Ottawa Senators season preview
2007-08 result: 43-31-8, 7th in Eastern Conference (lost in first round to Pittsburgh)
Key arrivals: G Alex Auld, D Filip Kuba, D Alexandre Picard, D Jason Smith, F Jarkko Ruutu, coach Craig Hartsburg
Key departures: G Ray Emery, D Mike Commodore, D Andrej Meszaros, D Wade Redden, D Luke Richardson, F Martin Lapointe, F Brian McGrattan, F Randy Robitaille, F Cory Stillman, coach Bryan Murray
Offence: The Senators know how to put the puck in the net. Despite a second-half collapse that saw the team go from the best in hockey to first-round fodder for Pittsburgh, Ottawa finished as the NHL's highest-scoring team at 3.15 goals per game.
The top line of Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza is still arguably the league's best, but the Sens' suspect defence demands additional scoring. With no new imports at forward, Ottawa will hope for better production from holdovers Antoine Vermette (53 points), Mike Fisher (47) and Chris Kelly (30).
Defence: Gone are four regulars — Redden, Meszaros, Commodore and Richardson — from a generous unit that allowed 2.95 goals per game last season (up from 2.63 the year before).
The biggest loss is Redden, a smooth operator who was plus-159 in his 11 seasons with the Senators before signing a lucrative deal with the New York Rangers. To fill the void, general manager Murray brought in hard-nosed veteran Smith along with the skilled Kuba and borderline NHLer Picard, the latter two acquired in the deal that sent Meszaros's rights to Tampa Bay. Former first-rounder Brian Lee hopes to show he belongs in the regular rotation.
Improving the league's 22nd-ranked penalty-killing unit will be key, but the Senators will get no quarter in a gunslinging Northeast Division that features three of the NHL's four highest-scoring teams (Montreal and Buffalo join Ottawa in that group).
Goaltending: Martin Gerber actually improved both his goals-against average and save percentage last season, but the Senators were undone by the stunning decline of Emery. In 31 games, the colourful 'tender posted a 3.13 GAA and .890 save percentage — well off the 2.47 and .918 marks of his breakthrough 2006-07 campaign, when he backstopped Ottawa to the Cup final.
Emery also didn't do himself (or his team) any favours by clashing with joyless coach John Paddock, who got the boot in mid-season as Murray took over the bench. Emery was sent packing after the playoffs when Ottawa bought out his contract and he signed with a Russian club.
Murray went the safe route for Emery's replacement, picking up good-guy journeyman Auld. But that puts the pressure on Gerber to prove he can carry a team when needed.
Coaching: Murray elected not to do double duty for a full season, handing the coaching reigns to Hartsburg. The no-nonsense Stratford, Ont., native, who has five years of NHL head coaching experience and two world junior gold medals, will try and restore order to a team that looked rudderless last spring.
Hartsburg has also shown he's not afraid to shake things up. He plans to try playing Alfredsson, Heatley and Spezza on separate lines to promote more balance scoring, an idea that has produced mixed results in the past.
Outlook: On the heels of Ottawa's shocking collapse, Murray opted for volume in trying to patch up his defence corps. But it's hard to see how things will be better without Redden and his quarterbacking abilities on the power-play.
With no significant scoring talent brought in over the off-season, the attack may also take a step back. Alfredsson is a year older and coming off an injury-hampered campaign. On the other hand, the captain scored 40 goals in 70 games, Spezza seems to get better every year, and a healthy Heatley is a near lock for 50 goals and 100 points.
The Sens are hoping Emery's ouster amounts to addition by subtraction, but the erstwhile Goalie of the Future had the talent to help Ottawa get back to the top of the Eastern Conference. Barring an out-of-his-mind season from Gerber, the Sens aren't likely to get the kind of netminding they need to be an elite team.