During the lockout-shortened 2013 season, the Ottawa Senators had ten defencemen play at least a half-dozen games for the team. It was a by-product of the team's injury problems as well as the relative youth on the blue line, and although it didn't cost the team too badly, the insulating factor of solid goaltending from Craig Anderson, Robin Lehner, and Ben Bishop.
Although Anderson and Lehner are still around, three of the ten defencemen who played last season have moved on. Chief among those losses is Sergei Gonchar, who played more than any other blueliner in 2013 and was second on the team in scoring. There's a good balance and youth and experience on the blue line for this season, but the fact remains that every single defenceman who's expected to be a regular in the lineup has a question mark about what he can do heading into the season. Some of those are more worrisome than others, but the combined total raises a very real question: Will Ottawa's blue line struggle in 2013-14? If so, how much might it effect the team's success?
To answer these questions, I'll take a look at the players individual question marks before examining the aggregate and how it stacks up against the rest of the league.
Erik Karlsson: The most obvious and important question in the Senators' lineup rests with the team's best player, Karlsson. Has he fully recovered from his Achilles tendon tear from last season? Will the injury leave any lasting effects on his play, in terms of skating, quickness, agility, or any of the other intensely important and unique skills hat EK65 brings to the game? If not, he should be right at the top of discussions about the 2014 Norris Trophy; if not, the team will be hard-pressed to stay in the playoff race.
Marc Methot: Methot is likely the most reliable of defencemen on Ottawa's roster, and his invitation to Team Canada's orientation camp this past summer is an indication of the league-wide respect he's earned. At the same time, though, the general idea in hockey circles would place him more appropriately as a second-pairing defenceman as opposed to a top-line guy. He has, after all, never scored more than 17P in a single season at any level of hockey since midget. So is he a first-pairing defenceman on his own, or does he simply look like one alongside a dynamic partner like Erik Karlsson? Was his impressive performance last season an indication that his game is continuing to improve as he approaches his thirties? And can he improve on his offensive production to better align his statistics with his place on the depth chart?
Patrick Wiercioch: By all metrics, Wiercioch had a terrific rookie season in 2013; he had 19P in just 42GP, tying him for 38 in league scoring among defencemen. At the same time, though, he was deployed very conservatively: He started far more shifts in the offensive zone than the defensive, and faced some of the weakest competition of any of his colleagues. Far more is going to be asked of him this year; he's being tasked with the responsibility of replacing much of Sergei Gonchar's even-strength and powerplay ice time and the offence that goes with it. Is Wiercioch, he of 50 NHL GP, capable of such lofty demands in his sophomore season? If not, who can the Senators call on to fill that void?
Jared Cowen: Although Cowen's younger than Wiercioch, he has more NHL experience--but with only 90 regular season games under his belt, he's still very green. Despite that, he's going to be asked to play top-four minutes on Ottawa's blue line against some very good competition, and he'll be a huge component of the team's top penalty kill. Is he capable of meeting those demands at such a young age? Will the fact that he missed much of training camp for a contract negotiation set him back significantly? And that doesn't even begin the conversation about his injury history; Cowen has already gone through serious knee and hip injuries, ailments that can be recurring problems. Is he fully recovered from both of those injuries?
Chris Phillips: Perhaps the most predictable of Ottawa's blueliners is Big Rig, the wiley veteran of the seven expected regulars in the lineup. He's only missed three of the team's last 540 regular season games, and his play has been fairly consistent since then. Although there has been some drop-off from Phillips, he had a fairly strong season last year, especially offensively: In terms of points-per-game, it was his best year since 2001-02. Nevertheless, a decline is bound to come to Phillips' game, and as he enters the back half of his thirties it's likely to accelerate. How much can Phillips be expected to provide this season? Is he still capable of anchoring the team's top penalty killing unit?
Joe Corvo: Welcomed back to Ottawa to bring some offence and a veteran presence, Corvo stands as the elder statesman on the Ottawa roster. Corvo was never a terribly reliable player defensively, and as he gets older that becomes ever more apparent. In the pre-season to date, he's been inconsistent--which is basically his modus operandi. So what can we expect from Corvo this year: Will he be more the offensive producer, or more the defensive fumbler? Will he even end up playing the lion's share of the games this year?
Eric Gryba: Finally, we come to the man who emerged last season as an NHL defender and grabbed hold of a roster spot for this year. But even Gryba's fairly surprising 33 games last season leave him with exactly 33 career games played, so he can be added to the list of three regulars whose resumes boast double-digit games played. Gryba faced a sink-or-swim situation last year, and he managed to keep his head above water in an unenviable situation; how will he build on that for this season? How serious is the injury he's currently dealing with? Is he an NHL defenceman in the good times as well as the injury-plagued dark times?
The Aggregate: Taken all together, there's a heck of a lot of youth at the top of the team's defence corps, and a lot of experience at the bottom. We can safely project the play of Methot and Phillips as consistent with last season, so let's set them aside and look at the others: Wiercioch has looked very, very good in the pre-season; that certainly bodes well. On the other hand, Karlsson and Cowen have had momentary lapses--however, those seem to be obvious hold-overs from a summer off, so they may be temporary. That leaves just the final spot, which will likely rotate between whoever's playing best between Corvo or Gryba--and if those two falter, there remain options in Binghamton, as well.
So, will Ottawa's defence struggle this season? Periodically, perhaps, but not likely very badly or for very long. The team's speed, transition game, and systemic support combined with a couple of very good (if likely to regress) goaltenders is almost certainly enough to off-set the potential minor struggles that the defence corps might face.