Difficult times ahead

Bryan Murray. (SUN/Sean Kilpatrick)

Bryan Murray. (SUN/Sean Kilpatrick)

ERIN NICKS -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:58 AM ET

Say what you want about the Senators' shortcomings over the past few years, but there's one characteristic no one could debate: They were comfortable.

It was a level of comfort that came from watching the same players for several seasons, and learning their idiosyncrasies. You knew who was likely to go on a goal-scoring streak or drought and who was prone to injury. The consistencies and inconsistencies of a solid team, with behavioural patterns that many fans were familiar with, both on and off the ice.

But something has shifted. There's still optimism, but it's threaded with a vein of uncertainty that can be attributed to a number of factors.

Let's look at a few of them:

THE "HELLO, DO I KNOW YOU?" FACTOR: Consider last year, and the three notable pieces that were brought on board: Coach Bryan Murray, Dominik Hasek and Dany Heatley. Particularly in Hasek and Heatley's case, there were questions regarding health and other personal issues, but somehow, the fans' excitement overwhelmed most of the speculation. The reason? Everyone knew what Hasek and Heatley were capable of. When they played, their names were regularly mentioned on the nightly highlight programs. The perpetual referencing built up a familiarity, long before they put on a Senators uniform.

Can we say the same for Tom Preissing, Joe Corvo and Dean McAmmond? It's doubtful. These new players represent the pieces that help to flesh out a team. However, the average fan may know little about them, beyond the stats and other tidbits supplied by the media. Also, consider that all three are coming from the Western conference -- essentially a world away --thanks to the new NHL schedule. You're always going to be nervous about whether a player will pan out. But when you're unfamiliar with their day-to-day play, it raises the anxiety level somewhat.

THE "YOUNG AND FANTASTIC" FACTOR: The Senators' crop of youngsters and rookies stepped up in a big way last year and obviously will be expected to build upon their work thus far. Could anyone have expected Andrej Meszaros to finish the regular season with 39 points and a plus/minus of plus-34 -- a rating that was third-best overall in the league? The seemingly indestructible Chris Kelly also made an impact, with 30 points and a fierce work ethic that fans admired.

With names like Zdeno Chara and Martin Havlat out of the picture, some of the Senators' youngest players will be looked upon to accelerate the maturation of their skills. For the rookies, the dreaded sophomore slump is not an option. But after only one year, who can be sure if these players will respond to the added pressure?

THE "WHERE'S THE PETER SCHAEFER BANNER?" FACTOR: Remember all those player banners placed on lampposts surrounding Scotiabank Place? The majority displays the faces of the franchise -- Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza. I don't remember a Peter Schaefer banner, and if there was one, I never saw it. Schaefer recently re-signed with Ottawa and the deal was a surprising one: $8.4 million (all terms US) over four years. Four years is a long-term deal in the new NHL, and for that reason alone, the feisty winger should now be considered one of Ottawa's core players.

Schaefer isn't a point-a-game producer, but he brings other elements that a complete team requires: Superior forechecking, speed, a stellar knack for board work and the commitment to contribute during every shift on the ice. Add his 50 points from last season to this list of qualities, and you have the makings of an integral player.

Over these next four years, Ottawa may lose some big names to salary-cap restraints or unrestricted free agency. Barring a trade, Schaefer will remain as a Senator until 2009-10 -- a fantastic revelation, considering that most fans were expecting a one-year deal at the very most. Is Schaefer ready to step into the spotlight as one of the team's core players, and accept the demands that come with it?

For the longest time, you knew what to expect out of the Senators. The familiarity was reassuring, especially when Ottawa was a perennial Cup favourite. That comfort never secured a championship.

Regardless of the various reasons, things had to change.

Will a little bit of uncertainty change things for the Senators? For now, we can only expect the unexpected.


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