up with not one, not two, but potentially three lines that can be productive.
Settling on a No. 1 goalie and getting the consistent effort from that position has been almost a franchise-long problem in Ottawa. This season, 24-year-old Brian Elliott(notes) is battling Columbus castoff Pascal Leclaire(notes) for the starting status.
A late draft pick by Ottawa (ninth round in 2003), Elliott has developed to the point where he could be ready to break through and claim the job. He went 16-8-3 with a 2.77 goals-against average and .902 save percentage during his rookie season last year. Leclaire, 26, expendable when Steve Mason(notes) emerged with the Blue Jackets last season, has been injury prone of late.
Ottawa's defense has been in disarray since Chara's departure. The onus is on Chris Phillips(notes), Filip Kuba(notes), Anton Volchenkov(notes), Alexandre Picard, Chris Campoli(notes) and Brian Lee(notes) to lead the way.
The Senators need some new blood to emerge on the blue line. Phillips, 31, and Kuba, 32, battled with inconsistent play last season. They are the two most veteran members of the defense, which lost battler Jason Smith to retirement.
On the hot seat: Murray has made some decisions that have backfired during his tenure – handling of goalies, Hartsburg, Heatley, Kovalev signing – and at some point he's going to have to be held accountable. The team is bumping up to the ceiling on the salary cap, so either this group is going to rally the troops or we'll see just how many more chances Murray gets.
Ex-Sharks Milan Michalek (L) and Jonathan Cheechoo aim to replace Dany Heatley's offense.
Poised to blossom: Clouston took over the team from the fired Hartsburg in early February and guided a Sens team that was seven games under .500 to a 19-11-4 record. He instilled a more up-tempo attack, seemingly the desired style of play by today's players and certainly the system that has worked for the last two Cup champs – Pittsburgh and Detroit.
Look for Clouston to spread his wings during his first full season behind the bench, especially feeling the boost of the organization's siding with him on the Heatley differences and awarding Clouston a two-year contract after his strong three-month showing.
Time has passed: Daniel Alfredsson(notes) has been a fixture in Ottawa. A great pick in 1994 – selected by the Sens in the sixth round, no less – Alfredsson has spent 13 very productive seasons with the same franchise. He stands 68 games from playing 1,000 during his regular-season career. And with three years remaining on a contract that tops out in terms of annual salary at $9.1 million this season, it isn't likely he's headed anywhere else before retirement.
Alfredsson has shown recent signs of a decline in production. His 24 goals last season were 16 fewer than the year before, and he appeared in nine more games in 2008-09 over '07-'08. Alfredsson's 74 points were 15 fewer than the year before, and he skated on the average of 1:30 less per game, too. He'll turn 37 in December, and still has much to offer, but the team might want to prepare for a diminished role for their classy captain.
Prediction: The Senators have a lot of pieces to pull together in a short amount of time. If it's any consolation, there are a number of teams in the East facing similar challenges. The division is not easy and it will be a fight for points. Defensively, the Sens are not as strong on the blue line and potentially in goal if Elliott slips and Leclaire can't stay healthy. It says here Ottawa misses the playoffs for a second straight season.