TORONTO -- The Ottawa Senators have made the playoffs in 12 of the last 13 seasons and that's an impressive statistic. But for a city that hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1927, it's only the first step. Playing in the postseason will be expected of the Sens in 2010-11, but how far they go will depend on the health of key veterans and the impact of newly acquired defenceman Sergei Gonchar.
Using last season as a barometer for this year's outlook isn't fair, considering key injuries undermined the Senators' quest for postseason glory. Ottawa fought valiantly in the 2009-10 playoffs before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, and did so without key regulars like right winger Alexei Kovalev, defenceman Filip Kuba and forward Milan Michalek. If those personnel losses weren't enough to send the club packing, captain Daniel Alfredsson revealed he'd been playing with a painful abdominal tear that was corrected with a sports hernia procedure in May.
With an offseason heavy on rehabilitation, the Sens look ready to compete, but the feeling in Ottawa is more desperate than in years past. With key veterans getting older, this group is running out of time.
At 37 years of age, Alfredsson is entering his 15th NHL season, and asking him to maintain the average of nearly a point per game pace he's posted throughout his career may be a stretch. But Alfredsson is a ferocious competitor and even if his production takes a small step backwards, his leadership will provide heart and soul for the group.
The same can't be said about the Senators' other aging scorer, Kovalev, who will turn 38 next season. Kovalev notched only 49 points in 77 games last season before sustaining a torn ACL in his left knee, an injury that could spell the end of the flashy winger's days of domination. Entering the final year of a two-year, $10 million contract he signed in 2009, Kovalev will be expected to produce, making him a key player in Ottawa's eventual success or failure.
To help Kovalev and company, General Manager Bryan Murray signed former Penguins defender Sergei Gonchar to a free agent contract this summer. The 36-year-old defenceman inked a three-year, $16 million deal with the club when the departure of defenceman Anton Volchenkov, who signed a six-year, $25.5 million deal with the New Jersey Devils, opened up a spot for a top-level free agent. Gonchar will provide some spark for a power play that finished 21st in the league last year and working him into the team's offensive approach will be a central focus for head coach Cory Clouston.
Gonchar is one of the league's premier point men and should help players like Kovalev, Alfredsson and Jason Spezza find the back of the net with more regularity. Gonchar brings 15 years of experience, 684 points and a Stanley Cup ring with him to Ottawa and fans should look forward to seeing him in Senators' red, black and white instead of Penguins' black, white and gold this year.
With Alfredsson, Kovalev and Gonchar, the Senators have three aging superstars on the wrong side of 35 making up a good portion of their core. As a result, mainstays like Jason Spezza and Mike Fisher will be expected to carry more of the load on a nightly basis. Spezza, 27, will look to rebound from a disappointing season in which he tallied only 57 points after averaging 85 points in his previous four campaigns.
Fisher, who vacated his previous role as a third-line grinder to become a legit scorer last year, will be hard-pressed to match his career highs of 25 goals and 53 points, but with the crafty Gonchar manning the point, the opportunities should be plentiful.
Save for the addition of Gonchar and the departure of Volchenkov, Ottawa is essentially the same team as last year's squad that finished fifth in the Eastern Conference with 94 points. If the Senators' big guns are truly healthy, they have many of the tools to improve on that point total while taking aim at a long and sustained playoff run. Canada's capital city has waited 83 years for a championship team, and this year's squad will have to find the fountain of youth if that drought is going to end.