OTTAWA – When Craig Anderson looks at his teammates lined up in front of him, the Ottawa Senators goaltender can’t help but feel he’s seen this situation before.
A team with a relatively unproven lineup and free of expectations, similar to one he played for a couple of seasons ago in Colorado, and one that proved to be among the surprises of the NHL by year end.
Not much is expected of the 2011-12 Senators as the rebuilding process that began in February with the trade of several key veterans continues. In fact, most pre-season publications and experts have them pegged to finish closer to the basement than the playoffs.
However, if Anderson can replicate the form he showed with Colorado during the 2009-10 season in leading the upstart Avalanche team to a surprise playoff berth (71 games played that year with a 38-25-7, 2.63 goals-against average and .917 save percentage), the Senators could spring a similar surprise on the rest of the Eastern Conference and return to post-season after missing out last spring, the second time in three years that’s happened.
“If you came into the room every year thinking you weren’t going to be in the playoffs, you wouldn’t be in this league,” Anderson, who arrived in a February trade from the Avalanche and was promptly given a four-year, US$12.75-million contract extension to provide the Senators with a No. 1 goalie, said during training camp. “You come in here with the attitude that you guys can beat anybody and youth, age, experience, it doesn’t mean anything once the puck gets dropped out there. In general, it comes down to who wants it more.”
Desire shouldn’t be a problem for the Senators. They’re eager to make up for a disastrous 32-40-10 showing that cost coach Cory Clouston his job.
General manager Bryan Murray managed to sidestep the blame and signed a three-year contract extension, allowing him to follow through on the rebuilding process he began by dumping veteran salary before last year’s trade deadline in favour of a youth movement.
His first order of business in the off-season was to hire Paul MacLean as coach.
MacLean is preaching a speed game, the kind played by Detroit Red Wings, for whom he served with as an assistant under Mike Babcock for the past six seasons.
Of course, that’ll be a tough ask given that the Senators don’t have players comparable to Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg up front or a Nicklas Lidstrom at the back.
However, they do have a number of players hungry to make sure they stay at the NHL level, so MacLean, a 53-year-old who managed to make his name as a player with the Winnipeg Jets, Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues by scoring and playing a hard-nosed game, should ensure the Senators at least put in the effort on a consistent basis.
“He understands we have a young team and mistakes are going to be made, but if we can be a good skating team, you can make up for those mistakes,” said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. “A lot of it is puck movement, too. On the back end, we have a lot of skill that can move up quick, which allows your team to be quick, too. If you can move the puck quick and transition quick and if we backcheck hard that allows us to transition quicker, we’ll be a fast team.”
The overhaul began last season in goal and Ottawa has hung its hat on Anderson to build from the crease out.
He went 11-5-1 in 18 appearances with a 2.05 GAA and impressive .939 save percentage in Ottawa after arriving in February and, with Alex Auld signed to back him up, the Senators are likely to ride Anderson as far as he can take them.
On defence, the Senators need rebound years out of two of the team’s elder statesmen, Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar, both of whom are coming off sub-par seasons.
Gonchar was signed to be an offensive quarterback, but struggled with just 20 points in 67 games while posting a plus-minus rating of minus-15. He finished the year on the sidelines after suffering a concussion.
Fortunately, young Swedish blue-liner Erik Karlsson had a breakout season and was one of the few Senators to emerge from the year with his reputation enhanced.
Gonchar’s plight was symbolic of much of the team.
“Sergei’s been a great pro, he’s been one of the top offensive defencemen in the league over a number of years and he was disappointed in his own performance last year, but I think it’s contagious,” Murray said. “Attitude, performance, is contagious and when our team’s went south, everybody jumped on board and we need the opposite to happen here. We need people to come in and be enthused, feel that they’re getting a fresh start and I think Sergei will bounce back and be the player he’s been most of his career, which is a pretty good one.”
While an improvement from the back end is necessary, Ottawa’s biggest worry might just be who’s going to put the puck in the other team’s net considering only the New Jersey Devils (174 goals for) managed to score less than Ottawa (192) in 2010-11.
The Senators will be hoping a full season out of Alfredsson may help remedy the situation. He was limited to just 31 points in 54 games by a back injury that required off-season surgery, but he’ll be 39 in December, so there will be question marks over his ability to remain healthy and contribute as much as he has in the past.
Jason Spezza managed to string together a strong finish to the season with 23 points over his final 15 games and he’ll again be counted on to lead the offence while trying to show he’s a more-rounded player.
One newcomer who made an impact in the pre-season is Swedish rookie Mika Zibanejad, the team’s first pick in June’s draft (sixth overall), and he will be given a chance to start the season in the NHL.
The 18-year-old centre, who can also play on the wing, has arguably been the Senators’ best player in the exhibition season.
“He’s a powerful skater and strong on the puck,” Alfredsson said of the newcomer.
A couple of other youngsters could crack the opening night roster on the blue-line in 20-year-old Saskatoon native Jared Cowen and Swede David Rundblad, also 20, who was named the Swedish Elite League’s top defenceman last season.
The less-heralded Mark Borowiecki, a fifth-round pick in 2008, had a strong pre-season and could earn playing time at the NHL level throughout the season.
After finishing the season with the big club, players such as Erik Condra, Colin Greening, both in their mid-20s, and Zack Smith are expected to assume regular roles and the Senators feel they have a blend of old and new that has the team hopeful of being able to get things headed in the right direction after the lows of last season.
“We have great veteran leadership in the room,” Anderson said. “They’re going to bring the younger guys along and young guys bring youth and energy. The coaching staff will teach them their ways and having everyone buy into the same program and having guys work as teammates, you’ll see a lot of success.”