Ottawa Senators Preview Pt. III : The Team

When the final horn sounded, it signified two things: the end of a 2-1 loss to the Bruins and the end of the Senators preseason. After months of being overwhelmed by Dany Heatley trade speculation and uncertainty, the Ottawa Senators are a few cuts away from being ready to drop the puck on their 2009/10 NHL season.

So without further ado, here’s part three of our five part season preview of your Ottawa Senators. (Here’s part one and here’s part two.)

Forwards:

For years, the Senators organization was renowned for having a balanced attack. Even during the Yashin/Daigle era, the Senators never succumbed to the pressure or temptation of playing the best offensive talents together. It wasn’t until Bryan Murray penciled the trio of Heatley, Spezza and Alfredsson together during that 2006-07 campaign, that the Senators achieved their greatest postseason accomplishment – reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. Since that time, Ottawa has undergone three coaching changes and each have sworn that they would not rely upon the “Pizza Line” to sustain success. Much of this dependency has been for two reasons:

1)      The inherent pressure to win in this market due to the recentness of the ’07 Cup Finals.

2)      The lack of secondary scoring had a causal effect on the team’s success thereby putting the Head Coach on the hot seat. John Paddock’s tenure can best be described as one of self-preservation by relying upon the top line to play over 24 minutes a night.

With the additions of Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek via trade, and the signing of free agent Alexei Kovalev, the words depth and enigma are now just as much a part of the typical Sens fan’s vocabulary as the words Leafs suck. The hope is that the addition of these three and the emergence of a player like Peter Regin can be enough to offset the loss of former 50-goal scorer, Dany Heatley.

Similarly, their presence should help remove the burden from the likes of Ryan Shannon and Nick Foligno, as these two are now cast in a more appropriate third line capacity.

Barring a trade, the fourth line should now be comprised of Jarrko Ruutu, Chris Neil and Chris Kelly. Provided this expensive trio doesn’t get into dumb penalty trouble, this line should be competent enough to allow Cory Clouston to roll four lines and provide an agitating, physical style that’s otherwise lost on this roster.

Defence:

It’s ironic that just one year ago, Bryan Murray was busy trying to address the team’s lack of puck-moving defencemen having lost Andrej Meszaros and Wade Redden. Today, the Senators have overcompensated and now boast a bounty of puck movers in Chris Campoli, Brian Lee, Erik Karlsson and Filip Kuba.  The group however, still lacks a top pairing player necessary to be an elite team in the Eastern Conference. And it’s a reflection of the group as a whole that Bryan Murray flirted with the idea of keeping Jared Cowen, an 18-year old coming off major knee surgery, around.

It’s a bit disconcerting that the unit’s toughness is defined by Anton Volchenkov’s willingness to withstand a Spanish Inquisition’esque barrage of vulcanized rubber puck. Unless Matt Carkner cracks the top six, Ottawa’s back end is going to lack an intimidating presence and it’s almost assured that opponents will utilize a soft-dump strategy to victimize Ottawa’s smaller defencemen with a physical forecheck.

Goaltending:

The Senators goaltending situation used to be taboo to discuss. This franchise isn’t even a quarter of a century old but we’ve already had too many repressed memories. How repressed are our memories? Some pundits are already emphasizing that Pascal Leclaire is the best goaltender to ever wear the Senators uniform. It’s like the Dominik Hasek situation never happened. He never played here. Never happened.

To enlighten you as to how bad things have been, I’ve created a small list. Leclaire’s season will be viewed as a success if he…

1)      Doesn’t pull an abductor or avoids undiagnosible injuries like the one that Damian Rhodes sustained to his ankle.

2)      Avoids run ins with the local police.

3)      Shows up to practice on time.

4)      Doesn’t threaten to kill another motorist.

5)      Can demonstrate that he can close the five-hole on shots from the top of the left faceoff circle.

6)      Doesn’t wear a goalie mask featuring the image of a convicted rapist.

7)      Doesn’t frost his tips or sell out by wearing a mask with “The Net” written on it.

Brian Elliott will attempt to fill the void left by Alex Auld and that shouldn’t prove to be too difficult. The real problem could occur if Leclaire’s tendency to get hurt manifests (quick, knock on wood) and Elliott is forced to handle the full-time duties in his sophomore year. On a positive note, Martin Gerber’s gone.

Coaching:

Just like everything else about the Senators this season, coaching is a big question mark. Coach Clouston recently had the Temp tag removed from his man-child frame and with that, he was whisked into the coaching Valhalla known as the Senators bench. After being thrust into the centre of his first NHL coaching controversy this past summer, Couch Clouston has emerged unscathed and clearly has the trust of management.

