NHL preview: Ottawa

Daniel Alfredsson is being relied upon to carry the offensive load. (TONY CALDWELL/QMI Agency)

Daniel Alfredsson is being relied upon to carry the offensive load. (TONY CALDWELL/QMI Agency)

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:15 PM ET

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    FANTASY POOL HERO: Jason Spezza

    UNSUNG HERO: Milan Michalek

    TOUGH GUY: Matt Carkner

    SLEEPER: Erik Karlsson

    ROOKIE TO WATCH: Jared Cowen

    ON THE DECLINE: Filip Kuba

    The Ottawa Senators can look back on last season only as a total disaster.

    While they were supposed to return to their status as a contender after making the playoffs in 2009-10, they fell apart, competed for last place overall in the NHL and purged veteran players at the trade deadline.

    After sending veterans Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Brian Elliott, Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Campoli and Alexei Kovalev packing as part of massive rebuilding campaign, general manager Bryan Murray was rewarded with a three-year contract by owner Eugene Melnyk.

    Now, the Senators enter the next phase of the rebuild with a few key veterans remaining and young players to surround them. Instead of spending to the cap, they’ll have a payroll of $51 million this season and that’s the biggest change.

    FORWARDS

    The Senators will be young up front with centre Jason Spezza, left winger Milan Michalek and captain Daniel Alfredsson being relied upon to carry the offensive load. Back after an ugly year that ended with shoulder surgery, centre Peter Regin will get a chance to recover and return to being the player he was during the playoffs in 2010 vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    There are questions: Can Zack Smith be a consistent third-line centre and not take inopportune penalties that plagued him last year? Are Bobby Butler, Erik Condra and Colin Greening at the point they can be contributing NHLers?

    If they can, the Senators will be fine. If not, this team could struggle to score goals.

    DEFENCE

    Instead of opting for free agency, veteran Chris Phillips decided to stick around, signing a three-year, $9-million deal to be part of the rebuilding.

    Now, he has to get back to form himself. Phillips is coming off a bad season. So, is veteran Sergei Gonchar, who signed a three-year, $16.5-million deal on July 1, 2010. He was expected to contribute and struggled big time. Both have to be strong for this club to have a chance.

    Look for Erik Karlsson, the Senators’ only all-star last season, to have a big year. He just keeps getting better while top prospect Jared Cowen, a

    6-foot-5 giant, was impressive during training camp. Many believe Filip Kuba will be dealt before the trade deadline.

    GOALTENDING

    It’s Craig Anderson or bust for the Senators. Brought in at the deadline in exchange for the failing Brian Elliott, Anderson was the reason the Senators were able to return to respectability and win a few games down the stretch to avoid the humiliation of being in the league basement. Signed to a four-year, $12.75-million contract extension in March, Anderson took a chance on not going to market where he probably could have cashed in a little more on a short-term deal. He has a lot to prove here. The Senators will need Anderson to play 70 games if they’re to have a chance to be competitive. Anderson hasn’t always been able to stay healthy in the past, but he’s not close to being in Pascal Leclaire territory in that category. Backup Alex Auld will make an easy $1 million.

    He’ll hardly play. If Anderson does get hurt, Robin Lehner will be brought up from Binghamton of the AHL to take over.

    COACHING, MANAGEMENT

    Murray can shape this team the way he wants. After doing an exhaustive search last spring for a new coach, Murray settled on Detroit Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean to take over for the departed Cory Clouston. The 53-year-old MacLean has never been a head coach before in the NHL. He’s selling an up-tempo style for the young players. Training camp was based around skating. The belief is he’ll have success because he’s able to communicate with players and there won’t be any respect issues as there were in the past. There could be some long nights for MacLean. He has to keep the message positive and make sure the veterans stay with the program. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

    INTANGIBLES

    The Senators are celebrating their 20th anniversary season in the NHL.

    They’d like to give the fans in Ottawa a reason to party. The NHL all-star game will be held in Ottawa in January and it would be nice if the home team was at least pushing for a playoff spot. For that to happen, a lot will have to go right, otherwise they’ll continue to sell hope.

    The Senators are going to be a tough team. Zenon Konopka, Chris Neil, Zack Smith and Matt Carkner will punish the opposition every chance they get. The Battle of Ontario should be interesting. Fans want this team to take a step in the right direction.

    bruce.garrioch@sunmedia.ca


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