The Ottawa Senators blue line is going to look markedly different in 2012-13 than it has for the last few seasons. Gone are Filip Kuba, Matt Carkner, and Brian Lee (plus Matt Gilroy), all of whom have been around for the last few seasons. In their place will be Marc Methot, Mike Lundin, and a seventh defender--Mark Borowiecki seems to have the inside track among defenders on two-way contracts.
The depth chart could shake out any number of ways, but here's an early glimpse of what the team's top seven might look like.
Marc Methot - Erik Karlsson
The common consensus is that Methot will step right in to the fire and play alongside Karlsson on the Sens' top pairing. Methot's not going to give him offensive help, but Karlsson's shown he can carry a partner offensively; all he needs in a linemate is someone to cover for him defensively, which Methot is capable of doing. This pairing offers good balance, although there will be question marks about the chemistry between these two to begin the season.
Although Heisenberg's defensive bent gives Karlsson the freedom to create offensive opportunities, it's not a free pass. Karlsson's speed will be necessary to even the numbers in the event of a opposition's rush, and he'll need to ensure he's back in position regularly to let Methot finish checks in the defensive end. It could be a very interesting pairing, but it could also be a little hectic at times.
It's possible that Cowen could jump up in the lineup and play with Karlsson, but that seems unlikely. Other than Methot and Cowen, no blueliner is capable of playing the kind of ice time Karlsson carries each game.
These two played most of last season alongside one another, and worked out fairly well as an eclectic pairing. As mentioned above, Cowen could move up, but it seems just as likely that Gonchar moves down--he's not getting any younger, and looked slow for much of last season. Still, heading into the season, it seems sensible to pencil these guys together.
Gonchar will certainly be used on the powerplay, and he may be moved down the lineup at even strength to decrease the amount of ice time he plays--pretty much the opposite of Cowen, who will be used on the penalty kill, and may be bumped up in the depth chart since he can definitely gobble up minutes. Cowen may also see a bit of powerplay time this season, depending on whether or not Paul MacLean wants to use a forward on the blue line with the man advantage.
Chris Phillips - Mike Lundin / Mark Borowiecki
Phillips is the anchor on the third pairing, if he doesn't move up in the lineup too much, which is pretty well how things were last season (Phillips had the fifth-highest total TOI among defencemen last season, and was barely ahead of Cowen in terms of TOI/GP). He'll be counted on to support the young player he's paired with, as well as to play ample short-handed time.
Your guess is as good as mine about who lines up alongside Phillips, but I think it will likely depend on the opponent. Borowiecki is popular among coaches and managers in Ottawa, and isn't a liability on the ice, and will definitely line up against big, physical opponents; without him, the Senators' blue line is skewed away from physicality.
Lundin's not exactly an offensive powerhouse, but he looks like a capable puck-mover, and Phillips has a tendency to get trapped in his own zone if his partner isn't able to move the puck out (or forwards aren't willing to get deep in the zone and carry the puck out on their own). Against fast, offensive teams, Lundin may draw in to the lineup to allow MacLean's system to work most effectively.
Cody Ceci: Considering the trouble he had standing out in Canada's junior tryout games against Russia, it seems unlikely that Ceci's ready for NHL action yet. He's already signed his ELC so he could play a few games if he puts together a good training camp, but for now he looks destined for another year with the 67s.
Patrick Wiercioch: Wiercioch's on the last year of his ELC, so he's going to have to make some waves this year if he wants to get an NHL deal in the off-season. He was unlucky to suffer a devastating injury last season, and still greatly improved his point-production over his AHL rookie season. He seems likely to be the first guy called up in the event of injuries, but that's a position he could quickly lose if he falters in camp.
Andre Benoit: He's on a two-way deal, but considering the relatively small difference between AHL and NHL salaries he'd earn, it seems like Benoit's earmarked to lead the B-Sens' blue line all season long. He did play eight games with Ottawa last time he was here, but that was during the disastrous 2010-11 season; during those games, he didn't strike me as a regular NHL defender.
Tyler Eckford: See above, really. Eckford's a year younger than Benoit, a bit bigger, and much less offensive, but he seems like he'll be a good fit in Binghamton. It will take a serious calamity for him to see even a single game with Ottawa.