It's been a rapid and somewhat painful drop for the Ottawa Senators from their once lofty perch near the top of the NHL's elite class.
Since their march to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, the Sens have lost in the first round twice (both times to the powerhouse Penguins) and missed the playoffs once altogether. They've burned through a couple of ill-equipped coaches (John Paddock and Craig Hartsburg), a couple of starting goaltenders (Ray Emery and Martin "The Horror" Gerber) and one superstar winger (Dany Heatley).
Yet, last season provided a glimmer of optimism, chiefly from the play of future star (and Alfie replacement?) Erik Karlsson and the late, but inspiring play of goalie Pascal Leclaire in the playoffs.
The tough loss of Anton Volchenkov this summer was mitigated somewhat by the surprising acquisition of power play quarterback Sergei Gonchar and after a mini-squabble between Jason Spezza and the fans, it seems that the team's number one centre is staying in town for the foreseeable future with a healthy chip on his shoulder, looking to prove his army of critics wrong.
In short, there's a slight chance here that the Senators are actually capable of reclaiming their status as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
But coach Cory Clouston still has a lot of finessing to do. Most of the pieces are in place, with the exception of a real goal scoring winger. You can argue that the team may be soft on defense now (and I might argue that myself) and soft in goal, but at least the potential is there for success.
With that in mind, here's what I believe to be the top 4 priorities for Coach Clouston this upcoming season - the keys to turning this team from average to intimidating.
1. A bit too obvious - get the power play working again.
No brainer here. The Sens finished 21st in the league in power play percentage last season, despite having three of the most skilled guys in the game in Daniel Alfredsson, Spezza and Alex Kovalev. That shouldn't be the case after signing Gonchar and having a more confident Karlsson on the points. If you think about it, the PP could be downright scary for opponents this year. Even if Kovalev can barely skate this season, he's worth having around if he can learn to work with Spezza on the man advantage. The big problem was the loss of Heatley, a guy who was actually criticized in some circles because all he wanted to do was shoot. But that's exactly the mentality the Sens need on the power play now. Spezza and Kovalev need to shoot more instead of playing hot potato. With everyone on that top unit more attuned to playmaking instead of scoring, Clouston needs to insist they start sniping. Both Kovalev and Spezza have incredible shots. They need to use them more. The second unit will be a step down for sure, but there's potential there with Peter Regin and Nick Foligno, even though one of them, likely Foligno, will be hard pressed to supplant Milan Michalek in the regular formation. Which brings us to our second priority...
2. Turning either Regin or Foligno into a goal scoring winger.
I say "goal scoring winger" lightly because I don't believe either will ever approach the goal production of Heatley or Marian Hossa before him. But the Senators don't have the cash to go out and buy one, so either Regin or Foligno need to score more than 13 and 9 goals respectively. One of them needs to hit 25 goals this year, period. While Regin is likely the one to break through this season, don't count out Foligno. There's something rangy about the young winger that gives you hints he could be the kind of guy to pot 25 goals from within five feet of the crease. He did score 17 goals two seasons ago, so 25 is not out of the question if he can earn top six minutes. But in order to do that, Foligno either has to outplay Regin or Michalek (or rely on someone getting injured) because, likely, that third line is set with Chris Kelly, Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu. So it may be second line or bust for Foligno this season. In fact, if he doesn't turn it around, he may find himself on another team where he can get a proper chance. Other than Leclaire, Foligno is the guy who needs to play the season of his life in order to stay employed by the Senators going forward. Clouston needs to nurture the talent of Foligno. In my opinion, the young winger is worth the patience.
3. Making sure the vets are rested come playoff time
The Senators actually had a good shot at beating the Pens last season in the first round but injuries were just too much to overcome. Alfredsson aggravated a hernia playing at the Olympics but didn't help himself by staying in the lineup after the Sens clinched a playoff spot (although seeing him play his 1000th game was a highlight of the season). Kovalev was injured in a meaningless game in April and Filip Kuba was hurt late in the season as well. Of course, a coach can't really control who gets injured or not, but Clouston needs his veterans healthy going into the playoffs, and if that means sitting them down even when they say they're fine, then so be it (assuming the Sens aren't fighting for their lives for a playoff spot). Some of the Sens most important players are 35 and older, such as Alfredsson (37), Kovalev (37) and Gonchar (36). That's most of the first PP unit right there. Obviously they can't afford to have these guys either playing at half-speed or not playing at all. Key defensemen Chris Phillips and Kuba are not exactly young and invincible either. Detroit was able to win multiple Stanley Cups with older players in key positions so it can certainly be done, but luck and a little skillful managing will make or break the Senators year.
4. Play Leclaire even when he struggles
Yes, it's up to Pascal Leclaire to save his career by staying healthy and stopping pucks, but Coach Clouston needs to go to the wall for this guy as well. You could just sense Clouston didn't put his trust in Leclaire until he was forced to by Brian Elliot's poor playoff performance. Miraculously, Leclaire played lights out, giving everyone optimism going into this season. But be warned. It's not going to be pretty right from the get go. This is a goalie who has played a measly 46 regular season games since 2008. He still needs time to work his game out but he's not going to get there if Clouston keeps going back to Elliott, a goalie who Clouston seems to like, if only because he's familiar with him going back to their Binghamton days. Elliott has only proven to be a good backup goaltender so far in the NHL. He's good, but what's his real potential? You can see glimpses of Leclaire being an elite goaltender, but he needs the time and the starts to begin to get there again. The future in the Ottawa goal is either Leclaire or Swedish youngster Robin Lehner. Whenever Elliott plays, this team just seems to be treading water. It may be more stable, but it won't get you to shore.
Anyways, Black Aces looks forward to another great year of NHL hockey and we'll be updating more regularly once training camps commence.