LONDON, Ont. — Bryan Murray didn’t see a need to make wholesale changes at the end of last season.
Now, the GM would like the Senators to make the next step.
As the Senators prepare to open training camp Friday with players reporting for medicals at Scotiabank Place, Murray is confident they will be a contender in the Eastern Conference.
“We have a good group, and for the most part, an experienced group,” said Murray Saturday. “We also have (Peter) Regin, (Nick) Foligno and (Erik) Karlsson, who should be better this year.
“We’ve got guys like (Zack) Smith and (Bobby) Butler up front, who should be able to fill any holes that we have. I like our team. It has a little bit to do with health, but beyond that we have a competitive group.”
Murray was pleased with the way the club finished in its first-round playoff series against the Penguins and that’s why defenceman Sergei Gonchar was the only major addition.
“To make a change by making a trade is difficult at any rate,” said Murray. “We had some of the younger guys figure out that they can play well and our veteran core is a good core. We’ve got lots of talent there.
“If we play well, play together and play like we did in the latter part of the year until we had some injuries, I thought we were shaping up to be a good team.”
Murray touched on a wide variety of subjects during a discussion with the Sun:
On goaltending: Murray believes as long as goalie Pascal Leclaire can stay healthy, he has what it takes to lead the Senators on a long playoff run. “It’s impossible for Leclaire to be as unfortunate as he was last year,” said Murray, referring to the freak injuries his No. 1 goalie suffered. “The thing that set him back was the injuries. His ability level is really high and I think (new goalie coach) Rick Wamsley — having worked with him before — will help Pascal be the goalie we think he’s capable of being. Brian Elliott, going through the pressure and the ups/downs of the playoffs, I really think this guy has a chance to be an improved goalie.” Murray said prospect Robin Lehner and veteran Mike Brodeur will also push for playing time.
On winger Alex Kovalev: He is fully recovered from off-season knee surgery and the Senators are hoping Kovalev can help make the players around him better. “He’s a really good player. He’s probably past his prime as far as taking the puck end-to-end and doing the spectacular, but he’s very capable of being a good player every night,” said Murray. “He’s got a high skill level. We all know that. Where he gets judged wrong by the media, as much as anybody, is that too many don’t understand how difficult it is to play in the league and do great individual things. He makes other players who play with him better. That’s what I meant when I said he was a ‘complementary’ player.”
On the addition of Gonchar: He has been one of the top scoring blueliners in the NHL over the past 10 years and was signed to a three-year, $16.5-million US contract on July 1. “He’s like a lot of skill players in that he makes people he plays with better,” said Murray. “He makes the team better. What I see him doing is giving our forwards a better chance to get the puck going quicker. He’ll give our forwards a better chance to get in position in the offensive zone. He also has the ability to shoot the puck and he opens space.” Nothing is set in stone, but wouldn’t be a surprise if Gonchar starts camp paired with veteran Chris Phillips.
On possible moves: Ottawa has lots of depth on defence, with as many as 10 blueliners who could play this year. The Senators could have an opening on right wing on the second line, but Butler, Smith and Roman Wick are going to have a chance to push there. Right now, Murray isn’t planning a move. That could change. “It depends on how camp shapes up,” said Murray. “If we think one of our younger forwards can step in, then we don’t have a need right away. We think we’re seven NHL deep (on defence) and the young kids will show that we probably have three more guys who can play this year.” A lot of eyes are going to be on defenceman Brian Lee, who could be a trade target. “Last year was a tough year on him. I’m interested because I think he’ll come to camp and be a good player for us,” said Murray.