2013-2014 Burning Question Review

Justin K. Aller

A turbulent offseason caused the Ottawa Senators to face some tough questions. Now it's time to look back and reflect on the anwsers.

In September, the Silver Seven Staff asked several "burning questions" about the Ottawa Senators for the 2013-2014 season. Now that the season has finished for the Senators, we look back at what concerned us in September and see if we were right to be worried.

Leadership

The abrupt departure of Daniel Alfredsson in the summer create a sudden hole at the centre of Ottawa's leadership core. As Mark put it:

The truth, though, is that the team's identity was Daniel Alfredsson. Even as Father Time slowly sapped his skill, Alfie was still the player the team looked to on and off the ice to show the way. Think about it: Whenever the team needed a goal over the past 17 seasons, who were you expecting to score it? Who was it that went in 1-on-4 to score the goal that carried the team to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals? Who was it that scored shorthanded in the final minute to send the game to overtime just last year?

So many times throughout his career, Alfredsson has simply willed the team to victory. There was never a question about who was going to lead the way. It was Alfie. Whether with a big goal or a big shift, it was Alfie. With his retirement betrayal departure, the team has lost that presence, and it's not a small loss.

Mark was right to point to Alfredsson's on-ice leadership as something the Sens would miss. From the beginning of the season, Ottawa was behind in the standings and left playing catch-up. Bryan Murray revealed as much in his media availability last week:

I lost Daniel Alfredsson. The end result following each year was the same as it is today. We know these people have influence in the room and on the ice and I would be wrong if I said he didn't have an impact on what happened here.

The question remains, who was identified as a candidate(s) to fill the void left by the departed Alfredsson? Mark suggested a committee of players:

The good news is that there's no shortage of candidates. Chris Neil is a player who tends to play with a reckless edge and won't hesitate to put his body on the line in an attempt to fire up his teammates. But Neil isn't a goal-scorer. He's not the player who can replace Alfredsson's scoring heroics, and a good fight or big hit might temporarily boost morale, but it won't turn the tide by itself. Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson are more obvious leadership candidates when it comes to leading by example and making something happen on the ice. Kyle Turris has shown a propensity for scoring big goals.

Neil did provide physical play with 15 fighting majors. But he also was second in the league in PIMs with 211. Perhaps most concerning was the fact that Neil tied for third in the league in minor penalties with 41. Too often, he put his team in difficult positions because of his lack of discipline. Spezza, Karlsson, and Turris led Ottawa in scoring and on several occasions stepped up and delivered victories for Ottawa. However, Spezza's slow first half and stylistic difference had many questioning his leadership throughout the season. One player who was added to the team's leadership ranks once the season was underway? Clarke MacArthur. Part skill, part physical, part offensive, part defensive, MacArthur quickly gained a following in the capital.

Still, it's hard to argue with Murray assertion that Alfredsson's departure hurt the Sens in terms of leadership. With Jason Spezza seemingly on the way out this summer, this might be a question we return to again this fall.

The Second Pairing

Ottawa went with a youth movement of sorts on the blueline in 2013-2014. Ottawa traded away veteran Sergei Gonchar's rights in June and decided not to add a veteran defenseman through free agency. Instead, Murray banked on Patrick Wiercioch and Jared Cowen being able to take the next step and play a second pairing role, while adding former Senator Joe Corvo as a depth defenseman.

As Mark wrote, there were reasons to be optimistic about the pairing:

Both men have quality pedigrees, as Cowen was a top-10 pick in 2009, and Wiercioch was the team's second-rounder in 2008. Wiercioch is listed at 6'5" and 205lbs, while Cowen clocks in at 6'5" and 230lbs. Wiercioch impressively recovered from a career-threatening throat injury, famously working out with best friend Kyle Turris over the summer to build the strength needed to play at the NHL level. It paid off, as Wiercioch had a very strong rookie season, displaying strong offensive instincts.

Cowen, meanwhile, returned ahead of schedule from a torn hip labrum--a serious injury--to play a few games after originally being told he was out for the year. Cowen started his return out well....But he struggled in the final playoff series against players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That's unsurprising, as injuries have limited Cowen's experience to just 90 regular-season games and 17 playoff games in three years.

Regardless, Cowen has the size and tools to be an imposing force for players who want to cross Ottawa's blue line

Unfortunately, there were many reasons to be concerned at the time:

Both players have untapped wells of potential waiting within them. However, the question mark here comes from both players' relative inexperience. Both were sheltered whenever possible last season, with Wiercioch not even being used in the playoffs--save for one game, where he was injured on his first shift.

