OTTAWA – The Ottawa Senators are counting on an off-season of addition by subtraction to get them headed in the right direction.
The Senators were Stanley Cup finalists in 2007, then came a seventh-place finish last season in the Eastern Conference (43-31-8) followed by a swift first-round playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Within a calendar year, Ottawa had endured both its longest and shortest post-season runs.
On the ice, the team was accused of getting complacent and the usual flaws from previous Senators’ teams – being too soft and lacking heart were cited. Off the ice, unfounded rumours of excessive partying and dissension among the ranks hung over the dressing room.
As a result, roster turnover was the approach in a busy off-season that saw the departure of more than one-third of last season’s lineup.
It’s clear that general manager Bryan Murray expects change to be a good thing in Canada’s capital.
“We have the core of our team back, I think we have some great character now that remains with us and we brought in some people that will add to that,” he said earlier in the pre-season. “I think we’ll hold each other accountable more often and, as a result, the team should end up being a better hockey team.”
Murray’s first order of business in the off-season was to hire a coach to finally replace John Paddock, fired as a result of the free fall last January. A fresh voice in the form of ex-NHLer Craig Hartsburg was brought in from the Ontario Hockey League’s Soo Greyhounds.
Then came the exits, through various forms, of goaltender Ray Emery and longtime defenceman Wade Redden, along with Andrej Meszaros, Cory Stillman, Mike Commodore, Randy Robitaille, Martin Lapointe and Brian McGrattan.
Making the point he was looking for character, Murray went out and signed free-agent defenceman Jason Smith, a 14-year veteran, from the Philadelphia Flyers to a two-year, US$5.2-million deal.
Smith’s approach will be refreshing to all the fans in Ottawa who grew tired of hearing players, Emery in particular, accused of not working hard enough.
“Personally, you’ve got to hold yourself accountable for what you do,” Smith said. “It’s not just about playing the games. It’s about coming to practice and competing hard every day and being a true professional.”
Meanwhile, Meszaros was dealt to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a deal that netted the Senators two roster defenceman in Filip Kuba and youngster Alexandre Picard (in addition to a first-round pick in 2009).
Pesky forward Jarkko Ruutu inked a three-year, $3.9-million deal to join from the Penguins and a youth movement that includes defenceman Brian Lee and forwards Cody Bass and Nick Foligno, who all stand to play more than they did a year ago, was also put into place.
With the Senators starting their season in Stockholm, the first time they’ll begin overseas, they’ve been handed a clean slate.
“Last year is last year for me,” Hartsburg said. “I wasn’t part of it. I’ve seen a lot, I’ve heard a lot, I’ve talked to a lot of people. We want to move forward.
“We’ve got some great players, but now it’s about being a good team – people sacrificing in some areas, people doing things that maybe they don’t like to do, but enjoying it even though they don’t like it. That’s how you become a tight group, with guys buying in.”
Up front, the Senators may be less talented, but faster and more hard-working.
The big three of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and captain Daniel Alfredsson should all continue to shoulder the offensive load, whether they play together or not.
In the pre-season, rookie right-winger Jesse Winchester, who appeared in just one game last season after signing as a free agent out of U.S. college hockey, was given a chance to play with Spezza and Heatley, but Alfredsson will likely play there as well.
Spezza and Heatley spent time in the pre-season talking of the need to adopt new roles and, strange as it may sound, see themselves focusing more on the defensive side of things.
“I’d like a challenge of a little more responsibility on the penalty kill or on the defensive end,” Heatley said. “It’s no secret this team can score goals. I think it’s a matter of being committed to team defence.”
Scoring depth will be an issue for the Senators up front, however, as highlighted by the fact that rugged right-winger Chris Neil had the most goals in pre-season before the team left for Sweden.
Mike Fisher missed much of training camp through injury and may not be ready to go to start the season while Chris Kelly and Antoine Vermette, re-signed in the off-season, have been quiet so far.
At least Foligno, who appeared in 45 games last season, appears ready to contribute more and a possible combination of Neil, Bass and Ruutu provides some grit and energy.
“We have a pretty good mix of skill and grit this year,” Alfredsson said. “You’ve got to find a balance and we’ll see how it works out.”
On the blue-line, Redden had been the fall guy for Ottawa’s defensive shortcomings ever since the Senators’ decision to retain him at US$6.5 million a year in the summer of 2006 cost them the services of Zdeno Chara, who subsequently signed with the Boston Bruins.
By the end of last year, his confidence appeared to be shot and a change of scenery seemed to be the best option for the former all-star to regain his form.
The departure of Chara also seemed to have stalled the development of Meszaros, who has never got back to the level he performed at as a rookie partner to his fellow Slovak in 2005-06.
The Senators also decided to let Commodore walk as a free agent after he was picked up from Carolina as part of a multi-player trade that saw blue-liner Joe Corvo leave Ottawa in February.
That meant that of the six defenceman who started last season with Ottawa, only two – the top pairing of Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov – are still around.
The biggest addition figures to be the 34-year-old Smith. A former captain with the Flyers and Edmonton Oilers who’s closing in on 1,000 games for his career, brings experience and an added element of toughness – something the Senators lacked far too often in their own zone last season.
“I look at playing the Flyers last year and going up against Jason Smith. He’s a hard-nosed player,” Neil said. “When you go in the corner with him, you’re coming out with some bangs and bruises.”
Smith and Kuba have been matched up as the second defensive pairing and appear to have found some chemistry early. Hartsburg has been impressed with their transition game and they’ll likely see some power-play time, too.
“The thing with the both of them is they’re really good defenders, big men, but they’re really poised with puck,” he said.
With Emery gone, there will be no debate over the No. 1 goaltending role in Ottawa this season, at least as long as Martin Gerber remains solid enough to keep newcomer Alex Auld out of the crease.
Gerber seemed to flourish down the stretch once it was decided that Emery’s place would be on the bench and was one of the few Senators to escape blame for the team’s early playoff exit.
He finished the year with a respectable 30-18-4 record, 2.72 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
Although he raised a few eyebrows by allowing goals on the opening shot of the game in back-to-back pre-season contests, he says he feels comfortable behind the team’s restructured defence corps, which he feels are bigger and more physical in front of the net.
Auld, signed as a free agent in the summer, proved a reliable backup last year in Boston after starting the season with the Phoenix Coyotes. With the Bruins, he posted a 9-7-5 record with a 2.32 GAA and .919 save percentage.
“There was a frustration level I saw in Martin a few times (last year),” Murray said. “He always showed up to practice and worked hard and he felt his counterpart didn’t always do that. I think that affected him a little bit.
“This year, there’s no excuse that way at all. We’ll have two guys that work hard every day in practice and the players will benefit from that.”
A benefit from last year’s performance will be the scaled-back expectations since the Senators, in the past, have shown they’re better when not trying to live up to them.
That won’t be the case this year, where they’re likely not on anyone’s radar as a team to beat. That may make it easier for all the new faces to fit in.
“We’re an in-work program,” Murray said. “They’ll take a little bit of time to get together, but when they do, we hope we are a better hockey team in the long run.”