Prior to the start of the season, I published a list of five players who I felt had to raise their game if the Ottawa Senators were going to make the playoffs for the year. This list was not intended to question their ability to do so, but merely point out my belief that the team's fortunes were especially tied to theirs. Since the Senators did not make the playoffs, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at those five players and see if they did, in fact, step up.
Player: Sergei Gonchar
The loss of Anton Volchenkov of course means the team has lost a significant physical presence in the defensive zone, and the expectation is that Gonchar will offset that loss by moving the puck up the ice quickly. Ottawa is not a team that has the speed they once had at the forward position, though they are still a fast team. Will Clouston make adjustments to allow Gonchar to try to take advantage of that speed? If Gonchar cannot, his power play contributions won't matter -- Ottawa will be too busy chasing the puck in their own zone to draw any penalties.
Gonchar put up 27 points in 67 games for the Senators this year. His .4 points per game represents the lowest average of his career since his 1997-98 season with the Washington Capitals, where he managed just 16 points in 79 games -- a paltry .29 points per game. 20 (5G, 15A) of Gonchar's 27 points came via the power play, so it seems he can still be effective there still.
Gonchar did provide some boost to the power play, as the Senators' 17.5% was good for 15th in the league. This represented a gain of .6% from last year's 16.9%, which was good for 21st in the league.
As mentioned, my primary concern was that Gonchar would not be able to help lead an effective breakout, thus causing Ottawa to draw fewer penalties. The Senators finished 29th in total power play opportunities, with 257 total. The fault for this paltry number does not lie with Gonchar alone, but we can safely say he was not able to help the team draw more penalties.
Sergei Gonchar's below-average season had an impact in Ottawa's failures as a team.
Player: Mike Fisher
The pressure is on Fisher to not only provide the same scoring touch he showed last year, but also to drive the team's secondary scoring, That scoring can't come from just his line -- he'll be expected to lead the team's second power play unit as well. If Fisher can lead, every other line will benefit from the production. If he cannot, the other lines simply don't have the firepower to make up the difference.
Of course, he was traded in February, so we can only judge his statistics up to that point. Fisher's 53 points in 79 games last year were good for an average of .67 points per game. His 24 points in 55 games this season represented a drop to .44 points per game. Fisher only recorded three power play goals and six power play assists in that same timeframe. Though he battled an upper-body injury for much of the year, that cannot be used as an excuse. If Fisher wasn't healthy enough to be a major contributor on the ice, he shouldn't have been on the ice.
The concern was that a lack of secondary scoring from Fisher's line would create a domino effect the rest of the team could not overcome. Linemate Alex Kovalev's points per game production dropped slightly, though not as much as Fisher's. However, the team just barely avoided setting a record for fewest goals scored in a season. Their 190 total was 29th in the league.
Fisher's below-average season had a significant impact in Ottawa's failures this year.
Player: Pascal Leclaire
If Leclaire can provide that consistency, the team will reward him for it in more ways than one. If he cannot, the Senators will only go as far as Brian Elliott can take them, and we've already seen how far that is.
Leclaire played in just 14 games for the Senators this season, starting 13 of them, and earning a decision in just 11. In those 14 games, he had a GAA of 2.83 and a save percentage of .908. Those numbers, while not spectacular, are not terrible, either.
The concern was that Leclaire would not be able to provide consistent goaltending, whether because of health or mental focus. Because of Leclaire's inability to stay consistently healthy, the team was, in fact, forced to turn to their backup, Brian Elliott. In 43 games, Elliott posted a GAA of 3.19 and a save percentage of .891. There isn't much more to say.
Pascal's Leclaire's below-average season had a major impact in Ottawa's failures this year.
Player: Milan Michalek
His speed will open up lanes for his linemates. His play on the penalty kill will be critical because not only is he responsible defensively, he will help keep Alfredsson's legs fresh, and deserves respect as a breakaway threat. If Michalek can contribute in all three zones, it will not only reduce the burden of the team's defensemen, it will be the catalyst for the up-ice attack. If he cannot, the team could spend all year looking for a spark that may never come.
Michalek only appeared in 66 games this year, recording 33 points. He looked slow at the start of the year, and did not regain his speed until around halfway through the season. He was finally finding his game when he suffered a broken foot late in the year, though he returned from that injury more quickly than expected -- and recorded four points (2G, 2A) in the final eight games of the season.
The concern was whether Michalek could use his speed to create open ice for his linemates. He was not able to create that space early in the year, but was much more successful over the his final stretch of the season, and the team went 4-3-1 in those games.
Michalek's slightly below-average season had some impact in Ottawa's failures this year.
Player: Erik Karlsson
But Karlsson's offensive contributions cannot be the only source of growth -- he must improve his defensive game as well. If Karlsson can avoid a sophomore slump, the team should be able to exploit some player matchups for their benefit. If he cannot, too much burden will fall on the shoulders of the aging Gonchar.
Karlsson's 45 points were good enough to make him second on the team in scoring, and his offensive skill made him Ottawa's lone representative at the All-Star game, where he was the last defenseman picked. His minus-30 rating was only beaten by Chris Phillips's minus-35.
The concern was that Karlsson's play would regress in his second year, but that did not happen. Improvements to his defensive game were not particularly noticeable, but it should be noted that he was plus-1 for the month of March before finishing the year on injured reserve with a thigh laceration that required 25 stitches to close. This positive plus/minus rating coincided with the most responsibility given in his young career, including penalty killing duties and significant TOI.
Karlsson's slightly above-average season had little impact in preventing Ottawa's failures this year.
So, there you have it. While the team's abysmal season cannot be laid at the feet of these five players, it is interesting to note that four of the five had below-average performances. Of course, this is true for much of the team. At this point, I'm at a loss to say whether the losing caused everyone to decline or whether everyone's decline caused the losing. I can only restate my belief that outstanding play from any one of these individuals could have been the life preserver that salvaged the season.
What do you think? Were Ottawa's failures this season caused by a domino effect of a few players or the result of an entire team underachieving?