In many respects, the 2009-10 season was a transitional year for the Senators. Coming off their first non-playoff appearance in 12 years, Ottawa was forced to make changes out of necessity. Foremost amongst these changes was the trading of Dany Heatley to San Jose, for wingers Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo, on the first day of training camp. The Heatley situation was a cloud over the franchise for the entire offseason, and with his departure the team could finally move on and try to get back into the playoffs. Using a combination of star veterans and talented rookies, the Sens were able to get back into the playoffs, finishing fifth overall in the Eastern Conference, but it wasn’t a walk in the park by any means.
The Senators were one of the streakiest teams in the NHL over the course of the 82-game regular season schedule, as they had two five-game losing streaks, a franchise record 11-game winning streak, as well as another six-game winning streak near the end of the year. Injuries played a significant part in the losing skids. During one span, for example, Ottawa was without Michalek, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson, which was the No. 1 line at the time. Weak goaltending also played a key role. The oft-injured Pascal Leclaire had a horrible season, suffering two freak injuries during the course of the year, which made it extremely challenging for him to find a groove. Brian Elliott eventually won the starter’s role, only to surrender it back to Leclaire, as Elliott had a disconcerting first-round playoff performance against the Penguins.
Head coach Cory Clouston, in his first full year behind the Ottawa bench, was arguably the biggest reason for getting the Sens back in the playoffs. His system is based on puck control, aggressive forechecking, and counter-attacking through the neutral zone. One of the only negatives, in this writer’s opinion, was his handling of Pascal Leclaire. Had he shown a little more confidence in Leclaire and allowed him to work through his inconsistency (based on his injuries) instead of yanking him at the first sign of trouble, perhaps Ottawa would have had a better chance against Pittsburgh in the first round. That being said, now that Clouston has a full year of NHL experience, including six playoff games, he should be even better prepared to handle the goaltending situation this year. When all is said and done, Ottawa was a goal away from taking then-defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins to a deciding seventh game in the first round of the playoffs. And this was done without the services of Michalek, Alex Kovalev, and Filip Kuba, all of whom missed the series because of serious injuries. There is reason for optimism in Canada’s capital once again.
By far the biggest free-agent addition is defenseman, Sergei Gonchar. Signed within the opening minutes of the free agency period on July 1, Gonchar adds an element that GM Bryan Murray has wanted for the past couple of years: an elite puck-moving, offensive defenseman. Along with 20-year-old phenom Erik Karlsson, Ottawa now has an excellent one-two, offensive punch on the backend. Karlsson will learn a lot from Gonchar simply by osmosis and it should be a treat to watch for Ottawa fans.
While Gonchar arrived, longtime Ottawa shutdown defenseman Anton Volchenkov bid adieu to Canada’s capital and moved off to greener pastures in New Jersey. His shot-blocking and positional defense will be missed, but Gonchar’s offensive element more than outweighs the loss of Volchenkov. As GM Bryan Murray has said in the past, he’d rather have opposing teams try to block shots, not the other way around.
Also gone via free agency are trade deadline acquisitions, Matt Cullen and Andy Sutton. Jonathan Cheechoo was bought out of his contract after recording only five goals and nine assists in 61 games. And finally, longtime energy player Sean Donovan will not be coming back and is likely bound for hockey in Europe.
With the addition of Gonchar as well as the continuing development of some of the younger Sens - notably Karlsson, Peter Regin, and Nick Foligno - Ottawa has as good a chance as any team in the East to make the playoffs. This writer predicts the Senators to finish anywhere between fourth and sixth, in the conference.
THE BIG GUNS
Daniel Alfredsson (RW) - Currently the NHL's longest serving captain, the 37-year-old Alfredsson should be able to hit 70-plus points if he remains healthy. He missed 12 games last season to a variety of injuries, including a sports hernia which was treated during the offseason. With that in mind, he'll be fully healed by the time training camp begins in September. Alfie will play on Ottawa's first line and power-play unit, and will also see time on the penalty kill, where he should be able to notch a few short-handed goals. After hitting 1,000 games played last season, he’s only eight points away from hitting 1,000 points for his career.
Jason Spezza (C) - Spezza should have a nice bounce-back year in 2010-11. He'll get plenty of time on the Senators' first power-play unit, and with the newly acquired Sergei Gonchar running the back end, Spezza could put up quite a few points with the man advantage. Thirty-five goals and 55 assists aren’t out of the question, especially if he remains healthy for the entire season.
Alex Kovalev (RW) - How well Kovalev plays in the 2010-11 season rests almost entirely upon the health of his left knee, which he injured during the final week of the 2009-10 regular season. He completely tore his ACL, an injury that normally requires up to six months of rehab. Should he come back from the injury fully healed, Kovalev could hit around 20 goals and 30 assists. He'll be a mainstay on Ottawa's second power-play unit while playing on the second line during even-strength situations. There's a strong possibility, though, that he could start the season on injured reserve, as he might need the extra time to fully heal from his ACL injury. Kovalev did begin skating again in late August which is a good sign, but potential owners may want to take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to the 37-year-old winger.
Milan Michalek (LW) - Michalek should be fully recovered from a torn ACL in his left knee by the time training camp begins in September. He'll likely start on either the first or second line and see plenty of time on the first power-play unit and penalty kill. A second full season in Ottawa should result in Michalek posting better numbers than he did last year. He'll have adjusted to Ottawa's system and players, including some developed chemistry with Ottawa's more skilled offensive forwards. Michalek should be able to reach 25 goals and 35 assists if he stays healthy for the majority of the season.
