I may have said this once or twice already, but the bottom line for the Ottawa Senators is this: In a shortened season, there is no margin for error. That's what everything comes down to. Of course, we already know the Senators' fortunes can crumble easily if their stars falter. Losing Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, or Craig Anderson for any extended period essentially torpedoes the team's chances for success right out of the gate. Those players are too integral to success to lose or have falter, so they're not the players we're talking about in this article--it's a given that they need to step up.
What we've learned, though, is that those players cannot lift the team by themselves. Karlsson's outstanding year has been well-documented. Spezza finished fourth in the league in scoring. Milan Michalek had his best year in a Sens jersey. Anderson went toe-to-toe with the current Vezina Trophy holder in the playoffs. And the team still barely squeaked into the playoffs as the last seed. Our best players need support from their teammates to get the team over the hump. They need people to step up. This list, in no particular order, is the five players who most have to carry more than their fair share of the load for the team to be successful (read: make the playoffs) this year.
1. Ben Bishop - Last year, Alex Auld posted a nightmarish 2-4-2 record with the Senators. His 3.35 GAA was the worst on the team among all goalies who appeared in a game, and he was the only goalie to clock in with a save percentage below .900, managing to stop just 88.4% of the shots he faced. In addition to starting 8 games, Auld appeared in another 6 in relief of starter Craig Anderson--all regulation losses. That means that of a possible 28 points with Auld in net, the Senators earned just 6, and that Auld was directly involved in almost 30% of Ottawa's losses. Had Ottawa won just half of Auld's appearances--imagine the team went 6-6-2 instead of 2-10-2--they would have tied Boston for the division lead, and tied New Jersey in the conference standings with 102 points, which could have meant a playoff series against the 3rd-seeded Florida Panthers instead of top-seeded New York Rangers.
What does this have to do with Ben Bishop? The answer should be obvious: The Senators don't have that kind of margin for error this year. Bishop will beat out fellow goaltender Robin Lehner for the backup job to Anderson this year because of the difference in their contracts, but with the team essentially playing every other night, it's possible Bishop might see more starts proportionally than he would during a regular campaign. Regardless of how many appearances Ottawa's backup goalie makes this year, if they can't win at a better rate than 1 in 4 (or 1 in 7 if you're hoping they can spark a comeback) then the chances of the team making the playoffs are remote--there just aren't enough games on the schedule to make up the difference.
2. Guillaume Latendresse - Here's what we know about Latendresse: he's going to get a shot in the top six. Wherever he doesn't wind up is going to be filled, everyone assumes, by Jakob Silfverberg. Most people have Silfverberg playing his natural right wing spot with Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza while Latendresse fills out the second line with Kyle Turris and captain Daniel Alfredsson. Ignoring the debate of whether a rookie from the AHL is going to beat out a proven veteran, the bottom line is that Latendresse is here to fill in the top six forwards.
If he fits on the top line, he replaces Colin Greening (.45 points/game), and if he fits on the second line, he replaces Nick Foligno (.57 points/game) who of course was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the summer of last year. This means Latendresse's target production, assuming everyone else produces points at the same rate, is .51 points per game. Over a 48-game season, that's just slightly over 24 points.
The key here, though, is that if Latendresse can exceed that production by even a little bit, he becomes a domino that upgrades the talent across all four lines. To wit: he allows head coach Paul MacLean to play Greening and Peter Regin--players who spent most of their time on the first and second lines respectively last year--in the bottom six, and of course gives MacLean the luxury of slotting Silfverberg with some good players wherever he's comfortable. If Latendresse can produce, Silfverberg can be insulated if he struggles, and the bottom six can be counted on to play productive minutes beyond checking and penalty killing thanks to their upgrade in talent. If he doesn't produce, it's likely we'll see similar line combinations from last year.
3. Sergei Gonchar - In 37 games with Magnitogorsk Metallurg (which is almost what my parents named me before settling on Mark), Gonchar recorded 3 goals and 26 assists--good enough production to earn him an All-Star invitation. Of course, points are easy to come by when you're playing with Evgeni Malkin, but you still have to do the work.