Head coach Paul MacLean won't have that luxury this season. Someone is going to have to make defensive zone starts. It can't be Marc Methot every shift. The burden will fall towards Cowen and Wiercioch, who form a similar tandem--defensive defenseman and puck-mover--as Methot and Karlsson do. This season will see both players called upon to play significant minutes in all situations. That they have the talent to do so is not in question. Whether they can do it consistently is.

Unfortunately, the worst came true for Cowen and Wiercioch. Exposed early in the season, Wiercioch was frequently a healthy scratch and received a full membership to Paul MacLean's dog house. MacLean stuck with Cowen, perhaps as a development tool, and moved him to Erik Karlsson's side. The move wasn't particularly sucessful, and Cowen was frequently the scape goat for fans disappointed at the lost season. Cowen improved slightly in the second half of the season, while Wiercioch's play in the final weeks was positive.

The downside is a gaping liability for opponents to feast on, resulting in a complete reshuffling of the defensive corps.

Still, to call the experiment anything but a failure would be charitable.

Erik Karlsson's health

As Erik Karlsson goes, so go the Senators. It's a simplistic equation, but there is merit to it. Following his remarkable return from his Achilles injury to play out the last few games of the 2013 season and join the Senators for the team's playoff run, Karlsson was good, but visibly not 100%.

One of the biggest questions going into 2013-2014 was is Karlsson 100% now? If not, when will he get there? For the pessimists in the crowd, there were concerns that Karlsson would never be the player he was or was going to become, again.

Mark summed up those fears:

Of course, there's not much reason to worry--by his own account, Karlsson has had his best offseason of working out ever. But there's also some reason to worry. While other players, like Travis Zajac, have completely recovered from similar injuries, complete recovery time is significant, and Karlsson is not there yet.

By his own admission, Karlsson still has numbness in his foot. And while he says it won't affect him--and it obviously hasn't, since he continued rehabbing and working out all summer long--anyone who has tried to drink with a numb lip or walk when their foot is asleep knows that numbness can make performing optimally challenging. As long as his foot is numb, Karlsson is going to be lacking some of that sensory feedback that you don't miss until it's gone--and that feedback is the kind of thing people talk about when they talk about feeling "right."

Karlsson's game is built on speed, so his injury was particularly concerning for fans and management alike. As Mark put it:

This is important, because so much of Karlsson's game is dependent on his explosive acceleration. Karlsson is free to gamble because he can get back into a play so quickly when he looks out of one. His offense is dependent on using his skating to be elusive. It's in leading rushes and finding space where he becomes so dangerous. If Karlsson has any hesitation in his play, he loses that advantage. We've already seen what Karlsson looks like without that advantage--still great, but not elite.

What was the result? Simply put, Karlsson had another Norris-calibre season. While there will still moments of hesitation early in the season which allowed fans to debate his health, the questions were put to bed by December. He set a team record for goals by a defenseman and his point totals were very similar to his totals in 2011-2012. His possession stats were also good and compared favourably to two seasons ago.

Still, he slowed down a little as the season came to a close and admitted recently that he felt about 90%.

Who Gets Traded

With an increasingly mature core in Binghamton, roster spots are at a premium and the question of trades inevitably comes up. That was the case in September, 2013. Mark broke the situation down like this:

There's three spots--all essentially injury replacements or situational players--that are truly open to competition. Typically, that distribution is two forwards and one defenseman.

For two forward spots, there are six legitimate contenders: Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Jim O`Brien, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Stephane Da Costa, and Andre Petersson. There are numerous other names who might force their way into the conversation with an outstanding camp. Players like Shane Prince, David Dziurzynski, Matt Puempel, Curtis Lazar, and Derek Grant all have outside shots--Dziurzynski and Grant already have a sprinkle of NHL experience.

Among defensemen, Eric Gryba and Mark Borowiecki both got auditions in the big league last year, with Gryba's stay being of the extended variety--but their spots could easily be stolen by someone like Cody Ceci, Frederick Claesson, or even buzz-generating youngsters Michael Sdao or Chris Wideman.

That's an awful lot of competition for just three spots. Much of it will be settled through players' contract status--anyone on a two-way deal is going to have to play so well that the team simply has no choice but to keep them up, in the mold of Erik Karlsson's rookie season. We're talking seriously outstanding play, in the true sense of the word.

So what happened? Mostly nothing. Pageau, Hoffman, Stone, Grant, and Da Costa all got a look because of injury. Gryba and Ceci spent considerable time in the lineup and Borowiecki was called-up for 13 games. Petersson was moved in a minor deal for AHLer Alex Grant at the trade deadline.

There's still a logjam of sorts both at forward and defense. With the potential departures of any or all of Jason Spezza, Ales Hemsky, and Milan Michalek, forward sports will open up. Still, one would think a deal of some kind is coming in the offseason.

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