They Had The Greatest of Expectations


Addressing the media
after the Senators were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the New York Rangers, Ottawa GM Bryan Murray had some fun at the media’s expense.

“Now don’t pick us to finish and win the Stanley Cup next year. Please pick us last because we really like your predictions.”

With the exception of Don Brennan, as he’ll be the first to remind you, prognosticators were consistent in their ruminations about the Ottawa Senators for the 2011/12 season. 

Management continues to gloss over and emphasize their beliefs that the Sens were going to be a competitive team, but the team seemingly exceeded every expectation put upon it last season. 

Having pushed the Eastern Conference leading Rangers to the brink of elimination, this season, they’re not going to catch anyone by surprise; including those same experts who picked the Senators to bottom out in 2011/12. 

Having picked the Senators to finish 15th in the Eastern Conference last summer, The Hockey News is one publication that believes the team will return to the postseason in 2012/13. I’m also still waiting for the day when the organization or fans go off on those who overestimate the Sens as The Hockey News did in 2010/11 picking them 10th in the East…*crickets*.

Here’s what THN had to say: 

The Sens surprised many (THN included) when they made the playoffs last season. However, now that offense-minded dynamo and reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson has blossomed into a superstar, they won’t be able to sneak up on opponents. The good news is that with goaltending depth (Craig Anderson, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner), a buttressed blueline (with the addition of Marc Methot) and promising youngsters including Kyle Turris, Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad up front, they don’t need stealth to in order to win.

They may not need stealth but as one of those projected playoff bubble teams, like last year, a lot of things will have to go Ottawa’s way to get back into the postseason.

It will be a challenge. 

Earlier this offseason, I expressed concern and alluded to a number of reasons why I believed the Senators could regress and have difficulty replicating last year’s success and after reading an article on the Sporting News’ website, it appears as though Jesse Spector expressed the same sentiment.  

The big reason that the Senators were able to surprise the NHL: They adapted well to coach Paul MacLean’s open system and finished tied with the Vancouver Canucks for fourth in the NHL with 249 goals. If there are declines in the performance of veterans, the Senators will rely on the development of forward prospects such as Jakob Silfverberg, Mark Stone and Mika Zibanejad.

The real question, though, is a defense that allowed 240 goals last season, the most of any playoff team and more than everyone but the Hurricanes, Jets, Islanders, Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs and Lightning. Anderson remaining steady will be key, but for the Senators to be a real contender, Karlsson has to be better defensively—counting on the Norris Trophy winner for 78 points again feels like a stretch no matter how friendly the Ottawa system is to his offensive talents.

The real key, then, may be the play of Marc Methot, the 27-year-old defenseman acquired earlier this summer from the Blue Jackets for Nick Foligno. In 275 career games, Methot has seven goals and 44 assists—a true stay-at-home defenseman, it is impressive that he has a plus/minus of only minus-6 for his career despite playing his entire career in Columbus. Methot’s advanced stats aren’t so hot, but then, neither were those of Filip Kuba, who left for Florida as a free agent after partnering Karlsson last season.

The other very important thing to consider is that the Senators were fortunate from a health standpoint last season, with 10 players who appeared in 75 or more games. Only the Bruins (12) and Rangers (11) had more players feature 75-plus times than the Senators did, and not surprisingly, both of those teams were division winners. Just shy of making the list was Gonchar, who played 74 games, and enters this season at the age of 38.

Considering the repeatability of all of the above, starting with the points posed in the question, the Senators face a steep challenge to return to the playoffs. The good news for Ottawa is that the Senators are in the Northeast Division, where Boston has some uncertainty going from Tim Thomas to Tuukka Rask in net, Buffalo has not appreciably improved and neither Toronto nor Montreal has a roster that compares favorably. With the improvement of the Southeast and Northwest, it might be the weakest circuit in hockey this season.

As a collective, last season’s highest scoring blueline has to be better on the other side of the puck.

So with that being said, I’m not sure that I’d want to put that much emphasis on Methot being the key on the blue line, nor would I ever want to lay it on thick and scoff at Karlsson’s understated defensive game. Yeah, it’s easy to look at his numbers and notice that he was on the ice for the most number of 5v5 goals last season and conclude that he has to be better. But it ignores the fact that the sheer volume of goals against is at least in part attributable to the overwhelming number of 5v5 minutes that he played. When looking at every individual blueliner’s goals against per 60 ratio, Karlsson’s numbers were on par with the rest of his peers; despite playing big minutes against the opposition’s best players.

It’s possible that players like Methot or Mike Lundin could provide some meaningful and competent minutes next season but the Senators are really counting upon the duo of Jared Cowen and Sergei Gonchar to take a step forward this year.

I sure as hell hope they can, but it’s no sure thing. 

As a 38-year old defenceman, historical evidence supoorts the notion that Gonchar’s play will decline naturally. And entering his second season of play, sports voodoo suggests that Cowen could be negatively affected by the sophomore slump.

Unlike the forward corps, I’m unconvinced that the Sens have the talent or depth to overcome a poor season from either of these players.

Lockout Looming

After Bettman unzipped his fly and proceeded to piss on the NHLPA’s alternate CBA proposal, reports are starting to surface about players making tentative plans to join teams in Europe.

I’m already looking forward to watching NHL “insiders” tripping all over themselves to break such news. It’s going to be awesome… 

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