Senators: Close, but how far?
Can the Senators reach the Stanley Cup final with the same personnel?
The Ottawa Senators were so close last spring.
With new owner Eugene Melnyk boosting the payroll from $31 million to $40 million for this season, the team has been kept together to take another run and the cloud of uncertainty which hung over the team last season -- but didn't seem to affect the players -- has been removed.
These are the questions that need to be answered as they enter training camp:
There haven't been any significant additions to the club which lost to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference final in seven games, so the leap from a team with potential to one which delivers will have to be made by the growth of players like Marian Hossa, Patrick Lalime, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Radek Bonk and Chris Phillips. Did last spring's disappointment teach them what it takes to make that final, difficult step?
Hossa was a force and only needs postseason success to be considered among the game's truly great players. Phillips, once again, saved his best hockey for the postseason. But Chara, who, like the Senators themselves, is viewed as having tremendous potential that has yet to be fully realized, was a disappointment last spring. He needs to get back to playing the physical hockey the Senators need from him. Captain Daniel Alfredsson also had a less than spectacular postseason. Did these players learn that is all it takes to keep a team from its goal, just one or two players playing at less than 100 percent?
One of the biggest questions to be answered in training camp is how Spezza will fit into the puzzle. His presence and the re-signing of veteran Bryan Smolinski gives the Senators six centers. There will be a lot experimentation during the preseason as the Senators coaching staff tries to figure out how to best align their assets up front. Centers Mike Fisher and Todd White, and perhaps Smolinski at times, could find themselves moved to left wing.
The Senators have been a dominant team in the regular season, topping the 40-win mark in four of the last five years, but have come up short in the playoffs. Critics wonder if the stoic Martin can light enough of a fire under his team. Martin is entering the last year of his contract and this could be his last chance to show what he can do with the team. Anything less than a trip to the final could result in the decision to try a different hand on the rudder.
Chris Stevenson of the Ottawa Sun is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.