Coming off a Stanley Cup finals appearance, the Ottawa Senators jumped out to a fast start, drawing comparisions to the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens team that lost only eight regular season games.
But their top line got tired and injured. There was no secondary scoring. Their goaltending was a distraction. The coach was fired. They barely made the playoffs, and were swept in the first round.
The team tried to address some of these issues in the offseason, but unless they can make a major trade, this will be a team that will battle for a playoff spot.
Forwards: Sure everyone knows about the top line. Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley are arguably the best line in the NHL. That ignores the fact that the other teams don’t stack all their best players on one line (ie- Pittsburgh doesn’t have Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby on the same line). But without a doubt, this line can score.
It’s when you get past that top line that you start to see the trouble. Chris Neil could be on the second line. Cody Bass, Jarkko Ruttuu and Chris Kelly make up the third line. No offense to these players, but they’re not exactly known for their goals.
Neil will be fine on the second line. In fact, I’d like to see him play on a line with Heatley and Spezza. Remember, Pavel Bure had his best years when Gino Odjick was his winger. I think Neil would help open up space for the other two. This also frees up Alfredsson to play with two other players, maybe to help get them confidence and help them score.
The Sens improved their toughness in the offseason, but still lack that secondary line to score. The Sens new coach, Craig Hartsburg, said he doesn’t plan on playing the top three together. That will last until their first game where they are losing in the third period. Look for the top line to be reunited and double-shifted. But it would be better to keep them apart. Show the other lines you have confidence in them. Give them experience playing in a pressure situation. Sure you might lose the game, but sometimes a loss is a good thing for a hockey club.
Defence: The defence has been completely overhauled from last season. Gone is Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros, as they both wanted too much money. Instead, Filip Kuba, Jason Smith and Alexandre Picard join the team’s blueline.
Smith is seen as a leader, willing to sacrifice his body to hit and block shots. Ottawa already has two of them in Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. Those two are the most underrated shut-down defensive tandem in the league. Ottawa is going to make it tough for opposing teams to get quality scoring chances.
Goaltending: What a difference a year make. This time last year, Ray Emery was the talk of the town, after leading the team to the finals and signing a new contract. Now, a year later, Emery has been bought out, and is playing this season in Russia as no one wanted to take a chance on him. Just goes to show you that your off-ice activities are just as important as your on-ice ones.
Who knows what we’ll see out of Martin Gerber this year. Will we see the number one goalie of two years ago, when he led the Carolina Hurricanes into the playoffs with 38 wins and 14 losses. Or will we see the backup goalie from two seasons ago, when he had 15 wins and nine losses. It doesn’t matter, because it’s the same guy. If you look at his stats, the only big difference was in games played. The goals against average (2.78) and save percentage (.906) were the exact same.
He was the best player on the team in the playoffs last season, and the Sens will only make it back if Gerber can lead them.
Pool picks: Kuba will be underrated. He has a shot of being the point shot on the powerplay, and should get points from there. This could also be Antoine Vermette’s year to shine. But stay away from Mike Fisher. He’s too streaky to be any good in a hockey pool, and hasn’t improved his point total in three years.
Miscellaneous: General Manager Bryan Murray tried his hardest to make this team more productive. But he failed. He lost defenceman Wade Redden, who plays 25 minutes a game and mans the powerplay. Meszaros was the second-leading point getter on the defence, and he’s gone as well. Cory Stillman, picked up in a trade last season, signed with the Florida Panthers in the offseason.
Expected finish: Fourth in the northeast division, 10th in the Eastern conference.
It’s going to be a long season for Sens fans.