Ottawa's latest rut raises questions about its Eastern dominance
'Tis the season for altering NHL predictions, now that so much information is in.
As it turned out, Nashville's offseason travails did take a toll, Patrick Kane was ready for the big time and Tampa's big three are no longer able to make that team look even remotely like a champion.
Which brings us to the Ottawa Senators. You remember the fall, way back in October and November, when the defending Eastern Conference champions looked like a juggernaut, with their play drawing rave reviews and comparisons to the record-setting Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.
Everyone was happy and everyone was getting new contracts. Goalie Ray Emery received $9.5 million over the summer, and Dany Heatley (six years, $45 million) and Jason Spezza (seven years, $49 million) signed new contracts in the fall. All the stars seemed perfectly aligned, with the loss of role players Peter Schaefer, Mike Comrie and Tom Preissing over the summer and Emery's troublesome wrist merely insignificant road bumps on the road to a championship.
Bryan Murray, the team's GM, knew it wasn't going to work that way, of course. Ditto for John Paddock, the new coach, even though the team seemed to seamlessly turn its attention to him after playing so well for Murray last season.
Well, the Senators haven't been looking so much like those old Montreal teams of late. In fact, suddenly this season's Habs are bearing down on Ottawa in the Northeast Division, largely because recent losses to teams like Washington and Florida have contributed to a mediocre 7-6-0 record in January.
Even ESPN hockey guru Barry Melrose has abandoned the Sens, now suggesting that Montreal will win the East. Murray chuckled when asked if his team's confidence has been shaken by its recent struggles.
"Our confidence is really good," he said. "But our dedication to checking is really shaky."
Heatley is on the injured shelf, and once again Emery has found himself in the news again, this time for showing up four minutes late to the club's first post-All-Star Game practice Monday on Long Island. Paddock, for the second time in a month, told Emery not to bother suiting up, which ignited another round of speculation over the 25-year-old netminder and his future in Ottawa.
This, needless to say, is no small matter, and the reported $14,500 fine leveled by the team (1/187th of Emery's salary) isn't likely to solve the problem.
By now, you have to believe, Emery has figured out the team doesn't fully trust Gerber, and therefore isn't willing to deal harshly with his various antics unless it can find a better goaltending option.
It was Emery, after all, who was forced to carry the ball two seasons ago, when Dominik Hasek didn't feel healthy enough to play, and again in 2006-07, when expensive free-agent acquisition Martin Gerber stumbled badly out of the gate.
Emery carried the Sens all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, besting the likes of Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller along the way. He wasn't perfect, was at times arguably reckless in his style of play, and there was the matter of a car accident en route to a plane trip to New Jersey. Still, he did the job and seemed to set up the Sens in goal for the conceivable future.
Well, maybe not so much.
In the fall, Gerber won back the No. 1 job, which seemed to upset Emery. He showed up late for practice in late December, followed a few days later by a fight with team enforcer Brian McGrattan in practice. While he stumbled along with very ordinary stats, Emery's influence on the team came under scrutiny and was heightened by Monday's second late arrival.
"I didn't want to cause a ruckus," said Emery, who said he simply went to the wrong rink after returning from his All-Star break trip to Las Vegas. "It's accidental ... but it's me all the time and it's their job to do something about it."
Some might wonder whether all of this really matters or suggest problems with Emery have been going on for a lot longer than this season. Others question whether Ottawa's veteran core -- Chris Phillips, Daniel Alfredsson, Wade Redden -- lacks a take-charge leader to deal with the problem of a member of the team who doesn't want to always act like a member of the team.
Seems a lot to do over a backup goalie, one that has hardly run into trouble the way, oh, Mike Danton or Michael Vick has. So, let's have a little perspective when it comes to Emery.
"We just want him to be a regular player," Murray said.
You have to understand the hockey mania in Ottawa these days after last season's Cup finals run to understand the furor over Emery. There is no NBA or major league baseball franchise to take attention away from the Senators, and even the city's CFL team (for years the Rough Riders, and briefly the Renegades) went out of business long ago.
So it's all Senators, all the time in a political city where overanalysis is a leisure-time activity. Emery has struggled to feel comfortable in that environment, and earlier this season, apparently asked the Senators to trade him, but the club couldn't find a suitable deal.
There are also more practical matters slowing the Sens, such as the health of Alfredsson, the team's captain and the NHL's leading scorer. When Ottawa returned to action for the first time after the All-Star break with a solid 5-2 win over the Islanders, Alfredsson was lost in the second period to a hip injury that has been a problem for a month or more. If he misses Thursday's game against Boston, it will be his fourth game missed this month due to the injury.
The accumulation of issues -- indifferent team play, Emery's behavior, Alfredsson's injury -- has seemingly set the table for a significant move by the Sens before the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Last season, then-GM John Muckler declined to part with a first-round pick that might have landed veteran winger Gary Roberts; but this season, expectations are so high, Murray may end up being more aggressive.
Still, this isn't quite a crisis. The Sens still hold a comfortable lead atop the Eastern Conference and have the second-best record in the league behind Detroit. No team has scored more goals, Ottawa has 16 road wins and there is impressive depth and experience at forward and on defense.
Moreover, the East remains mediocre, and it's not clear which team -- Montreal? New Jersey? Philadelphia? -- actually poses a legitimate threat to the Senators winning the conference for a second straight season.
Perhaps it's as simple as this. A long playoff run last spring followed by an excellent start to this season created unreasonable expectations for the Sens, a team that knows anything less than a Stanley Cup victory this season will represent disappointment.
So they've stumbled. But if they're still not the best in the East, some other team better start making a convincing case that it is.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."
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