Downer of season ends on high note for Sens

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 2:46 PM ET

Like every year around here for the last 12 years, the lead up to the 2008-09 NHL season was filled with optimism.

After some significant changes in the off-season, which included the hiring of Craig Hartsburg as the club's eighth coach, and a restructuring of the blue line, the Senators entered the season with high hopes.

After reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2007, the 2007-08 season had been a huge disappointment. A sizzling start saw the club struggle amid the drama provided by goaltender Ray Emery (but hardly reason enough for the club's inability to win consistently) resulting in the firing of coach John Paddock. It culminated with a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Penguins with Senators GM Bryan Murray behind the bench.

The off-season saw Emery bought out of his contract, Hartsburg hired and the revamping of the blue line as Wade Redden departed as a free agent for the Rangers and Andrej Meszaros, looking for a big raise, was traded to the Lightning for Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and a first-round draft pick belonging to the Sharks.

After a sputtering start, things went downhill quickly under Hartsburg as he managed to cut down the goals against, but saw the club's scoring -- long the Senators' biggest strength -- evaporate. Secondary scoring became a huge issue: Bascially there wasn't any behind the big line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson.

By Christmas, the Senators had sunk to 12th place in the Eastern Conference and were 10 points out of the last playoff spot.

Revival under Clouston

A disastrous road trip, which saw them go 1-6-1, dropping them 15 points out eighth place, effectively dashed their hopes of keeping alive their streak of 11 straight playoff appearances.

For the second consecutive season, Murray was forced to act, firing Hartsburg Feb. 2.

The Senators enjoyed a revival under rookie coach Cory Clouston, promoted from Binghamton of the AHL to replace Hartsburg and, after guiding the club to a 19-11-4 record, he was awarded a two-year contract Wednesday as coach.

Murray acquired goaltender Pascal Leclaire from the Blue Jackets at the trade deadline and, after recovering from ankle surgery, he will start next season as the club's No. 1 netminder. The Senators' improved play under Clouston gives reason for guarded optimism for the 2009-10 season, but there are still plenty of questions.

n Will Clouston be able to get the same out of this group from the start of a season?

n Will Leclaire recover from his ankle problems and be a bonafide No. 1 goaltender?

n Will Murray, with a lot of money tied up in his forwards, be able to find a front-line defenceman to help stabilize a blue line which struggled most of this season?

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

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Senators in the standings

SEPTEMBER

Sept. 28-Oct. 5

HOW SWEDE IT IS

Captain Daniel Alfredsson leads the Senators entourage to his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden to conclude training camp and proudly show off his roots. Under new coach Craig Hartsburg, the Senators open the regular season in Stockholm, splitting a pair of games with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

OCTOBER

Oct. 30

SENATOR FOR LIFE

The Senators announce the signing of captain Daniel Alfredsson to a four-year extension worth $21.6 million (all terms US). "This is obviously a special day for me and my family," said Alfredsson. "To be able to spend my whole career with one team is pretty special in today's pro sports. We're really rooted in Ottawa, in the community. Ottawa has become my hometown." The deal is front-loaded, paying Alfredsson $9.1 million next year in salary and bonuses and structured to keep Alfredsson's cap hit below $5 million.

NOVEMBER

Nov. 7-Nov. 20

TROUBLE BREWING

After wins over the Capitals and Flyers get their record to 6-5-2, the Senators lose their next six games and sink to last place in the Eastern Conference with a 6-9-4 record. They won't have a winning record again under Hartsburg. Goal scoring has emerged as the big issue with Mike Fisher (two goals in 16 games), Antoine Vermette (two goals in 18 games) and Chris Kelly (one goal in 18 games) struggling. The Senators are outscored 17-7 during the six-game losing streak.

DECEMBER

Dec. 23-Jan. 10

THE TIPPING POINT

Booted out of Scotiabank Place by the world junior championship, the Senators, sitting in 12th place in the Eastern Conference (seven points out of eighth) embark on a make-or-break stretch of eight road games. They lose the first three before earning what will be the only victory in that span. They finish the trip 1-6-1. They sink to 14th in the conference, 15 points out of a playoff spot. This is the tipping point of the season.

JANUARY

Jan. 15

GOODBYE, GERBER

The Senators announce goaltender Martin Gerber will be assigned to their AHL farm club in Binghamton on a two-week conditioning stint, signalling the end to his days in Ottawa. Signed to a three-year deal worth about $11 million US in 2006, Gerber struggled with consistency. With the emergence of rookie Brian Elliott, Gerber became expendable. He left with a 4-9-1 record, a 2.86 GAA and an .899 save percentage.

FEBRUARAY

Feb. 2 TIME FOR A CHANGE (AGAIN)

Just hours after a 7-4 loss in Washington, which sees their record fall to 17-24-7, GM Bryan Murray fires coach Craig Hartsburg. Cory Clouston, 39, is promoted from Binghamton of the AHL to take over behind the bench. "I think he earned this job, I think he deserved the job and I want him to have the chance to be the guy here," said Murray of Clouston. "I'm hoping he can help us make this franchise be what we thought it should be from the start of the year."

Feb. 20 HE'S BACK

Murray reacquires forward Mike Comrie, who played for the Senators when t hey went to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, dealing for him and defenceman Chris Campoli from the Islanders for a first-round pick (belonging to the Sharks) and forward Dean McAmmond.

MARCH

March 4 TRADING PLACES

Murray pulls the trigger on trade to bring a No. 1 goaltender to the club, acquiring Pascal Leclaire, along with a second-round draft pick, from the Blue Jackets in exchange for winger Antoine Vermette. Leclaire, out for the season after ankle surgery, will be the Senators No. 1 goaltender next season. "Obviously, it's difficult and disappointing to have to give up Vermette. He's been here for quite some time and a good player," said Murray. "But I think the first thing we had to try to accomplish here was to get better in one particular area and that's goaltending."

March 5-22 THE TURNAROUND

Starting with a win over the Oilers at home, the Senators embark on a 9-1 stretch which takes them from 24-29-10 to 32-30-10, the first time they've had two more wins than regulation losses this season. The Heatley-Spezza-Alfredsson combines for 14 goals in the stretch.

APRIL

April 8 A DEAL FOR CLOUSTON

Owner Eugene Melnyk confirms Murray will return as GM and announces a two-year deal for Clouston as coach. Clouston has led the Senators to a 19-10-3 record since being named interim coach Feb. 2. "We've shown what this team is capable of doing," said Clouston. "You can't do it by yourself. The coaching staff has worked hard and you have to give credit to the players. The true colours of this team have shown."


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