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NHL Season Preview: Three Big Questions Facing the Ottawa Senators

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We're just a few days from the start of the 2014-2015 season, and the Senators are a team with a lot of question marks heading into the campaign. The Silver Seven Staff answer three of those big questions.

Coach Paul MacLean with some of his favourite players.
Coach Paul MacLean with some of his favourite players.
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

1. How will the absence of Jason Spezza affect the Senators?

At this point for fans of the Ottawa Senators, the story is old. On July 1, Jason Spezza was traded to the Dallas Stars, along with Ludwig Karlsson, for Alex Chiasson, Alex Guptill, Nick Paul, and Dallas's second-round pick in 2015. Overall, the trade was seen as a quality-for-quantity trade. Spezza has 687 points in 686 games, while Chiasson is the only other player in the deal with NHL experience, totalling 86 career NHL games, while Guptill has 5 career AHL games, and Paul is still in the OHL. What Senators fans want at this point is for the season to get going, so that people can stop wondering how Ottawa will get by without Spezza, and start watching the new era.

The main reason this trade was possible was the emergence of Kyle Turris. During the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, Spezza missed all but five games and fans got a chance to see Turris as the first-line centre. He wasn't elite by any stretch, but he held his own in uncharted territory. A year later, the first-line centre role was Turris' in all but the pre-game report. His chemistry with Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan led to the trio becoming the de facto top line, playing the toughest minutes and carrying possession more than Spezza's line. Spezza was relegated to playing with Milan Michalek and a rotating cast of characters (Colin Greening, Cory Conacher, even Chris Neil) until Ales Hemsky was acquired at the trade deadline. Will Turris and his linemates be able to continue their chemistry from last season as the team's top line? This needs to happen for the team to offset the loss of Spezza's offense.

The other significant factor in the Spezza trade was the readiness of Mika Zibanejad. By all accounts, Zibanejad is poised to have a strong third season in the NHL. With more minutes, more responsibility, and more consistent linemates, Zibanejad could become the definitive second-line centre of this team. GM Bryan Murray has said that he sees Zibanejad as a top-line centre down the road and becoming the second-line pivot at age 21 could definitely help in his development. Murray has even bought himself insurance through free agency, in the acquisition of David Legwand. Should Zibanejad struggle out of the gate, Coach Paul MacLean will have the option of reducing Zibanejad's ice-time early in the season, giving the tougher minutes to the veteran Legwand, then slowly increasing Zibanejad's role once he's comfortable. Will Zibanejad and Legwand be able to adequately replace Spezza's presence on the second line? Secondary scoring will be crucial for a team as young as the Senators.

Earlier in his career, Spezza was also seen as a very important piece in the Senators' powerplay. However, to the surprise of nobody, the main power play pivot has become Erik Karlsson. With Karlsson having a full off-season to train without worrying about rehabbing his Achilles injury, he is likely to become even more of a force to reckon with this upcoming season. Last season, the Senators had a middling power play, finishing 14th in the NHL with an 18.5% power play efficiency. Will Karlsson be able to run an effective power play without Spezza as a secondary pivot?

The last source of hope for Sens fans concerning the departure of Spezza is the youth in Ottawa's system. Zibanejad is the biggest name, but many others could make a splash this upcoming season. Jean-Gabriel Pageau is still famed for his 2013 playoff hat-trick against the rival Montreal Canadiens, and after a solid AHL season in 2013-2014, could be making a push to make the big club again. Extremely-hyped prospect Curtis Lazar will likely be given a nine-game tryout stint with the Senators before a decision is made as to whether or not he is returned to captain his Memorial Cup-winning WHL squad, the Edmonton Oil Kings. Several young wingers will be looking for their chance to replace Spezza's offense, including Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Matt Puempel, and Shane Prince. Newly-acquired Alex Chiasson will also be looking to make his mark. Will the youth be able to replace Spezza's offense by committee?

Spezza could be argued as the best pure offensive talent to ever have been in Ottawa's system. His points will not be replaced by any one player. However, where Ottawa struggled most last season was defense. Some players have suggested that the team will need a stronger defensive mindset for this upcoming season. Defense was never the strongest part of Spezza's game, and this is why many expect Spezza's absence to have less effect than should be expected for a career point-per-game player. Still, late in a game with the Senators down by a goal, when the opposing team decides to put two players on Karlsson to shut him down, fans may wish there was another game-breaking offensive talent on the team.

Most Sens fans have gone over this information since July. They are ready for the puck to finally drop, so that the speculation can end, and life after Spezza becomes nothing more than the current era of Senators hockey.

2. How will Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson perform?

The 2013-2014 season was certainly not a career highlight for Craig Anderson or Robin Lehner. Both goaltenders slumped slightly from previous years, but the blame cannot be placed solely on their shoulders. The Senators defense was laughable at times, to say the least. But the question remains: How will Lehner and Anderson perform this year?

History indicates that both goalies are capable of bounce-back years. Here's a look at their numbers over the last couple of seasons:

Craig Anderson

In 2010-2011, Craig Anderson made a great impression on Sens management initially, posting a .939 SV% and 2.05 GAA on the season. He was just getting started. He played a major role in bringing the Pesky Sens to life in 2011-2012, with a .914 SV% and 2.84 GAA, while facing over 1,900 shots. But his best year was 2012-2013, when he had a .941 SV% and 1.69 GAA, taking the team to the second round of the playoffs.

