The 2010-11 season was quite simply a disaster for Ottawa given the high expectations from both management and fans alike entering the season. After playing a spirited first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs, which Ottawa would ultimately lose in six games, GM Bryan Murray went out and scooped up offensively minded defenseman Sergei Gonchar from free agency on July 1, 2010. At the time, this move was seen as one that could potentially vault Ottawa from a playoff bubble-team to one that could challenge for a top-3 playoff position in the East. In the end, nothing could have been further from the truth.
The preseason started off with bad news (which seemed to be a fitting omen) as Filip Kuba, who had injury problems throughout the 2009-10 season, broke his ankle on the first day of training camp. Ottawa, to its credit, played well in the pre-season with Nick Foligno leading the way with four goals and two assists in six games. His performance raised the hopes of Ottawa’s management and he won a top-6 forward role out of camp because of it. Unfortunately, once the real season began, Foligno, like the rest of the Senators, crashed and burned.
As the season wore on, head coach Cory Clouston would begin to lose the dressing room as his “my way or the highway” coaching style began to grate on the nerves of both veterans and youngsters alike. Not known for his ability to communicate with his players, Clouston would often bench players and not tell them the reasons for doing so. With owner Eugene Melnyk and GM Bryan Murray losing faith in the direction the team was going, it was decided that the team had to be taken apart with an eye towards the future. Once the trade deadline passed, veterans Chris Kelly, Mike Fisher, Jarko Ruutu, Alex Kovalev, and Chris Campoli had all been traded away for draft picks. Another significant trade saw Brian Elliott traded for Craig Anderson. Given this situation, a few of Ottawa’s maturing prospects (who had been cutting their teeth in the AHL all year) were called up to fill the holes left in the lineup. Forwards Erik Condra, Bobby Butler, and Colin Greening all played significant minutes for the last quarter or more of the season while Anderson’s goaltending was nothing short of phenomenal as he went 11-5-1 with a 2.05 GAA and a .939 save percentage in 18 appearances.
With a newfound optimism based on the Senators finishing 14-9-1 in their last 24 games of the season, Ottawa enters the upcoming year with a lot of hope, but also with a lot of work left to be done in order to achieve the elite status they held for much of the 2000’s.
As for the summer, Ottawa only made two free agent signings of significance. The first was signing backup goaltender Alex Auld, the second was signing center Zenon Kenopka, both to one-year deals.
Perhaps the most intriguing move in the offseason was on the second day of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft as Murray traded a 2011 third-round pick (66th overall) to Columbus for winger Nikita Filatov. He’ll be given an excellent opportunity to win a top-6 spot out of training camp this year.
While I don’t see the Senators making the playoffs this year, I do see them being a much better team in the second half as they adjust to a new coaching staff headed by Paul MacLean and the influx of young players who’ll begin to form a new core going forward. This writer’s prediction is for Ottawa to finish 12th in the East. But brighter days are not that far away given Ottawa’s deep pool of prospects.
THE BIG GUNS
Jason Spezza (C): Spezza is now unquestionably the focal point of Ottawa's offense for the rebuilding team. In addition to his scoring, Spezza is beginning to develop a more well-rounded game, having spent a lot of time on the penalty kill and being one of the better face-off men in the league during the 2010-11 season. He should see more than 20 minutes of ice time a game and, if he stays healthy, Spezza should put up around 70-80 points with 25-30 goals.
Daniel Alfredsson (RW): Alfreddson was hobbled by a lower back injury for most of the 2010-11 season, which drastically affected his ability to skate with any kind of power. After trying to play through the injury, he decided to shut his season down in early February after scoring only 14 goals and 17 assists in 54 games. Alfredsson underwent successful back surgery in the offseason and looks to be fully recovered heading into training camp. While he's now in the twilight years of his career, Ottawa's captain can still put up points when healthy and will get a lot of time on Ottawa's first power play unit. Alfredsson should net close to 25 goals and 35 assists this year if he's able to remain healthy, something that has been much tougher for him to do these past couple of years.
Erik Karlsson (D): In a year of lows for the Senators, Karlsson was one of the team's few bright spots. Averaging a team high 23:30 of ice time per game, the now 21-year-old defenseman recorded 13 goals and 32 assists in 75 games. While his defensive game still needs a lot of work (Karlsson was a minus-30 last season), he does have the speed and smarts to play a solid positional game to shut down forwards and should improve in this aspect of his game as he gains more experience. Ottawa's lone representative at the 2011 All-Star Game, Karlsson is just scratching the surface of his potential as his skating, vision, shot, and puck skills are already at elite levels. He should be able to crack 50 points this year as he'll see a lot of time on the first power play unit and will likely lead the team in ice time again. Don't be surprised if he notches close to 20 goals and 35 assists in only his third full year in the league.
ON THE RISE
Bobby Butler (RW): Butler showed some nice chemistry with Spezza to close out the 2010-11 season and will likely be given a good shot out of training camp to win a top-6 forward position. Butler has a terrific shot and good offensive instincts, as he's able to anticipate plays and get open for his one-timer. While Butler did not score a point in his first nine NHL games last year, he finished the season with 21 points in his last 27 games, which bodes well for the 2011-12 season. You should expect some inconsistency with his game, but Butler has the talent to put up around 20-25 goals and 40-45 points in what will be his first full NHL season.
TWO TO AVOID
Filip Kuba (D): Like most of the Senators from 2010-11, Kuba's season was a disaster from the get-go. He broke his ankle on the first day of training camp and didn't return to action until November 13 in a game against Boston. Kuba finished the year with two goals, 14 assists, and a minus-26 rating in 62 games. With only one year left on his contract, he'll need to have a good year in 2011-12 if he hopes to secure further employment in the NHL. He'll likely see time on Ottawa's second power play unit, but at age 34 he's starting to show his age. Don't expect much from the big man, with five goals and 20 assists being his upper ceiling in 2011-12.
