Five Senators players who must step up in 2010

Training camp is now upon us, and though no one should still be thinking about last year's first round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, no one should forget how much it stung either. More importantly, we should cling to the belief that things could have been different had the team had a healthy Alex Kovalev, Milan Michalek, and yes, even Filip Kuba for the series. The Senators are not getting a lot of respect when it comes to the Eastern Conference and the truth is a lot of things had to go right for this team to return to the playoffs last year. However, there is also truth in stating that the team has the talent to make the playoffs this year.

But they don't have the talent to make it on talent alone.

With that in mind, identified here (in no particular order) are five players who are critical to the team's success this year. A poor season from any of these players could sink the season all by itself.  Conversely, an above average season from any of these players will go a long way towards carrying the team into the playoffs.

So, let's get started with the jewel of GM Bryan Murray's offseason:

Sergei Gonchar

#55 / Defenseman / Ottawa Senators



Apr 13, 1974

The Gonchar signing marked a significant shift in defensive philosophy for the Senators.  The big question is not whether he will produce -- he will -- but how he will fit within Cory Clouston's system.  Ottawa's head coach has the team play a very structured hockey game, but it's also safe to say Gonchar is the most talented defenseman he's ever had to work with within the organization.  His talents on the power play are well-documented, and the expectations for him there are clear, but his puck-moving skills are not limited to the man advantage.  In fact, it is his ability to help the Senators with the breakout from their own zone that will be crucial.

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.

After the jump, the rest of the list.

Mike Fisher

#12 / Center / Ottawa Senators



Jun 05, 1980

Ottawa's second line center led the team in goals last year with 25. He enjoyed open space playing with either Daniel Alfredsson or Alex Kovalev on his wing for most of the year. If the team's lineup from last year holds true, he can expect to anchor a line with Milan Michalek and Kovalev. Both wingers are capable of scoring 20 goals as well. A projected top line of Michalek/Peter Regin, Jason Spezza, and Alfredsson cannot carry the team by themselves.

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.

Pascal Leclaire

#33 / Goalie / Ottawa Senators



Nov 07, 1982

Let's be frank: This is Leclaire's last chance. A free agent after this season, he can either earn himself another contract, or he can suffer the fate of veterans like Marty Turco. Teams are simply not going to pay for a goaltender who isn't consistent -- and consistency has not been his hallmark over the past few years. Can Leclaire play? Yes, and his play in the playoffs this year has everyone believing he'll begin the season as the starter. Can he play at that level over the course of a whole season? He hasn't yet.

A large part of that last year was Leclaire's face's inability to survive the volcanic firepower of Mike Fisher's shots, but if he can't stay healthy, he's not going to be useful to the team anyway. Regardless of health, the hallmark of Ottawa's record-setting winning streak last year was consistent goaltending. Yes, there were nights with spectacular saves, but the wins were built from timely saves -- saves that should have been made. 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.

Milan Michalek

#9 / Left Wing / Ottawa Senators



Dec 07, 1984

You might be expecting to see Jason Spezza here, but Michalek's play touches the penalty kill as well as the power play. He started last season blazing, but faded as the year went on before sufferring a knee injury. He valiantly returned from a partially torn ACL only to completely tear his ACL. And of course, as essentially the last remaining piece of the Dany Heatley trade, there's some pressure on him to give the team at least some kind of modicum of value.

More importantly, Michalek's speed is going to be critical in helping to establish Ottawa's break out of their own zone.  As mentioned above, Sergei Gonchar has the skill to get the puck up the ice -- but he needs someone to get it to.  Michalek is the best possible candidate for that.  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.

Erik Karlsson

#65 / Defenseman / Ottawa Senators



May 31, 1990

We were spoiled by Karlsson's play at the end of last year, so it's easy to forget his early season struggles:  Despite a strong enough training camp to earn a 9-game audition in the show, Karlsson looked tentative and confused playing 2nd pairing minutes against true NHL opponents.  A trip to Binghamton helped him get his head right, and his growth from that point on was noticeable on a near-nightly basis.

It's an understatement to say that growth must continue this year.  Gonchar cannot be the relied upon as the only player to move the puck out of the offensive zone.  Karlsson's passing game must continue to improve or the team becomes one-dimensional in a hurry.  He will also be expected to contribute more during power plays, and everyone's expectation is that Gonchar will help foster his growth there.  But Karlsson's offensive contributions cannot be the only source of growth -- he must improve his defensive game as well.  Though he wasn't a huge liability in his own end as the season went on, he must do a better job of separating forwards from the puck.  He's already shown good instincts in using angles and body position to work the puck free, and that has to continue, but he has had a year in an NHL-level conditioning program now, and even if physicality will never be a hallmark of his game, he must prove he can handle the grind of an 82-game season.  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.

Of course, in the end, every player must perform well in their assigned role.  Key players such as Alfredsson, Spezza, and Kovalev are still critical pieces of the puzzle.  If they falter, the team falters.  Who do you consider the five Senators who must step up in 2010?

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