It's no secret that Gonchar hasn't lived up to his contracts in the eyes of Senators fans: he was booed during introductions in last season's home opener, in a disgraceful display of classlessness from fans.Gonchar's play improved under MacLean, but it's concerning that though his point production increased, his power play points actually dropped, from 20 (5G, 15A) to 14 (2G, 12A) despite playing in more games. Part of this is due to the emergence of Erik Karlsson, as Gonchar was afforded fewer opportunities to be "the man." That can't happen again.
Here's why: With Jared Cowen in the lineup last year, Ottawa gave up the second-most shots in the league--the team's goalies faced an impressive 2627 shots. It was no coincidence that among last year's playoff teams, Ottawa allowed the most goals, and was the only team with a goal differential in single digits. Bad news: Jared Cowen is not walking through that door. So, it's reasonable to expect Ottawa to give up plenty of shots yet again. This means they must score more goals--they don't have their best defensive defensemen available--and if Gonchar can help do that on the second power play unit, that would be an excellent place to start. Gonchar won't be able to replace Cowen defensively, but outside of Karlsson, he's the best chance the team has to drive offense from the blue line. If he can't, things could get ugly.
4. Kyle Turris - Despite missing training camp last year and not being in game shape for much of the early season, Turris managed to put up career highs in goals (12), assists (17), and obviously, points (29). He also had kind of an important goal (listen for the Nightbreak cameo!) in the playoffs.
And now he has to build on that, because expecting Jason Spezza to lead the way every night is unrealistic. No one--not Malkin, not Sidney Crosby, not Alex Ovechkin, not Steven Stamkos, not Claude Giroux, not Henrik Sedin--can do it all every night. And on the nights where Spezza's line stumbles, it falls to the second line to lead the way. That's been a flaw in the design of Ottawa's teams for a long time now, and Turris was brought in to address it. GM Bryan Murray obviously believes he can--Turris was signed to a 5-year, $17.5M extension prior to what would have been the start of the season--but there's no time to adjust this year.
That's going to make it challenging in its own right, since this will be the second consecutive year Turris has missed a training camp--the six day staycation about to happen surely doesn't count. There's good news, since Turris reportedly spent the summer in Ottawa working on strength and conditioning with his good friend Patrick Wiercioch--and this has produced very, very noticeable benefits for Wiercioch. Turris also played games in Finland, but his opinion on his experience there was, shall we say... mixed. Either way, I'm pretty sure truck stop food wasn't in conditioning coach Chris Schwarz's offseason plan. Oh, and Turris' linemates this year? Aging captain Daniel Alfredsson, and either the aforementioned Latendresse or Silfverberg. Turris showed good chemistry with Alfredsson last year, and should get a talent upgrade at left wing, but he also gets no time to develop any rapport with them before he has to start producing. No pressure, Kyle... you're just the fulcrum for the balance of the season.
5. Marc Methot - Heisenberg was brought in to replace departed defenseman Filip Kuba, who didn't do much except help Karlsson win the Norris Trophy, and add a little actual defense to Ottawa's defense. No big deal. Methot seems more than capable of doing both of those things, especially since all Kuba really had to do was pass it to Karlsson and cover for him when he pinched. Considering Kuba's lack of physicality, Methot should actually be an upgrade in both departments.
So far, so good. Why is he on this list? Well, because Jared Cowen isn't walking through that door. As the only defenseman really capable of asserting himself in Ottawa's own zone, Methot now has the unenviable task of replacing not just Kuba, but Cowen as well. Not only does he have to be the team's top pairing defenseman, but he also becomes their top penalty-killer. And top hitter. And top shot-blocker. Pretty much everything that has to do with keeping the puck out of Ottawa's net now falls on Methot first, and that is a lot to ask of any player. I bet MacLean left out that part when he called Methot to congratulate him after the trade: "Oh, by the way, we're not good at defense so I hope you can skate 40 minutes a night because I don't have anyone else to play."
Methot is practically entering a no-win scenario thanks to the loss of Cowen. If he can't do everything that's going to be asked of him, the team is going to be looking at some back-breaking moments--yet there's no one else on the roster to ask these things of. It has to be Methot. Of all the players on this list, Methot probably has the tallest order. He may not be able to do everything the team needs him to this year, but if he can at least come close, things should be okay. If he can't, it might not even matter what the rest of the team does.
So, there you have it. In my opinion, these are the hidden lynchpins to a successful Senators season. Who are your five players who must step up in 2013?