Ottawa Senators 2009-10 season preview

The theme for the Ottawa Senators in 2009-10 is the bounce-back, and they need some serious bouncing back if Senators fans are going to remain even a little bit interested in the team. Almost to a man, every player returning from last season has to prove they can do better, and the key players Ottawa brought in this year--Pascal Leclaire, Alex Kovalev, and Jonathan Cheechoo--all have plenty to prove themselves. Coach Cory Clouston has to show the league that GM Bryan Murray picked the right side in his dispute with now-traded winger Dany Heatley, and Murray's never been as criticized as he is these days--you can bet fans will have his head if Ottawa starts slowly. This team is rife to surprise a lot of people, but there's always the chance these variables could go southward in a hurry. If that happens, stand back, because owner Eugene Melnyk won't stand for another poor showing.

2008-09 Recap:

Whoo... well, this is tough. The most forgettable season in recent memory, 2008-09 was painful for Senators fans. Although the team seemed to repair some of their defensive problems from the season before--goals-against was somewhat improved from 2007-08--it came at the expense of offence--goals-for was far off the previous season. Martin Gerber, Alex Auld, and Brian Elliott played musical chairs in the net, Craig Hartsburg came in with high hopes but wasn't right for the team, and Ottawa's offensive stars, including Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson, all struggled--but the secondary scorers struggled more. Then Clouston was brought in, installed a system based on responsibility henceforth known as Command Kloustonom, and Ottawa started winning games. It wasn't enough, and the Sens finished in 11th place, 10 points out of a playoff spot.

(Read more for who's in, who's out,  strengths, weaknesses, depth chart, and predictions... )

Who's in:

  • G Pascal Leclaire - Not quite an off-season acquisition, but pretty close to, Leclaire has the chance to simultaneously recharge his career and be the Senators' saviour--or he could join so many other goaltenders on the Ottawa goaltending graveyard. Although Brian Elliott did well at times last year, this team's playoff hopes rest on the shoulders of Leclaire.
  • D Erik Karlsson - Karlsson comes in with high hopes for giving Ottawa some bite on the powerplay, but will definitely have a steep learning curve. The consensus is a spot on the Senators' is Karlsson's to lose, probably fittingly so, but it will be up to Clouston to make sure he's not overwhelmed by the North American game. Look for him to get limited even-strength time, but plenty of powerplay opportunities.
  • W Alex Kovalev - Signed to a two-year, $10M contract in the summer, Kovalev comes from Montréal with plenty to prove after an off-year last season. The big difference is that he won't be Ottawa's main go-to guy, but he'll get every opportunity on one of the top-two lines, and may play the point on the Sens' top powerplay unit. If he doesn't come out of the gate quickly, I'm afraid some of the finnicky Sens fans and media members could turn on him, and if that happens he might become disinterested--a positive feedback loop that will be tremendously negative for the team's playoff hopes.
  • W Milan Michalek - The key return in this summer's Heatley trade, Michalek comes in with expectations to provide scoring depth, defensive responsibility, and maybe some penalty-killing for Ottawa this year. He has been lined up with Alfredsson and Spezza on an impressive first line, but expectations are that he's a flexible player who can jump into any role assigned to him.
  • W Jonathan Cheechoo - Cheechoo's the other part of the Heatley trade, and another player looking for a bounce-back season. He's got every opportunity to play in the Sens' top-six forwards, maybe on a line with Kovalev, and people are expecting 20-plus goals--and hoping for 30-plus. He's a hard worker, and the kind of player that Sens fans could quickly become enamoured with.
  • C Peter Regin: Might have surprised a few people out of training camp, where he came from behind and earned himself a top-nine--and maybe top-six--forward spot on the Senators. If he keeps playing as he does, turning centre-cum-winger Mike Fisher into a scorer and gelling with one-time AHL linemate Nick Foligno, this team could potentially have three lines to provide offensive support for one another.

Who's out:

  • G Alex Auld - Traded to the Dallas Stars for a fifth-rounder, Auld played well last year--but Murray decided his chances were better with a Leclaire-Elliott tandem, and Elliott wasn't going to appreciate being sent back to Binghamton.
  • D Jason Smith - Retired, in a conspiracy-laden decision that will save Ottawa from salary cap hell and make room for younger defencemen to step up.
  • W Dany Heatley - Old news.
  • W Mike Comrie - Signed in Edmonton after his second stint in Ottawa didn't prove as successful as was hoped.
  • D Brendan Bell - No room left in Ottawa, so Bell went to the St. Louis Blues to try his luck.

Strengths:

  • Offensive depth: The Senators have far greater offensive depth than they've had in years, with potentially nine players with a good shot of playing on the top two forward lines: Alfredsson, Spezza, Kovalev, Michalek, Cheechoo, Regin, Fisher, Foligno, and Ryan Shannon. It means there will be plenty of competition in training camp, and there's a good chance Ottawa will have scoring from the first, second, and third lines.
  • Defensive depth: Although the Senators still lack a number one puck-moving defenceman, they've got plenty of decent-level players to pick from. Filip Kuba's the biggest minute-muncher, Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov will continue to be the shut-down tandem, and Karlsson will probably be given top-four minutes fairly early in his rookie season. After that, Clouston has five more defencemen to choose from to fill out the remaining two spots: Brian Lee, Alex Picard, Christoph Schubert, Chris Campoli, and Matt Carkner. There might be some movement before the season starts, but if there's not, Ottawa shouldn't have a problem icing a full complement of defencemen.
  • Powerplay: Ottawa's lost one of their best powerplay producers in Heatley, but they've brought in three pretty good powerplayers, and Karlsson could be a boon for the backend. If there's not a noticeable increase in powerplay potency, it will be a disappointment.
  • Team speed: Michalek is damn fast. Spezza looks like he's skating as well as he ever has, and playing with Michalek only makes him go even faster. Shannon might be a close second on the team to Michalek. Fisher can skate like the dickens in straight lines. Almost to a man, the Senators' forward group has good to great speed, and should be able to use that to counter attack opponents--in true Command Kloustonom style.