So his numbers in 2013-2014 (.911 SV%; 3.00 GAA), while certainly nothing to scoff at, are not indicative of his capabilities as a goaltender. Management showed that they have faith in him this summer by signing him to a three-year contract extension. While Lehner is the goalie of the future, Craig Anderson is the goalie of the present, and the team clearly feels that he will return to normal form this season. He's had more good years in Ottawa than bad, and I see things looking up for Anderson this upcoming season.

Robin Lehner

While Robin Lehner does not have the sample size of games that Anderson has, he does have the hearts and attention of many Sens fans. Since he was labeled "the goalie of the future" by management, fans have been eagerly awaiting the time when Lehner would make himself comfortable as the starting goaltender.

Much like Anderson, Lehner did not have the greatest year in 2013-2014, with a .913 SV% and 3.06 GAA. But, also like Anderson, Lehner has posted much more impressive numbers in the past. In 2012-2013, he had a .936 SV% and 2.20 GAA in his first full season with the Ottawa Senators.

His playoff numbers should be part of the discussion. In the Calder-Cup-winning playoff run by the Binghamton Senators in 2011, Lehner posted a .939 SV% and 2.10 GAA, taking home both the Cup and the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for MVP in the playoffs. Winning the Calder Cup as a teenager put Lehner in a class with other goalies such as Carey Price, Patrick Roy and Gordie Bell. So, there's that.

Clearly, Lehner is able to play in high-pressure situations, indicating that he will fit nicely into the role of regular goaltender one day. If either of these goalies makes a drastic improvement on last season, I think it will be Lehner.

Both of these goalies are capable of better seasons than the previous one. Their improvement will depend on the play of the team in front of them. The defense cannot get away with another porous season like 2013-2014 if they expect their goalies to return to previous form. But even if they have to make up for the mistakes of the defense, I expect them both to be more prepared to carry the workload this season based on their established pedigree.

3. Will Paul MacLean return to his Jack Adams Award-winning form?

After a strong season with the Senators in 2011-2012, head coach Paul MacLean was nominated for the Jack Adams Award, an impressive feat for a first-time NHL head coach.  During the subsequent lockout-shortened season, MacLean proved that his nomination wasn't a fluke by winning the Jack Adams Award. After several years of coaching instability, it looked like the Senators had found a coach capable of manning the helm.

Indeed, MacLean's Jack Adams-worthy performance-along with a seemingly ironclad roster featuring a healthy Jason Spezza, a healthy Erik Karlsson, a hot new sniper in Bobby Ryan, and a goaltending duo of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner-created high expectations for the Senators to start the 2013-2014 season. Some even predicted that they might lift Lord Stanley's Cup. Things didn't quite go as planned and part of the blame should be placed on MacLean.

Last season, MacLean made several questionable decisions which ultimately impacted Ottawa's playoff chances. The beloved, laid-back fisherman from Antigonish decided to change his demeanour to that of a more demanding and autocratic coach and consequently, lost touch with his players. Some teams thrive on having a coach rule with an iron fist, but Ottawa wasn't one of them.

Luckily, fans weren't the only ones to notice MacLean's change. In his end-of-season press conference, GM Bryan Murray said, "my note to him today was the players liked the old Paul. They liked the guy that sat and talked to them, that treated them in a more easygoing fashion that taught and not confronted." Obviously, Murray noticed that MacLean lost what made him special; he lost his ability to reach his players on a human level. MacLean has recently said that he wants enthusiasm in the rink and wants everyone to enjoy coming to play. He also said he'll change his approach by adjusting how demanding he is and will make sure he lets the players have some fun. Perhaps this alone will help foster positive changes in the team, but his ability to reach his players isn't the only adjustment MacLean needs to make. Some of the most glaring areas needing improvement are defensive play, discipline, player usage, and possession.

Player Usage. One of the biggest issues seemed to be that players like Chris Neil and Zack Smith had more ice time than players than bottom-six forwards are typically awarded.  Part of the issue was the need for strong defensive-zone starts, but playing the Greening-Smith-Neil line didn't really help all that much. In actuality, the line didn't generate as many shots for as they did shots against, which means they didn't bolster the offense or defense. Penalty problems, moreover, meant that lines would get juggled and the more defensive-minded forwards would get more playing time. This meant that Smith, when he wasn't in the box, was often on the ice. Hopefully an improvement in team discipline, the acquisition of Legwand, and development of Zibanejad, will create less need for the team's fourth line to play more minutes than they should.

Possession, Possession, Possession. The Senators need to carry the puck more, especially since advanced statistics are showing how big of a difference controlled zone entries can have in producing scoring chances as opposed to uncontrolled zone entries. The key here is that controlled entries allow a team to maintain possession of the puck in the offensive zone, allowing the team more time on the offensive-zone attack, resulting in more shots. Uncontrolled entries allow for less time with the puck because the team has to regain possession, which can take quite a bit of time if they lose the footrace. Last season, the Senators entered the offensive zone with control around 48% of the time, which isn't horrible, but it isn't great either. Given that the Senators don't have offensive juggernauts like Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, Paul MacLean needs to tweak his offensive strategy so he can generate the most offense with the players he has. Improving their possession play is one way to do that, especially with players like Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur, Mark Stone, and Erik Karlsson who are all possession drivers.

At the End of the Day MacLean doesn't have a star-studded roster to play with like Joel Quenneville or Darryl Sutter, but he does have a young and energetic team looking to better themselves and prove the critics wrong. This team seems to play better when they're considered the underdog and if MacLean inspires them and strengthen some of their weaknesses, then he'll be back in the graces of Senators fans. At the same time, if MacLean starts the season off on a bad note, he will most likely be on the hot seat, which could eventually lead to a coaching change this season. It's ultimately up to MacLean to learn from his mistakes and steer this team back on course.