Five burning questions facing the Ottawa Senators in 2013

Unlike my NHL '96 team, the real Ottawa Senators are not a complete group.

The new season brings new challenges. This group of players is different than last year's, which means we're in for a different dynamic. It also means there's plenty of uncertainty swirling around the season. And, like any hack writer, we're going to speculate over what the biggest uncertainties are without offering any plausible explanations for how they might be overcome. Let's leave them hanging out there (in order):

5. Did last year's team overachieve?

There's two schools of thought here. Either you feel last year was a sign of things to come or you feel it was a banner year unlikely to be repeated. If you're in the former group, you're probably a big believer in head coach Paul MacLean's ability to bring out the best in his players, and are looking forward to seeing him create opportunities for new forwards like Guillame Latendresse and Jakob Silfverberg. If you're in the latter group, you probably say things like "regression to the mean" a lot and feel comfortable that career highs from Erik Karlsson and Milan Michalek (in a Sens jersey) and a near career high for Jason Spezza are unlikely to be repeated.

Here's the rub: Both sides could probably make a case for being right. The hope, of course, is that an injection of talent will help offset and kind of lapse in play from Ottawa's biggest producers. The good news is that line of thinking is at least plausible. The bad news is that it pretty much has to happen for the team to come close to replicating last year's success.We don't know yet whether last year was a building block or a mirage, but we're going to find out this year.

4. Did the team lose too much toughness?

This one is probably a little controversial, as "toughness" is not exactly a measurable statistic. Zenon Konopka, Nick Foligno, and Matt Carkner (though he only appeared in 29 regular season games) were three of Ottawa's biggest PIM accumulators, and they've all disappeared from the team. Chris Neil, who was second on the team with 178 PIMs is the only major player of that group who remains, though Zack Smith managed to rack up 98 himself for fourth place. The Senators gave up 998 penalty minutes last year, while accumulating 1145 of their own--good for second in the league, and a differential of 147. That's more than two whole games' worth of power play opportunities for their opponents, though of course it should be noted that these numbers aren't reflecting penalties like game misconducts which don't generate power plays by themselves. Still, it's not a coincidence that Ottawa allowed 57 power play goals last year, which was fifth-worst in the NHL.

The challenge is in separating the bad penalties from the good. Carkner's goonery on Brian Boyle in game two of the playoffs last year as retaliation for punching Erik Karlsson unprovoked in game one, whether you liked it or not, had the desired effect of deterring further abuse of Ottawa's best defenseman. Karlsson was still subjected to a stifling forecheck, but didn't absorb more punches--and as a team, the Senators played with more backbone after that point, eventually leading the series 3-2 before dropping it in game seven. Both Neil and Z. Smith have shown more than a willingness to answer the bell, but it remains to be seen if they are big enough forces to deter teams from taking liberties with Ottawa's less physical players.

3. What, if anything should be done about the goaltending logjam?

This one has been debated to death over the past few months, so we're not going to spend a lot of time on it. The general consensus seems to be that Craig Anderson will start this year with Ben Bishop supporting him while Robin Lehner finishes the year with Binghamton, with Bishop being moved in the offseason and Lehner sliding up to take his spot.

But that assumes that general manager Bryan Murray doesn't get a quality offer from some desperate team. Or it assumes Ottawa will not be a seller at the trade deadline. Or it assumes there won't be a need for all three players beyond next year--kitchens are dangerous. And what if the team finds itself with a major need, like the circumstances that forced Murray to trade his best defensive prospect, David Rundblad, for Kyle Turris? Ottawa has the luxury of a surplus at the position, but the key now is maximizing that value.

2. Where will the goals come from?

This is the same question that we were all asking last year, since the previous year's team was, to put it politely, low on offense. Luckily, the team managed to turn that around under MacLean, and its 249 goals were fifth-most in the league. Unfortunately, the team also let in 240 goals, creating a differential of just +9. By contrast, the Boston Bruins won the division with a differential of +67. In fact, Ottawa was the only team to make the playoffs with a single-digit positive goal differential. As we're about to discuss in greater detail, there's lots of reason to believe they are going to see another year with a high amount of shots, and by extension, goals.

The bottom line is that the Senators must rely on scoring, and not defense to win their games this year. Spezza, Karlsson, and Michalek won't be able to do it by themselves. And before you get those visions of Silfverberg wining the Rocket Richard on Spezza's wing, let's not forget the parade of hype we've seen there before. Temper your expectations.

1. Who will replace Jared Cowen?

Jared Cowen, and not Erik Karlsson, was the most important defensman for the Senators this upcoming season. His loss is absolutely devastating to the team. That's not a knock on Karlsson. We know what he brings to the team. But what Cowen brought was the yin to Karlsson's yang. Cowen was the defenseman on the team that would bring physicality and reduce the number of shots the team's goalies had to face. Cowen was the lynchpin of improving the team's defensive performance. He and Marc Methot were poised to do just that, and now he's gone.

Without Cowen, the Senators are down to one truly viable defensive pairing, because Cowen's usual partner, Sergei Gonchar, is known more for his offensive abilities than his defensive ones. With Cowen out, the team is suddenly lacking in defense in a major way. It's the biggest hole on the team, and it's the one the Sens most need to address in some way if they hope to having a winning season.

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