Senators on the road to recovery

The Senators' skaters have the makeup of winning team, but their success will hinge on the...

The Senators' skaters have the makeup of winning team, but their success will hinge on the performance of goaltender Pascal Leclaire. (DARREN BROWN/QMI Agency)

BRUCE GARRIOCH, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:40 PM ET

The Ottawa Senators returned to the playoffs last spring.

Now they want to take another step - a step to become an elite team once again.

Not long ago, they were one of the NHL's best ... a Stanley Cup contender.

But, with new rules for free agency coming out of the 2004-05 lockout and poor drafting during the John Muckler era, the Senators had to get back on the road to recovery after missing the playoffs in 2008.

Even with a first-round playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, the Senators gave their fans hope. The question is: Can they return to top-dog status in the East?

We enlisted the help of an Eastern Conference observer who provides this year's analysis of the Senators.

Forwards

The Senators tried to take the weight off Jason Spezza's shoulders this summer.

Spezza, who was upset at being booed during the playoffs, had a face-to-face meeting with general manager Bryan Murray in July. The superstar was told that all the Senators want from him is a consistent performance each night.

The club is hoping winger Alexei Kovalev will have a better season overall and help on the power play. He can't be much worse than last season. Milan Michalek was the centrepiece in the Dany Heatley deal a year ago and he has to stay healthy.

Captain Daniel Alfredsson is the club's best player, but he's 37. The Senators shouldn't have to rely on him every night at this stage of his career.

Defence

The Senators made the biggest splash in the NHL on July 1 by signing free-agent defenceman Sergei Gonchar.

The offensive dynamo certainly should help the power play. He has been one of the top-scoring defencemen in the NHL for more than a decade. And Gonchar doesn't get enough credit for his defensive play.

His mere presence should also assist in the development of a young player such as Erik Karlsson. The Senators are hoping he doesn't suffer from the sophomore jinx after a strong finish in the playoffs.

The loss of Filip Kuba with a broken leg is a blow, but Chris Phillips is one of the NHL's most consistent defensive defencemen. Matt Carkner brings toughness to the back end and Chris Campoli should bounce back.

Goal

This is a make-or-break season for Pascal Leclaire.

He either gets the job done or his future could be as a backup ... or in Europe.

The Senators' post-season hopes are squarely on Leclaire's shoulders. He has been billed as the No. 1 since being acquired in a 2009 trade. He suffered a freak injury sitting on the bench last season and never really recovered.

Brian Elliott does a nice job as the backup and was able to take over as the No. 1 when Leclaire suffered a concussion in January, but is he a goalie who will steal games and take you to the next level?

Coaching, management

Bryan Murray has put the pieces in place for the Senators to have success.

The addition of Gonchar was a huge key. The club has players in the AHL who can be called up in case of injury. The pieces look to be in place for the Senators to be a contending team in the East, provided they can stay healthy.

Coach Cory Clouston is heading into his second full season and has had plenty of time to learn the ropes. He's tough but fair with players.

Clouston has to get this team off to a quick start.

He learned during the playoffs last spring that if something isn't working you'd better move quickly to fix it.

Intangibles

The Capitals, Bruins, Flyers and Penguins have been getting most of the pre-season accolades in the East. But the Senators showed spurts of being a top team during a record-setting run just before the Olympic break.

For that reason, the Senators opted to make few changes during the off-season. Murray wanted to keep this team together and give the players a chance to have some real success in the playoffs.

Making the post-season shouldn't be a problem for the Senators, they just have to show they can get the job done once they get there.

Fantasy pool hero

Jason Spezza

Unsung hero

Chris Kelly

Tough guy

Matt Carkner

Sleeper

Chris Campoli

Rookie to watch

Robin Lehner (will start season in AHL)

On the decline

Ryan Shannon

bruce.garrioch@sunmedia.ca


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