Like eight other teams this season, the Ottawa Senators have a new coach and that means some degree of uncertainty. But with the Senators, it's even more of a mystery because no one knows what happened to this team last season as it unexpectedly and uncharacteristically fell from grace.
Theories abound for the crestfallen Senators, Stanley Cup finalists the previous spring and considered among the league's elite. They showed no signs of a hangover from a short offseason by racing out of the gate with a 15-2-0 start last season. They were 25-9-4 at the end of December, and no one expected what happened next.
Things fell apart so dramatically that Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray fired coach John Paddock and went behind the bench himself. The Senators went 14-21-4 from Jan. 13 to the end of the regular season and didn't cinch a playoff spot until the final weekend.
Ottawa looked completely out of sorts once the postseason started and were swept by a Pittsburgh team that it had handled in five games during the opening round just the year before. Blame was pinned on poor chemistry, lack of an attention to detail and a complete loss of confidence.
Murray had no intentions of continuing as coach, especially since he wasn't able to snap his team out of the funk either. Enter Craig Hartsburg, who is big on unselfish play, accountability and leadership. The hope is the ex-NHLer and one-time coach in Chicago and Anaheim is the perfect tonic to return Ottawa to its dominating self.
Murray wasn't counting on Hartsburg to solve everything that was wrong last season, so he went to work in the offseason reworking the roster, trying to balance difficult negotiations with what's best for the team now and in the future.
That thinking entered into decisions regarding two defensemen, veteran Wade Redden and emerging force Andrej Meszaros. The perception was the aging Redden, 31, would price himself out of Ottawa's budget, so the Senators were OK with bidding the 11-year veteran goodbye.
Meszaros, 22, hasn't missed a game since stepping in the NHL four years ago, but Murray couldn't come to terms on an extension and felt the only option was to trade the native Czech, who averaged more than 21 minutes a game the last two years. Late in the summer Murray swung his deal, sending Meszaros to Tampa Bay for two blueliners – veteran Filip Kuba and youngster Alexandre Picard.
Murray didn't make a lot of changes to the talented and potentially deep group of forwards. He did add super pest Jarkko Ruutu, and the Senators could assemble a pesky third line now if the ex-Pittsburgh Penguin joins center Chris Kelly and right wing Chris Neil.
Where Murray might not have done enough is in the goal where, yes, he's rid of the controversial Ray Emery but only added Alex Auld to push Martin Gerber, who hasn't convinced everyone he's a No. 1 goalie.
Last season: 43-31-8, 94 points, second place Northeast Division, seventh place Eastern Conference. As Stanley Cup finalists the previous spring, the Senators limped into the playoffs last season, struggling with confidence and their game. They were quickly dispatched during a four-game sweep by eventual conference champ Pittsburgh in the opening round.
Imports: D Jason Smith (2007-08 team: Philadelphia Flyers), LW Jarkko Ruutu (Pittsburgh Penguins), D Filip Kuba (Tampa Bay Lightning), Alexandre Picard (Tampa Bay Lightning), G Alex Auld (Boston Bruins), D Brendan Bell (Phoenix Coyotes), RW Ryan Shannon (Vancouver Canucks), LW Brad Isbister (Vancouver Canucks).
Exports: D Andrej Meszaros (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Wade Redden (New York Rangers), LW Cory Stillman (Florida Panthers), D Luke Richardson (available free agent), RW Brian McGrattan (Phoenix Coyotes), D Mike Commodore (Columbus Blue Jackets), G Ray Emery (Russia), D Lawrence Nycholat (Vancouver Canucks).
Three keys to the season: Above all else, the Senators first must recapture their team identity of being that high-octane, yet defensively responsible outfit that is tough as nails to beat in their own barn and who can play any style game on the road. It's more of an attitude, and it can only be achieved through personal sacrifice, attention to detail and preparation. Ottawa enjoyed success for so long it may have started to take winning for granted. And when the team took shortcuts, the winning stopped. Team owner Eugene Melnyk is in this for one thing: winning the Stanley Cup. He doesn't hold back on the budget, he expects Murray to push the ceiling on salary caps, and he has high expectations – no different than the boisterous hometown fans of the team.
Second, Gerber has much to prove. He didn't break into the league until age 28 and was a backup in Anaheim, Carolina (mostly) and in Ottawa before last season. He's 34 now and not particularly good on rebound control, a key in the new NHL because there's more traffic in front of the net. The defense was 24th last season and the penalty kill ranked 22nd. That's not to place all the blame at Gerber's crease, but goaltending has to be better this season. Auld is a lot like Gerber, a netminder who has flirted with being No. 1 but hasn't gotten over the hump. Ottawa has a pair of prospects that aren't that far away – Brian Elliott and Jeff Glass, both bigger goalies who got valuable experience at the AHL's Binghamton last season.
Third, the defense is going to have to mesh. It's tough to lose a Zdeno Chara, something that seems to still haunt the Senators three years later. Veteran Chris Phillips and super shot-blocker Anton Volchenkov (209 blocks) figured to pair as the team's stop stoppers. The rest will have to sort itself out, but Jason Smith figures to give Ottawa some toughness while Christoph Schubert, Kuba, Picard and rookie Brian Lee will vie for the remaining minutes.
On the hot seat: The scoring trio of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson will be as responsible as anyone to lead the Ottawa attack. As a line, they are nearly unstoppable when healthy, but Hartsburg will likely break them apart in an effort to get more balance throughout the lines. Look for Spezza and Heatley to remain together, but Alfredsson should expect to find chemistry with new linemates.
Poised to blossom: Jesse Winchester will turn 25 on opening day, and he just might find himself on the right side of Spezza and Heatley if Hartsburg stays with the line put together at the outset of camp this week. Winchester, a Colgate product, has good size (6-foot-1, 215 pounds), good speed and good hands.
Analysis and prediction: This team doesn't reach its potential until Murray finds a better combination in goal, whether that's through a trade or giving one of his young netminders a chance. He's a smart hockey man, and he works for an eager owner. Something has to give. Assuming, too, that the Senators figure it out on the back end, they shouldn't have trouble scoring and should prove to be a force in the conference again – a top-four finish and home ice in the playoffs is within reach.