OTTAWA - Jason Spezza is happy, Daniel Alfredsson and Alex Kovalev are healthy and the Ottawa Senators should be plenty hungry after two lean seasons.
Throw in the addition of Sergei Gonchar and some emerging young talent and, if all goes according to plan, the Senators will prove some of their pre-season doubters wrong.
“I think we’ve got a good hockey team, I think we’re a contending team in the East,”GM Bryan Murray said before training camp opened.“I suspect that we’ll be better than last year—I expect that.
“Some of our young players, in particular, should be better.…You pair that with a number of the veterans coming back and continuing the kind of play they’ve had and we should be a good hockey club.”
It’s been more than three years since the Senators reached their franchise pinnacle, a trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2007. They’ve not come anywhere near that feat since then and have yet to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs.
A year ago, they had to adjust to life without two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley after an ugly falling out during the off-season.
Fortunately for the Senators, this summer was a relatively quiet one with only minor rumblings about Spezza being unhappy after he was booed by home fans during last year’s playoffs. The star centre cleared the air, however, after the no-movement clause in his contract kicked in July 1 and he pledged his allegiance to the Senators’cause.
“My priorities are here in Ottawa and I want to win in Ottawa,”he said.
Spezza was hampered by a bad back last season and was slow to adjust to life without Heatley. He also admitted to getting caught up in trying to impress the selectors for Canada’s Olympic team, a roster he failed to make.
But he had a strong pre-season and will figure prominently in Ottawa’s offence, along with linemates Alfredsson and Milan Michalek.
Alfredsson is just getting back to speed after undergoing surgery to repair a sports hernia over the break. But at age 37 he still figures to be a point-a-game player or better and remains the team's heart and soul.
Michalek joined Kovalev in needing surgery to repair a torn ACL during the off-season. But the enigmatic Kovalev says he doesn’t expect any setbacks.
Nick Foligno was a standout performer in exhibition play as was Zack Smith, who appears to have earned a full-time spot in the NHL, so the Senators forward lines should be deeper and more talented.
On defence, Gonchar’s arrival as a free agent and the continued emergence of sophomore Erik Karlsson gives reason for optimism, too.
With long-time defensive stalwart Anton Volchenkov and Andy Sutton moving on, the Senators will have a different look at the back—less big bodies to block shots, but more mobile and capable of moving the puck out of their own end.
The Senators gave up a lot of goals during the exhibition season, and, as usual, they can expect their goaltenders to receive plenty of the blame for that and plenty of scrutiny throughout the season.
It’s never a good sign for an NHL team when its best goaltender in the pre-season, 19-year-old Swede Robin Lehner, will be playing in the American Hockey League. So Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott will have their work ahead of them in winning over the fans and media in Ottawa.
Elliott eventually became the team’s No. 1 goaltender down the stretch last year and could regain the title if Leclaire doesn’t improve upon a poor first season as a Senator.
Even with the shaky goaltending and Spezza’s off-year offensively, Ottawa still managed to finish with a 44-32-6 record, good enough for second in the Northeast Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference.
This time around, pre-season predictions haven’t been kind to the Senators—The Hockey News, for example, has them finishing 10th in the conferencewhile The Sporting News even had them finishing last in their division.
Should they avoid any major injuries, however, the Senators think they’ll be just fine.
“We will set (the bar) pretty high for ourselves,”Alfredsson said during training camp.“We’ve got high expectations with guys being healthy.”