As the previews for all 30 NHL teams roll in, the issues for the Senators once again rattle around in fans' heads like an obsessive, repetitive bleat.
And what it is the phrase of concern being employed as it has for multiple years stretching back into the Sens' history? It's "secondary scoring," of course.
While he will always be viewed as a core member of the team, Mike Fisher is the unofficial anointed leader of secondary offence for Ottawa. He's also heading full-tilt into his first foray as an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2007-08 season.
The significance of current and future team structure is an issue for the Sens this year, with four players barrelling towards unrestricted free agency (Dany Heatley, Chris Kelly, Wade Redden and Fisher), combined with another five due for restructured contracts (Jason Spezza, Antoine Vermette, Patrick Eaves, Brian McGrattan and Andrej Meszaros).
Out of all these players, Fisher has garnered the majority of emotional sentiment with Senators fans during his tenure. Ottawa supporters look upon Fisher as a captain-in-training (despite the absence of a letter on his sweater), with the type of poise, character and grit that makes for a highly desirable commodity.
The one quibble with Fisher's game inevitably comes back to his offensive ability. Fans and media alike have been exceedingly patient for good reason, as No. 12 stands as one of the most well-rounded players on the roster. And while the progression has been steady (Fisher had a career-high 48 points last season with 22 goals and 26 assists), injuries have taken mighty chunks out of his career thus far -- the closest the 27-year-old has come to a full NHL season was during 2002-03 when he played 74 games. He is still hampered by a lingering groin problem from the Cup final, however the injury isn't considered serious.
But at this point, it's simply not enough for Fisher to remain healthy, because when he is on the ice, he needs to be finding the back of the net on a regular basis in order to reach up and beyond the 50-point plateau. Ottawa must be able to count on a scoring boost from him when others are unable to do so. The Senators need Fisher to take things to the next level. The question is, how much is too much?
One would assume that such a problem is non-existent ... except when you're seeking higher output numbers from a potential unrestricted free agent who is overdue for a raise from his $1.5 million salary (all terms US) as it currently stands.
While the Senators would undoubtedly be overjoyed if No. 12 experiences a healthy and fully productive season in 2007-08, they surely must realize that if Fisher comes away with a newfound goal scoring vigour, he could easily price himself out of the franchise's range by next summer. Keep in mind that the Senators already have their backs creeping against the wall before the season has begun, with similar players such as Scott Hartnell landing a six-year, $25.2-million (all terms US) contract with Philadelphia. It's a safe bet to assume that many GMs would willingly cough up a Hartnell-type salary --an average of $4.2 million per season -- for one of Ottawa's greatest assets. In fact, several would probably consider that number as a starting point.
Another year begins for the Senators, and yet the questions regarding secondary scoring remain. They may not state it openly, but the franchise will expect Fisher to step up his offensive game, to aid with the supplementary (yet highly necessary) points required. The problem is those steps could become a full-fledged walk, leading a core Sens member out of Scotiabank Place for good.
You've heard of a "Catch-22?" For the Senators, this is a "Catch-12."