Weaknesses:

  • Defence: Ottawa may have plenty of defensive depth, but six fifth- and sixth-defencemen don't equal one first-defenceman. Ottawa will likely ice four smallish (in style, if not in stature) defencemen around Phillips and Volchenkov, so might be vulnerable when bigger teams are in town. Defence by committee will be the key, but it won't be easy.
  • Grit: It's an old story for the Senators, but this team won't likely be a physical challenge to play against. Sure, there's Chris Neil, Jesse Winchester, and Jarkko Ruutu, but there's a pretty good chance they'll all be on the same line. When the other three lines are on, and with the small-ish defence corps Ottawa has, other teams won't likely have a problem finding space on the ice. It could open up room for Carkner, Zack Smith, Cody Bass, or Jeremy Yablonski to play select games against tougher teams, but they won't make the squad based on playing ability alone.
  • Penalty Killing: Last year's penalty-killing corps included Antoine Vermette and Dean McAmmond, and both have moved on since then. Clouston hasn't been afraid to use Alfredsson on the PK, and the team still has Fisher, Winchester, Shean Donovan, Chris Kelly, and maybe even Spezza or Michalek to kill penalties, but there will be a learning period for these guys to get used to one another. And, after Phillips, Volchenkov, and Kuba, you've got to wonder who'll kill from the defensive side.

Depth chart:

Left Wing Centre Right Wing
Milan Michalek Jason Spezza Daniel Alfredsson
Jonathan Cheechoo Ryan Shannon Alex Kovalev
Nick Foligno Peter Regin Mike Fisher
Jarkko Ruutu Chris Kelly Chris Neil
Josh Hennessy Jesse Winchester Erik Condra
Kaspars Daugavins Martin St. Pierre Cody Bass
Shawn Weller Ilya Zubov Jeremy Yablonski
Denis Hamel Zack Smith
Jim O'Brien
Defencemen
Filip Kuba Erik Karlsson
Chris Phillips Anton Volchenkov
Alex Picard Chris Campoli
Brian Lee Matt Carkner
Derek Smith Tomas Kudelka
Geoff Waugh
Goaltenders
Pascal Leclaire
Brian Elliott
Mike Brodeur
Andy Chiodo

Predictions:

  • TSN: Pre-season power ranking: 24
  • Sportsnet: "After going to the Stanley Cup final in 2006-07, the Senators have been on a steady slide and it's looking like a second straight season out of the playoffs is a distinct possibility."
  • The Hockey News: Fourth in the Northeast Division, ninth in the Eastern Conference.
  • Puck Daddy: "On paper, this is a playoff team: Balanced scoring, good goaltending and a crowded but dependable defense."
  • The Sporting News: Ranked 24 in NHL.
  • The Sports Network: "The days of contending for a Cup seem to be over, but that doesn't mean Ottawa won't be able to sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs this year."

The TSN and Sporting News predictions were both made before the Heatley trade, so they're certainly out of date. But here are our predictions:

Peter: Ottawa didn't want to move Heatley, but the depth gained in the trade might prove to be beneficial to the team's stakes in the 2009-10 season--to say nothing of the salary cap flexibility for future seasons. With between two and three lines who should be expected to score (compared to one the past two years) and very strong forward and defensive depth, the team should be strong offensively. On defence, there are plenty of skaters, and less physicality, but that might be mitigated by a very quick transition game. In goal, there are two big question marks, and the team will likely live and die with Leclaire. It also seems unlikely the Senators will suffer too much from the Olympics fatiguing players, so that could work in the team's favour for the second half of the year. Ottawa should have the advantage in a dogfight with Montreal and Buffalo to finish second in the Northeast behind Boston, and no one will be happy--least of all owner Melnyk--if this team misses the playoffs. I'm calling it: Second in the Northeast, fifth in the Eastern Conference.

Darren: Just to get it right out there in the open -- no matter what a Las Vegas bookie tells you, I don't think that there is any way this team performs worse than the roster that was iced last season. The roster is better, the team will be playing under Cory Clouston for the entire season, and our starting goaltender's last named doesn't rhyme with Ferber. On paper, this should be a team that can generate a great amount of offense, just like the Senators we remember from the first half of this decade. Unfortunately, the game isn't played on paper, and the outcome is anything but predictable: one can only guess how many different line combinations Clouston will burn through in the first month or two of the season. But since this is about making predictions, I'll be bold - the team definitely has a shot at the playoffs, but I think it's still a few years away from making any sort of deep run. Still, after all of the drama this team has been through recently, it's nice to be able to start the season with some shred of optimism.

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