Sens enter season at crossroads
GEORGE POPALIS, SPORTS NETWORK
|A combination of injuries, terrible goaltending and trouble scoring created a recipe for futility in Ottawa last season. (QMI Agency/Errol McGihon)
TORONTO -- They say you have to hit rock bottom before you can triumph again and for the Ottawa Senators that happened last season.
In the span of a year, they went from fifth place in the Eastern Conference to 13th thanks to a 20-point drop in the standings.
A franchise that was once so powerful that it rattled off an impressive 11-year postseason streak from 1997-2008, was now fighting with the Florida Panthers and New York Islanders to stay out of the NHL's basement.
A combination of injuries, terrible goaltending and trouble scoring created a recipe for futility that ultimately led to one of the ugliest seasons in the franchise's 20-year history.
Aging top-six forwards like Alexei Kovalev and Daniel Alfredsson put up career lows, while Jason Spezza continued to falter, notching just 57 points for the second straight season after four straight at 70 or more. And the disappointments didn't end there.
The free-agent acquisition of defenceman Sergei Gonchar, that was supposed to energize the power play and provide more scoring, failed after he produced just 27 points in 67 games. A stark contrast to his impressive career numbers that saw him average 45.6 points through the first 15 years of his career.
The lack of firepower led to the Senators scoring the fewest goals in the entire league and they couldn't keep the puck out of their own net either. The club finished 24th in goals against thanks to the incompetence of goaltenders Brian Elliot and Pascal Leclaire.
It was clear by the trade deadline that the organization would have to start over.
General manager Brian Murray went to work, and fast. Veterans Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu and Kovalev were shipped off to Nashville, Boston, Anaheim and Pittsburgh respectively, in exchange for draft picks. While Elliot was traded to the Colorado Avalanche for the equally struggling Craig Anderson.
The changes didn't stop with the product on the ice either. At season's end head coach Cory Clouston was fired and replaced by long-time Detroit Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean. And when many thought Murray might face the same fate as Clouston, he was signed to a new three-year contract extension.
So with everything more or less sorted out in the offseason, here the Senators stand like so many NHL teams trying to survive the end of an era without skidding into irrelevance. For the first time in many years they will rely on new faces to carry the load. Relatively unproven players like Colin Greening, Erik Condra, Bobby Butler, who were pressed into action last year when many of the team's veterans were shipped out, will have increased roles this season, pulling the club up or down with their own successes or failures.
Whether or not draft picks David Runblad or Mika Zibanejad will be ready to help the team will depend on how they perform at training camp. Fellow Swedes Erik Karlsson and Daniel Alfredsson will help mentor their transition to North America, but it may be premature to expect much from the pair of newcomers.
Regardless, youngsters will play a large role on the team meaning bounce-back seasons for veterans like Alfredsson and Gonchar will be crucial. Alfredsson was limited by a bad back that was ultimately corrected with offseason surgery and the Sens will need his leadership badly.
The same goes for Gonchar who dealt with injuries in his own right. A disappointing first season in Ottawa could be looked at as an adjustment year for the 37-year-old, but he will have to be better to prove that he still has what it takes to lead a young defensive core.
One spot where they have undeniably gotten stronger is in net with Anderson. After finishing last season with an 11-5-1 record with a .938 save percentage, he proved he could will his team to win and was rewarded with a four-year, $12.75 million contract extension. If he could play at that level for an entire season, this club may have a chance at climbing a few spots in the standings.
But realistically, the rest of the conference has gotten so much better that they could find their way to the bottom of the East with little surprise. Maybe not the worst fate for a rebuilding franchise as a top-three draft pick would fit nicely in the process right now.