The rebuilding Ottawa Senators, who missed the playoffs in 2010-11, entered last season expected by many observers to finish last in the Eastern Conference.
Instead, they surprised the experts by not only making the post-season, but also pushing the Conference-leading New York Rangers to the limit in their conference quarterfinal series before falling in seven games.
Under first-year coach Paul MacLean, the Senators made significant improvement in their offensive game, rising from the second-worst goals-per-game (2.32) in ’10-11 to the fourth-best in ’11-12 (2.96). Their power play also improved, rising from 15th overall the season prior to 11th in ’11-12.
Center Jason Spezza, left winger Milan Michalek and right winger Daniel Alfredsson all had healthier seasons, resulting in significantly improved offensive numbers. Spezza notched more than 80 points for the first time since 0’7-08, Michalek tallied a career-best 35 goals and Alfredsson scored 27 goals, marking the seventh time in his career he reached or exceeded that number.
The most significant factor to Ottawa’s offensive improvement, however, was defenseman Erik Karlsson, who led all NHL blueliners in assists (59) and points (78) and tied for the lead in goals with 19. That performance earned the 22-year-old his first Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.
As well, the Senators got contributions from promising players like 26-year old rookie left winger Colin Greening, centers Zack Smith (24) and Kyle Turris (23, and acquired last December via trade with Phoenix), and blueliner Jared Cowen (21).
Add in elite prospect forwards like right winger Jakob Silfverberg (22) and center Mika Zibanejad (19), and the Senators’ future looks bright.
Goaltending used to be a problem area for the Senators, but GM Bryan Murray did a good job addressing that over the past two seasons. He acquired starter Craig Anderson late in the ’10-11 season, then picked up Ben Bishop late last season from St. Louis. The Senators also have promising Robin Lehner waiting in the wings.
Still, their defensive play and scoring depth on right wing remain a concern.
Their defense last season was among the worst in the league, perched 24th in goals-against (2.88 per game) and with a penalty kill tied for 20th overall.
Having lost blueliner Filip Kuba to free agency, Murray dealt left winger Nick Foligno to the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman (and Ottawa native) Marc Methot.
Enforcers Matt Carkner and Zenon Kenopka also signed with other clubs, which could have an effect upon Ottawa’s team toughness this season.
Murray replaced Foligno with free agent Guillaume Latendresse, inking him to an affordable one-year contract. When healthy, Latendresse (25) has the potential to be a 30-goal scorer, but a series of concussions sidelined him for 137 games over the past two seasons.
Given Latendresse’s health issues, Alfredsson’s age (39) and the need for experienced second-line scoring depth, Murray could consider his trade options when the NHL lockout finally ends.
The Senators GM reportedly had interest in Rick Nash, even to the point of making an offer to the Blue Jackets, but Nash didn’t want to go to Ottawa and was instead dealt to the New York Rangers.
In July, the Ottawa Sun reported Murray was believed to have held talks with the Anaheim Ducks for right winger Bobby Ryan. The Sun also speculated Dallas Stars left winger Brenden Morrow was available.
Murray currently has just less than $52 million invested in his roster for this season. If the salary cap ceiling is lowered under the new collective bargaining agreement to $60 million this season, he’ll still have more than $8 million in space to bolster his roster, especially if other clubs are forced by the lowered cap ceiling to dump salary.
He could also put that cap space to use later in the season if required to improve the Senators playoff chances.
Unlike the 2011 trade deadline, when Murray was a seller, he’s now in a good position to become a buyer. Still, he’ll proceed with caution.
Having been burned by taking on expensive contracts in the past and given ownership’s more cost-conscious ways, Murray could seek affordable talent that will mesh well with his young players.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.