The "D-word" most mentioned in any talk about the Senators improving on their 23rd-ranked offence this season is not Dany (as in the departed Mr. Heatley) or Daniel (as in Captain Alfredsson) or Defenceman (as in the first passer they've missed since Wade Redden hit the road).
No, when it comes to their offence in ’09-10, the Senators say they’ll be relying on Depth.
“I think we’re a better team,” coach Cory Clouston said when asked to compare this edition of the Senators to the one that charged but fell short of making the playoffs last April.
This, despite the fact they’ve dumped the top sniper in franchise history.
“You’re never going to (replace Heatley’s offence) with just one player,” Clouston said. “It’s ridiculous to think that — that we all of a sudden pick up a 50-goal scorer. But I think what we’ve done is we’ve balanced out some scoring. We have more options. We’re more dangerous, from top to bottom. You can’t just key on one line. I think that’s very important.
“We know when we face a team that has two equally dangerous offensive lines, it’s very tough. You’re scrambling, you have to adjust your lines, you have to split up your top two D-pairings ... there are things you make teams do just by having that type of depth with your offence. I think we’ve got that.”
The three key off-season acquisitions have been sprinkled on the first three lines, at least to start the season.
Jonathan Cheechoo, a former 56-goal scorer, is playing with Ryan Shannon and Nick Foligno, two young forwards who combined with Mike Fisher to give Ottawa its most consistent line toward the end of last season. Taking up the spot on the first line alongside Jason Spezza and Alfredsson is Milan Michalek, who with Cheechoo was obtained for Heatley.
Cheechoo (12) and Michalek (23) combined for four fewer goals than Heatley scored in 2008-09, his worst season in the last four.
“I don’t think they’re expecting either of us to score 50, but I think they are expecting us to pick up some slack, contribute to the team,” said Cheehoo, shrugging off suggestions of having extra pressure. “I think if we help the team win, the goals are going to be overlooked.”
Not all of Cheechoo’s 56 in 2005-06 were set up by the silk-like hands of Joe Thornton. Only most of them. Cheechoo scored seven while playing on Wayne Primeau’s flank before the Sharks dealt for Jumbo Joe.
“I always knew I could score,” Cheechoo said. “I scored at every level I’ve played at. It was just a matter of I got hot and I stayed hot. I’ve always been a fairly streaky goal-scorer ... when I stayed hot, it was that I found a little bit of consistency, I guess.”
Cheechoo says he’s fully recovered from the hernia and knee problems that have plagued him since his big season. He says he’s moving as well as ever, too.
Michalek, the sixth pick overall in a very strong 2003 draft, is loaded with raw talent. In his four NHL seasons, he has scored 17, 26, 24 and 23 goals. Some think he’s on the verge of a breakthrough year.
Is he capable of 40?
“I would like to be,” said Michalek. “We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully I can step up my game. I’m not a young guy anymore. It’s going to be a big challenge for me this year. Hopefully I’ll live up to it.”
By all accounts, Michalek works harder in his own zone than the player he replaces on the No. 1 line.
“I think it’s important to play both sides,” he said. “If you play good defensively, you’ll get scoring chances offensively. Everything goes together.”
Kovalev has 394 goals in an NHL career that dates back to 1992-93. Despite being 36, he remains in debates over who is the best sheer talent in the league.
“I don’t have any pressure. Maybe you guys think that way, but I don’t have any pressure,” Kovalev said when asked about the expectations. “Like I mentioned many times, I don’t have to prove anything. I’m just excited to be on this team. Because I believe this team can go pretty far, even win the Stanley Cup.
“If something goes wrong or somebody gets injured, we know we can replace any time we want. That’s a good sign. At the same time, you’ve got to be happy when all four lines can go pretty well.”
It’s called Depth, and this season the Senators are counting on it to bring them success.