Sergei Gonchar (D) – Gonchar, Ottawa's biggest free-agent pickup of the offseason, will be counted on to quarterback the first power-play unit. He should be able to hit at least 50 points again this season, with 15-20 goals not out of the question. The 35-year-old blueliner is still amongst the elite NHL quarterbacks and will likely go early in most fantasy drafts. Injuries are an obvious concern with players of his age, but Gonchar is still in tremendous physical shape.
ON THE RISE
Erik Karlsson (D) - Karlsson had an outstanding finish to his 2009-10 rookie season and should be able to expand on it in the upcoming year. With the addition of Sergei Gonchar to Ottawa's blue line, the 20-year-old Karlsson will have an elite quarterback from which to learn from, and that simple fact cannot be overlooked for his long-term development. He will likely quarterback Ottawa's second power-play unit to the start the season, but could also see time on the first unit if Gonchar is injured at any point during the year. Karlsson is a tremendous skater and puck-handler, but also has the smarts and the vision to last a long time in the league. With some added muscle, the young Swede could quickly move into the elite of NHL quarterbacks in a few years time. Expect Karlsson to hit around 10 goals and 25 assists this year, but don't be surprised to see him break 40 points if he continues the strong play with which he ended last season (12 points in his final 10 regular season games, to go along with six points in six playoff games).
Peter Regin (C/LW) - Regin is one of the best kept secrets on the Ottawa squad heading into the 2010-11 season. He had a bit of a coming-out party during the first round of the NHL playoffs this past April, as he was arguably Ottawa's best forward during the six-game series loss to the Penguins. He ended last season playing on Jason Spezza's wing on the first line and he could start this season where he finished. If that's the case, then Regin could be good for 50-60 points with upwards of 20 goals. Because of his relatively low point totals as a rookie last year, he could be a sleeper pick in the later rounds of your draft. While his natural position is that of a center, he might be had as a left winger depending on your league’s eligibility rules.
TWO TO AVOID
Pascal Leclaire (G) – Leclaire's 2009-10 season was one he'd like to forget as he was hampered by two freak injuries and never got into any kind of groove. The only bright spot was when he was called on in relief of Brian Elliott in the waning moments of Game 4 of Ottawa's first-round playoff series against the Penguins. In the triple-overtime thriller in Game 5 of the series, Leclaire stopped 56 of 59 shots to win the game, 4-3. If he can do that on a consistent basis and avoid the injuries, Leclaire has all the physical tools to be a No. 1 goalie again. Don't be surprised to see him start the year as Ottawa's top netminder. With that said, his injury history is troubling and he shouldn't be anything more than a No. 2 on anyone's fantasy squad. Should Leclaire stay healthy for a full season, upwards of 35 wins is not out of the question.
Filip Kuba (D) – Kuba is coming off a disappointing season in which he missed 29 games because of a back injury, but he should be fully healthy to start the upcoming season. With the addition of Sergei Gonchar and the emergence of Erik Karlsson, Kuba will lose a lot of minutes on the first power play, but he should still see significant time on the second unit. Don't expect a 40-point season from the big blueliner, as he should top out at around 35 points with upwards of five goals.
Jared Cowen (D) – Ottawa's first-round pick at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the 6-foot-5 defenseman has seemingly recovered from a serious knee injury which has hampered his development since January of 2009. During Ottawa’s rookie development camp this past summer, Cowen was noticeably faster and stronger on his skates and dominated the other Ottawa rookies. After watching him at the camp, GM Bryan Murray even pointed to Cowen as possibly being able to fill a shutdown role for the coming season. In order to do that, however, Cowen will need to seriously outplay one of the established defenders in Ottawa’s bottom pairing (either Chris Campoli or Matt Carkner) at training camp. Should Cowen not make the team out of camp, expect him to be sent back to the WHL for his last year of junior eligibility. However, a late-season call-up is possible once he completes his junior year. Cowen has all the tools to become a future No. 1 defenseman in the league, so pay close attention to his development over the next year.
David Rundblad (D) – Obtained for Ottawa’s 2010 first-round pick, Rundblad, selected 17th overall in the 2009 Entry Draft, has been described by Ottawa’s management as a bigger Erik Karlsson. The smooth-skating Rundblad is definitely an offensive dynamo on the back end and will play another full season in the Swedish Elite League before coming over to North America for the 2011-12 season. He needs to continue to work on his defensive play and gain some more strength before he becomes effective at the NHL level. Still, he’s a special player to watch in the coming years.
Robin Lehner (G) – The 19-year-old Lehner will start the season playing for Ottawa’s AHL affiliate in Binghamton, where he’ll likely share the starter’s duties with veteran, Mike Brodeur. The 2009, 2nd round pick came over to North America last year and helped lead a subpar Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds team into the OHL playoffs. He has excellent mobility for a big man—he’s 6-foot-4—but the thing that Ottawa really loves about him is his mental game and confidence. Lehner is the type of goalie who can recover quickly from a bad goal or a bad game before putting on a big winning streak. While Lehner himself has informed GM Bryan Murray he’ll compete for a starting role on the big club (again, his confidence is off the charts), don’t expect him to make a real contribution until 2011-12 at the earliest.
Roman Wick (RW) – Out of all of Ottawa’s rookies, excluding forward Zach Smith, Wick has the potential to see action with the big club this year. The 24-year-old Swiss native has played in the Swiss men’s league for the past few years and had a coming-out-party of sorts at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he proved he could play with some of the NHL’s best players. It was this performance that made GM Bryan Murray decide that the Senators had to get him under contract as soon as possible. He has the offensive skills to play a top-six forward role, but he’ll likely need some time in the AHL - as did Peter Regin before him - to get adjusted to the more physical brand of North American hockey. He’ll be given a chance in preseason games to play with some of Ottawa’s better offensive players and if he can perform well, then Wick could make the team out of camp. He’s one to watch.