Senators: Close, but how far?

9/10/2003 - Ottawa Senators

The Ottawa Senators were so close last spring.

But what the best young team in hockey found out is making that final step from potential to production is the toughest. The Senators have been drawing closer and closer to their goal of winning the Stanley Cup, but they still haven't figured it out. Is this the year?

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:

  • More schooling? The Senators advanced farther then they ever have in the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, coming up a couple of minutes and one goal short of making it to the final for the first time. Once again, the question going into this season is what did the Senators learn from that experience?

    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?

  • What about Jason? Senators general manager John Muckler has made it clear: 20-year-old Jason Spezza will play for the Senators this season and it will be on one of the club's two top lines. Spezza, a gifted offensive prospect, played 33 regular season games for the Senators last year. He created a sensation in the playoffs when he came out of the pressbox to help lead the Senators back from a 3-1 deficit against the Devils and force a seventh game. Spezza could make the Senators, tops in goals scored in the Eastern Conference last year, an even better offensive team and help boost the power play.

    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.

  • Is that seat hot enough for you, Jacques? Coach Jacques Martin is entering his eighth season behind the Senators bench. He has helped this franchise go from one of the worst in the league to one of its best. There is no question he is a wonderful teacher and very good at getting his players to buy into his system, but the question, as it has been for the last two or three years, is this: is he the man to take this team all the way?

    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.