It's a given that to succeed this season, the Ottawa Senators need their stars to perform like stars. Despite losing Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson, and Craig Anderson, the team was able to make the playoffs last year, but you'd have to be a serious homer to bet on the possibility of that happening twice. The team can't succeed without Spezza, Karlsson, Anderson, and Bobby Ryan not living up to expectations. And yet, as good as those players are, they're not good enough by themselves to allow the team to surpass the success of last year. As always, the team can only reach its full potential if the players in lesser roles perform as well. Here are five players--in no particular order--whose success will greatly affect their team's chances--and whose struggles will make life extremely unpleasant for their teammates.
1. Robin Lehner
Craig Anderson is likely to carry the load for most of this season. That's fine, because he's a very good player. He's just not good enough to carry the Senators into the playoffs by himself. Last year, in tabbing then-backup Ben Bishop as one of the five players who must step up, I wrote:
[In 2011-12], 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.
Last year, of course, there were only 48 games on the schedule, thanks to a completely pointless lockout. Of those, Anderson appeared in just 24 thanks to a high ankle sprain. And despite posting a league-best .941 save percentage and league-best 1.69 GAA, Anderson went just 12-9-2 in those appearances. The team needed another 13 combined wins (eight from Bishop, five from Lehner, plus four more overtime losses from the big Swede) in 25 games (Bishop finished the game in which Anderson was hurt) just to squeak into seventh place--their 56 points had them tied with the New York Rangers, who won the tiebreaker, and just one point ahead of the eighth-place New York Islanders. More importantly, the margin between the Senators and ninth-place Winnipeg Jets was just five points. The Senators were just three losses from not making the playoffs at all.
Over an 82-game schedule, the margin for error is greater than that, but the point still stands. Anderson is good enough to get the team in playoff position, but his backup needs to win at least half of his games for the Senators to make the playoffs. This year, Lehner is that backup, so the pressure is on.
2. Patrick Wiercioch
This name isn't much of a secret. Over the summer, Wiercioch was handed a fat new contract and a role with much more responsibility. No pressure, kid, just go out there and replace a future Hall-of-Fame defenseman. The departed Sergei Gonchar was second on the team in scoring with 27 points, so Wiercioch is not being asked to be a minor contributor. Of course, Gonchar's responsibilities increased with Erik Karlsson's injury--Gonchar slid onto the top power play unit--so Wiercioch will not be expected to contend for the team scoring lead.
But Wiercioch will be getting time on the top power play unit alongside Karlsson. And before the injury, Gonchar was looked to to provide a secondary scoring punch to Karlsson's. While Gonchar was sometimes maligned for his inability to do that consistently and his seemingly lackadaisical play in his own zone, it's worth noting that Wiercioch was actively sheltered from the latter last season. This season, there's nowhere to hide. Either Wiercioch is a complete defenseman in all three zones, or he's an obvious weak point for opponents to exploit. There's no middle ground here.
3. Cory Conacher
Conacher makes this list primarily because of the strong preseason he put together. In one of the few open competitions during training camp, Conacher notched at least a point in every game he appeared, allowing him to lock down the position on Kyle Turris' right wing.
It doesn't even matter so much that that used to be Daniel Alfredsson's spot. What does matter is that this spot is only Conacher's for as long as he keeps producing. Let's not forget that part of the reason Conacher had to earn this spot in camp is because he was unable to earn it after being acquired via trade last year. Now, that's not a slight against him--not every player can immediately adapt to a new environment, new coaching staff, and new teammates right away, especially as a rookie--but it's still a reality. It's extremely promising that Conacher has shown improvement in all the areas that earned head coach Paul MacLean's ire last year, and showed great chemistry with his new linemates on top of that, but it's hard to feel like Conacher has a lot of runway to work with.
That's bad news, because the team doesn't have any replacement options that looked near as hungry as Conacher did. If he can't hold down the position, it opens up the possibility of a revolving door at right wing, hoping to find someone who will complement Turris and Clarke MacArthur--and hope is not a strategy.
4. Stephane Da Costa
Much like Conacher, Da Costa now has something to live up to--though in his case, he's only on the list because of the position he's playing, and not the fact that he's apparently beaten out Mika Zibanejad and Jean-Gabriel Pageau for it. Centering Zack Smith and Chris Neil, it's obvious Da Costa is going to be asked to shut down opposing lines on a nightly basis.
That's okay, because he's shown some proclivity for sneaky takeaways in the past, but it's not exactly the role he was given during the preseason--Da Costa was used as a replacement for the dinged-up Jason Spezza. Now he's being asked to do a complete 180 and prevent goals instead of scoring them.
Whomever got this job as a center was going to have a tough assignment, especially given the competition they'll face in the Atlantic Division on a nightly basis. But this is an assignment that doesn't seem naturally suited to Da Costa's talents. He'll be getting anywhere from 9-13 minutes a night, but if he can't make them hard minutes for opposing teams, the other three lines will have to do more scoring to pick up the slack.
5. Jared Cowen
Much like Patrick Wiercicoch, Cowen emerges into a new role, and with a new contract that pays him like he's capable of doing it. There's just one little problem: He hasn't actually demonstrated that he can yet.
As long as they're paired together, Cowen and Wiercioch are the Senators' own version of The Defiant Ones. If Wiericoch does his job well, Cowen's job will be easier. If Cowen does his job well, Wiercioch's will be easier. Buy succeeding, each can buoy the other's success. By struggling, each can torpedo the other's chances.
There's no doubt the organization believes in Cowen. They picked him ninth overall, and they didn't have a problem offering him a contract longer than the ones they offered to Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Erik Karlsson. They were also comfortable giving him a significant raise despite his limited resume. Those aren't moves you make if you don't have confidence in a player's future.
And it's not like Cowen and Wiercioch are stuck with each other like Cullen and Joker, either. MacLean has never showed any hesitancy to shuffle players he doesn't feel are working well together. But no matter where Cowen goes, he's got to perform. Whether it's getting top pairing minutes with Karlsson or playing a shutdown role with Chris Phillips, this year Cowen has too much responsibility to fail. Should he stumble, the ripples will affect more players than merely himself.
That's my list. What's yours?
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