Another Senators' season is over -- way early after last year's glorious run to the Stanley Cup final -- and now fans will be able to engage in their usual off-season activity: Wondering what went wrong.
A season that began with a record start (15-2) and ended so disappointingly will invite a lot of inspection, speculation and thoughts of "where do they go from here?"
The 2007-08 season saw a coach fired in Ottawa in mid-season for just the second time, the ongoing saga that was the Ray Emery story, likely the end of the Wade Redden era in Ottawa, rumours of dressing-room rifts and a sad ending thanks to the hated Leafs with hits by Toronto forward Mark Bell late in the season knocking out forwards Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher -- likely costing the Senators a shot at beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round.
So, as a long summer begins for the Senators, here are 10 questions to ponder before the next big hockey event here in Ottawa, the NHL draft in June.
1. Where does coach and GM Bryan Murray go from here?
Murray pretty much confirmed yesterday he will be back as GM next season after conversations with owner Eugene Melnyk and he should be. He has had only one year on the job as GM here. Choosing John Paddock to succeed him as coach didn't work out and figuring out what to do with the coaching position is at the top of his "To Do" list. Next is figuring out the goaltending situation and finding an elite, puck-moving defenceman.
2. Who will be coach next season?
Murray doesn't want to have to return behind the bench, but a final decision can't be made until he knows exactly which guys might be available this summer to take over the coach's job. There should be some good candidates. Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock could be a free agent this summer and he and Murray have a history: Murray hired him to coach the Anaheim Ducks. Other names that will be bounced around, some actually with merit, are Pat Quinn, Pat Burns and Bob Hartley. Whoever they get, they need a guy with some edge to bring in line a team that looks unfocused and soft.
3. What happens to Wade Redden?
The defenceman has played every one of his 838 regular-season NHL games with the Senators and he has been a lightning rod for fans. Either they love him for his puck-moving ability or hate him for his turnovers and perceived lack of intensity. He can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and is as good as gone. Potential landing spots -- for likely less than the $6.5 million he's made in each of the last two years here -- are San Jose, Los Angeles or New York with the Rangers.
4. Who replaces Redden?
Murray said after the Senators dropped Game 3 of the opening-round series against the Penguins that you can't win a championship without a great puck-moving defenceman. The top guy on the free-agent market this summer will be Brian Campbell and he would fit the bill for the Senators and about 25 other teams in the NHL. Other players who could fill that role might be Ron Hainsey (Columbus Blue Jackets) and John-Michael Liles of the Colorado Avalanche, also scheduled to become unrestricted free agents July 1.
5. What can the Senators afford under the cap?
The salary cap is expected to go up to perhaps as high as $56 million next year. The Senators already have about $40 million committed for 14 players next year. If Melnyk spends to the cap (which he has said in the past he plans to do), Murray could be in the market for an elite player. Campbell would be at the top of the list.
6. What to do with Ray Emery?
This season was just a disaster for Emery after helping the Senators reach the final last spring. Off-season wrist surgery limited his training camp and he never recovered after that. He lost his job to Martin Gerber in the early part of the season and his failure to work in practice and his chronic tardiness, largely ignored by Paddock, contributed to the coach losing his job. What guarantees do the Senators have Emery will come back next year with an improved attitude? None. He is due to make $3.25 million next year and $3.5 million the year after. A buyout is a real possibility, especially after Gerber showed he is a viable option after stepping up and giving the Senators solid goaltending against the Penguins. Because he is younger than 26, Emery could be bought out by the Senators for just one-third of what's he owed.
7. Are there other goaltending options out there?
Gerber might have been the Senators' best player through the Penguins series, but he is far from being considered one of the NHL's elite goaltenders. His performance in the playoffs can give the Senators hope he can get the job done. Truth is, there's not much out there this summer as far as free agents go. Cristobal Huet, Dominik Hasek (been there, done that), Patrick Lalime (been there, done that, too), the Johans (Holmqvist and Hedberg), Olaf Kolzig, Jose Theodore, Brodeur (Mike, not Martin) ... are any of those guys absolutely guaranteed to be better than what the Senators have now? It looks like if Murray wants to upgrade, he's going to have to do it by the trade route.
8. Who could stay and who could go up front?
The Senators will likely have five free agents among their current forwards: Unrestricted free agents Cory Stillman, Chris Kelly, Martin Lapointe and Shean Donovan and restricted free agent Antoine Vermette. Kelly might wind up being too pricey for the Senators to keep and Lapointe hasn't contributed much in his short stay. Donovan has proven his worth in the playoffs and might have earned himself another contract. Stillman will be pursued in the free-agent market and might also prove to be too pricey. The most interesting negotiation might be with Vermette, who made $1.075 million this season and will likely ask for his salary to be at least doubled.
9. Who could stay and who could go on the blue line?
The blue line could see better than a 50% turnover for next season. The feeling is Redden is gone and veterans Luke Richardson and Mike Commodore are likely done, too. Richardson could stay on with the organization in a coaching capacity. Andrej Meszaros, who has struggled to repeat his rookie regular-season performance, is a pending restricted free agent. Rookie Brian Lee has impressed in the games he has played so far, so pencil him in for a regular spot next season. Christoph Schubert could be shifted back from forward to play full-time on the blue line next year.
10. Will the Senators make the playoffs next year?
If not for their 15-2 start this season, they wouldn't have made it this year. They will be in tough next year and that's with stability behind the bench, the signing of a top-flight defenceman and more consistent goaltending than they received in the regular season this year. They will make it next year ... barely.