The Senators were once regarded as having the best blueline in the NHL.
Now, as they prepare to open the regular season Saturday against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, the defence is perhaps the team’s biggest question mark.
While it’s been three years since Zdeno Chara bolted from the Senators to sign with the Boston Bruins, the Senators’ decision not to re-sign him remains the biggest reason for the club’s downturn over the past couple of seasons.
The Senators now lack a dominating presence on the blue line. There is no Chris Pronger, no Nicklas Lidstrom or Scott Niedermayer. Chara was a game-breaker, and as the Senators try to get back to the playoffs, they will need consistency from all six defencemen.
Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov, the team’s No. 1 pairing, will be counted on to shut down opponents’ top lines.
Most of the other blueliners — Chris Campoli, Filip Kuba, Alex Picard and newcomer Erik Karlsson — play a puck-moving, less physical style, leading to concerns about whether the Senators’ defence corps will be rugged enough.
“Yes, we have guys like Campoli, Picard and Karlsson who kind of play a similar style, but I still think as a group they all bring something different,” Senators coach Cory Clouston said. “I still think we have a nice blend here.
“We have a guy like Volchenkov who is still going to finish his checks, and the way we’ve designed our system, it’s going to allow him to step up and make some big hits. We think that Chris Phillips is a much better puck-mover than people give him credit for. We might not have the one big name, but I think what we have here is a nice blend. It’s part of the team concept. We feel the group of guys can be effective.”
That’s why the club is keeping defenceman/winger Matt Carkner around to start the season. The Senators like Carkner’s toughness, and he showed in the pre-season he’s willing to make opponents pay the price in front of the net.
Phillips and Volchenkov are expected to play a more defence-first style, while Campoli, Kuba and Karlsson will see time on the power play. However, Clouston would like all of his blueliners to play more of an all-around game.
“We’re definitely going to be active, but I wouldn’t just say in the sense that we’re going to be offensive,” said Phillips. “What I mean by that is we’re going to be up in the neutral zone and trying to force teams to move the puck. We want to put pressure on the guys with the puck. We don’t want to sit back and wait for teams to come at us.”
The most exciting newcomer to watch could be Karlsson, who spent last year playing in the Swedish elite league. Scouts have marvelled at his ability to move the puck. He’s going to make mistakes in his own end, but he’ll be a welcome addition.
“I’m just going to have to stay focused on what I can do and not what I can’t do,” said Karlsson, 19, who was selected 15th overall by the Senators in the 2008 draft. “I’m just going to play my game. I just hope that it’s going to work out for me.”
So do the Senators.