Nick Foligno (RW): Like many other Ottawa forwards, Foligno had a 2010-11 season to forget. It started out well enough for the 23-year-old winger, though, as he beat out Peter Regin during the preseason to win a coveted top-6 forward position. Foligno then went on a lengthy scoring slump to start the year, not scoring his first goal until November 29 in a 4-1 loss to the Oilers. He finished the year with 14 goals, 20 assists, and a minus-19 rating. The 2011-12 season is likely a make-or-break year for Foligno, as there will soon be a number of young and highly skilled players coming through Ottawa's system that could challenge Foligno for a spot on the big club. While he is strong on his skates, Foligno does not possess great speed nor does he possess the puck skills one expects of a top-6 forward. He'll likely start the year on Ottawa's third line and see some second unit power play minutes. Twenty goals and 20 assists is about as much fantasy value as he has this season.
David Rundblad (D): Rundblad is Ottawa's most intriguing defensive prospect entering the 2011-12 season. At only 20 years of age, the 6-2, 190-pound Swede dominated the SEL, scoring 11 goals and adding 39 assists in only 50 games. Rundblad was named the SEL's top defenseman and will look to carry that play over to the NHL in his rookie year. It may take him some time to adjust to the smaller ice size and more physical game of the NHL, but much like fellow Ottawa blueliner Karlsson, the sky's the limit for the offensively gifted defenseman once he does adjust. If he can stick with Ottawa out of training camp -- and there's a good chance he will since Ottawa's management speaks quite highly of him -- Rundblad could put up close to 30 to 35 points with around 10 goals. He possesses excellent puck skills, on-ice vision, and is a fast and shifty skater. Rundblad could be a Calder Award candidate by this season's end if all goes well.
Jared Cowen (D): Cowen is another one of Ottawa's highly touted blue line prospects who has an excellent chance of making the big club out of training camp this season. Last year, Cowen finished his junior career with Spokane of the WHL and immediately drew into the Binghamton Senators' AHL playoff run, playing big minutes and matching up against other teams' top forward lines, helping the team to an eventual AHL Calder Cup Championship. An extremely smooth skater for a big man, the 6-5, 230-pound Cowen is extremely adept at gaining a solid defensive position to take his man off the puck with either his body or his stick. While being touted as a shutdown defenseman, Cowen's offensive game is highly underrated as he racked up 18 goals and 30 assists for Spokane in 2010-11. He should be able to help Ottawa at both ends of the ice in his rookie season, especially defensively. Just don't look for him to score a lot of points.
Nikita Filatov (LW): The 2010-11 season was largely one to forget for the talented Filatov. He started the year in Columbus, playing a total of 23 games, but was eventually sent down to Springfield of the AHL after putting up only seven points (all assists) during his stretch with the big club. With Springfield, Filatov notched nine goals and 11 assists in 36 games before suffering a season-ending concussion. After the season ended, it became apparent that Filatov and the Columbus Blue Jackets organization needed to part ways (rumors that the Columbus and Springfield coaching staff had soured on Filatov were rampant) and the talented winger was eventually traded on the second day of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft to Ottawa for a third-round pick (66th overall). While Filatov must share some of the blame for how he handled himself with the Columbus organization, the fact that he was rushed to the NHL like so many other Columbus prospects in years past certainly did not help his development. With a new lease on life in Ottawa, Filatov will be given every opportunity to play on one of Ottawa's top two lines. That being said, Ottawa's management has made it clear that he'll need to earn top-six minutes. It was a good sign when Filatov cut short a family vacation in the Dominican Republic to attend Ottawa's annual rookie development camp for a couple of days in late June before returning to Moscow. With new coach Paul MacLean stressing a puck possession game with speed, Filatov's talents might actually be exploited to the fullest. If Filatov can harness his talents and work hard all year, he might begin to scratch the surface of his potential and net upwards of 20-25 goals with 25 assists. At only 21 years of age, Filatov is still a prospect and will be allowed to make mistakes on what will be a very young Ottawa team, something he wasn't afforded in Columbus.
Robin Lehner (G): After a year of ups and downs in 2010-11, Lehner cemented himself as Ottawa's goalie of the future by not only winning the Calder Cup Championship with Binghamton, but also taking away the Jack A. Butterfield trophy as the AHL playoff MVP. Only 19 years old at the time, Lehner posted a 14-4 record with a 2.10 GAA and an outstanding .939 save percentage. He'll spend the 2011-12 season as Binghamton's No. 1 goaltender, but could see time with Ottawa if Anderson goes down with an injury. Ottawa's management has already said that if Anderson does miss time, Lehner will be called up and be the No. 1 in Ottawa until Anderson returns. The youngster still needs to work on his consistency and rebound control, but has shown remarkable progress in both of those areas. Expect Lehner to crack the big club for good in 2012-13, likely as the understudy to Anderson.
Mika Zibanejad (C): One of the more NHL-ready players to emerge from the 2011 Entry Draft, Zibanejad will arrive at Ottawa's training camp in September looking to win a spot with the club. Gifted with great puck skills, a big body, and speed to spare, the 6-2, 192-pound center plays a very physical, North American style game. Should he not win a spot with Ottawa out of training camp, Zibanejad will return to Sweden to play for Djurgarden, where he'll be expected to play an offensive role, take key faceoffs, and see time on both the penalty kill and power play. While we don't expect him to make the 2011-12 version of the Senators, Zibanejad should crack the team for good in 2012-13.