With expectations high after a promising 19-11-4 end to last season, the bar has been set for the 2009-2010 season. Not that things are the same this year, the team in front of Clouston is remarkably different. Gone is the leading goal scorer, gone is the Swiss Miss and gone is the Warshark, Jason Smith. With a new crop of youngsters and a group of veterans who have something to prove, the complacency that existed last season has been removed and the team has been molded to fit Clouston’s up-tempo, pressure style.

Clouston’s leash should be long this season since the organization can ill afford to go through another coaching change and further the belief that the players are coach killers. That being said, because of the diminished role gripes from Heatley, Clouston and Murray should feel the heat if this team should stumble out of the gate. Heaven forbid the headline writers at the Sun, from rhyming Clouston with Losin’.

Management:

When Bryan Murray took over the GM reigns from John Muckler, he not only inherited a Stanley Cup Finalist, he inherited a team that was inherently flawed.  After years of poor drafting and neglecting the depth on the farm, a few bad personnel moves compounded the problem and the Senators window of opportunity had closed. Only we didn’t know it at the time.

Following the 2007 Cup Finals, fans expected a perennial contender.  But without any young talent that was ready to crack the lineup, management was forced to resign its core because there were no other in-house alternatives.  

Even though it’s not really problematic to sign one’s elite talent to long-term deals, it’s counter intuitive to sign replaceable veterans to inflated, long-term deals making them completely untradeable in the process. Without young, NHL-ready talent, Ottawa’s veterans could print their own tickets and bleeding heart fans applauded the moves because they’d hate to see one of their own homegrown guys go.

Despite some panic signings (Chris Kelly, Chris Neil) and paying a high-price to acquire Chris Campoli, Murray’s done far more good than harm. He’s improved their amateur scouting, organizational depth and making some shrewd deals (Nycholat for Ryan Shannon; Lehner and Leclaire for Vermette). Even though some pundits will criticize his Kovalev deal, the term of the contract isn’t offensive and was likely a safer short-term investment than some of the deals awarded to players like Gaborik, Gionta, Cammalleri, et al.

Even though Murray hasn’t had the statistical success of some of his predecessors, I hope that his regime is given the time to see his vision through. The future in Ottawa looks bright in two years, provided that Jared Cowen and Erik Karlsson have prominent roles on the blueline by then. With a number of their core already under contract and the Senators will get expensive deals like Ruutu, Phillips, Kovalev and Cheechoo off of the books, the summer of 2011 could  shape up to be a pretty interesting one.

 

 

Ownership:

Despite possessing this knee-jerk reaction to respond publicly to anything/everything, Eugene Melnyk has demonstrated a patient approach with Bryan Murray that’s shocking. Considering all the shit that Melnyk’s flung at the Balsillie camp this summer, I’m hoping that RimJim gets the Coyotes to spark a new rivalry and another Battle of Ontario.

Toughness:

This year’s group won’t exactly be confused for the Broad Street Bullies or the dominating forces on the Hull bar strip but they’re certainly not going to be pushed around like Nick Kypreos in a grade 2 spelling bee. Now I don’t think we’ll be seeing premeditated, choreographed scraps a la McGratton but there are a few guys on the team who are willing to correct behavior when the time calls for it. Ruutu, Neil, Carkner, Donovan and Yablonski are waiting in the wings will not shy away from engaging in on-ice human battery. The team also boats two perennial hit leaders — Neil and Fisher — and we can only expect with Mike’s recent shift to the wing, that he will be padding his totals this season.

The blueline is well…uhh …well… I mean at least we got a bunch of puck moving defensemen now right? Guys like A-Train and Phillips are certainly the most physical of all our blueliners but apart from that, the blueline isn’t going to scare anyone the way that public speaking scares Dany Heatley.

Don’t be deceived by Pascal Leclaire’s face either.  It didn’t get mangled from fighting so don’t expect him to follow in the footsteps of goaltending pugilists like Jani Hurme or Rayzor.

Chemistry:

Even though the team’s motto is Forever Red, it’d be more apropos if it was Things Can’t Possibly Be Worse Than Last Year. As it stands, this roster is comprised of a cornucopia of players who underachieved last year. From the top line guys, to the goaltender Leclaire, to secondary scorers like Fisher and Cheechoo, everyone on the roster is coming off a sub-par campaign. The ironic thing is that this team probably didn’t even need a rallying cry of “Fuck Heatley” for motivation. Regardless, the team did shed itself of a distractive malcontent and Heatley has become just another footnote in a long list of talented but flaky players who’ve left the Nation’s Capital. Interestingly, the Senators made a team to the RCMP offices to participate in some team bonding exercises. Rumour has it that they went there to take a look at some Ray Emery surveillance videos. Hi-yo!

Though the team acquired Michalek and Cheechoo via trade and Kovalev via free agency, it could take some time for these forwards to develop some chemistry with the incumbents on the roster. If any of the aforementioned players start slow, it’ll be interesting to see how long it is before the media starts jumping down some player’s throats. But according to some, this process has already started.

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