Despite the Ottawa Senators' extremely regrettable and forgettable 2008-2009 season, there were still a number of signs--particularly towards the end of the season--that should offer some hope for Ottawa Senators players and fans for the 2009-2010 season. As the off-season goes on, I'll offer a description of a few; feel free to make recommendations in the comments section.
The change was almost instantaneous when Cory Clouston took over as the Ottawa Senators head coach. He started with a loss, then an overtime loss, then an overtime win, and then a regulation win; it was a pretty promising learning curve for the rookie NHL coach.
The curve, naturally, didn't continue as steeply as it had started, but in the end Clouston led the Senators to a 19-11-4 record, good for 42 points and a 61.7 points percentage, among the best finishes for any team throughout the NHL. It was especially impressive considering he did so with the same team that fired coach Craig Hartsburg had led to a 17-24-7 record, or a 42.7 point percentage--it seemed pretty obvious that this wasn't simply a coincidence, but Clouston had made a genuine difference in the way the team approached the game.
Clouston did, indeed, make an immediate impact. He restored the aggressive style that the Senators embraced for the 2007 Stanley Cup Final run, encouraging the forward to forecheck hard within a 2-1-2 system, and allowing the defencemen to pinch in on a play should the opportunity present itself. As a result, opponents were pressured significantly, and forced to rush plays and commit turnovers which the Senators oftentimes capitalized on.
Ottawa defencemen, almost through the entire d-corps, were rejuvenated under Clouston. Statistics for the most part improved, and roles were clarified. Anton Volchenkov was given the freedom to step up on checks, and Chris Phillips wasn't saddled with unreasonable offensive expectations and reverted into his shut-down role. Brian Lee, particularly towards the end of the season, became a very effective defender, and became somewhat of a physical force in his own right. Chris Campoli and Brendan Bell were put in positions to succeed, used against weaker even-strength opponents but given plenty of powerplay time. Filip Kuba was the only defender who may have been more successful under Hartsburg, but he will be given plenty of rope next season to be the Sens' number one defenceman. With opposing teams approaching the Senators' zone with less speed and organization, the defender's defensive games were greatly improved, as well. Neither Jason Smith nor Alex Picard played under Clouston, but I expect their arcs would largely have mirrored those of Phillips and Lee, respectively.
At forward, Clouston brought Ryan Shannon with him from Binghamton, and it proved to be one of the best roster decisions the 2008-09 Ottawa Senators made. He also energized Nick Foligno, who became a genuine second-line player along with Shannon and Mike Fisher, giving the Senators some degree of scoring depth to complement the top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley. Clouston wasn't afraid to juggle lines, whether things were going right or wrong, and his experiments were positive more often than negative.
In nets, Brian Elliott set an Ottawa Senators rookie record under Clouston with eight straight wins, but his performance dipped towards the end of the season. Alex Auld played well for a stretch to end the season, helping the Senators towards a franchise-record nine straight home wins. Both goaltenders made cases for themselves for next season, and--assuming no trade is transacted--will battle against newcomer Pascal Leclaire to take the reins as the number one goaltender.
More than anything, Clouston seemed to restore the Senators' swagger. It's the same attitudinal confidence that got the Senators to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, and also drew criticism from Buffalo Sabres pest Adam Mair to call Ottawa the "cockiest" last-place team in the league. Players were quoted as saying that there was a newfound confidence, even if down heading into the third period, that the team could fight back into the game. It's that kind of approach that makes a team as competitive as they can be, and that will determine how the Senators do in the 2009-2010 season.