Ottawa Senators season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:31 PM ET
ESPN.com

Ottawa Senators

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

No matter how much we make sport of the Senators' considerable playoff shortcomings, they remain one of the league's elite teams. This season will be no different even though GM John Muckler has been forced by the economic constraints of the new collective bargaining agreement to make some difficult decisions. Those include walking away from free-agent defenseman Zdeno Chara and dealing burgeoning star Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski to Chicago. It wasn't all bad news for the Senators as Muckler managed to shore up his goaltending with the acquisition of dependable Martin Gerber and promising defensemen Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing. That the Senators should reach the 100-point mark for the sixth time in the last eight NHL seasons will matter little, however, if they cannot live up to expectations next spring.

Offense: It's true that Havlat was a dynamic force in the playoffs with 13 points in 10 games and led the team with seven postseason goals. That kind of offensive depth is difficult to come by and harder to keep in this new NHL. In Havlat's absence, there will be more pressure on Ottawa's top trio, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley, who combined for 296 regular-season points last season, a big reason the Sens were the most prolific of all teams, scoring an average of 3.8 goals per game. The three formed the league's most potent line for much of the regular season, but coach Bryan Murray split them up late in the going to try and spread out the team's scoring. Watch for that to continue this season.

So who can fill the void created by the departure of Havlat and Smolinski? Well, rookies Patrick Eaves (20 goals) and Chris Kelly (10 goals) will get a chance to contribute and Eaves looks to be the early favorite to start the season playing on the wing with Spezza and Heatley. Watch for talented center Alexei Kaigorodov to have an impact coming over from the Russian elite league. He'll likely get a chance to help out with an Ottawa power play that was fourth in the league last season. As with all things Senators-related, however, the regular season is all about preparing for that ever-elusive Stanley Cup run, especially for players like Heatley and Alfredsson, who disappeared in a five-game, second-round loss to Buffalo.

Defense: Yes, you don't take a 6-foot-9, 260-pound monster away from your blue-line corps without some repercussions. But the Senators actually might be better as a whole on the back end by adding Corvo and Preissing to fill that Chara gap. Preissing had a break-out year in San Jose and came as part of the Havlat deal after posting 43 points and a plus-17 while averaging 20:29 a night in ice time. Corvo might turn out to be an even better addition. While Lubomir Visnovsky was getting all the ink in Los Angeles last season (he led the Kings with 67 points), Corvo had a big hand in his defense partner's success, adding 40 points on his own and turning in a remarkable plus-16 on a bad Kings team. Throw in Norris Trophy hopeful Wade Redden, Chris Phillips and Andrej Meszaros, who led all rookies with a plus-34, and this is as good a defense as there is the conference, maybe the NHL. Murray will want to shore up a penalty-killing unit that was curiously 18th overall.

Goaltending: Poor Ray Emery. After taking over for the lamentable Dominik Hasek after the Olympics and playing well in a first-round win over Tampa Bay, the rookie spit the bit in Game 1 of the second round, a spirit-killing 7-6 loss in overtime from which the Senators could not recover. In the end, Emery showed he has both the physical tools and the mental toughness to earn a shot at the long-term goaltending job in Ottawa. And who knows, by the end of the season, the job might be his. But in the interim, watch for Martin Gerber to try and repeat the successes he enjoyed a season ago in Carolina, where he finished fourth with 38 regular-season wins. This is as good a goaltending tandem as the Senators have ever had.

Coaching: Bryan Murray led the Senators to the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the second-best point total in the NHL, but he knew when he left management in Anaheim to take the coaching job in his hometown that it wasn't about regular-season points but Stanley Cups. So the team's disappointing exit in the second round last spring means Murray's still got work to do in the Canadian capital. He has returned with a whip-cracking training camp.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
1st The Senators' offensive depth is too much for teams in the East and Ottawa again finishes first in the Northeast and the Eastern Conference.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. Fans in Ottawa have become used to the Senators' habits of following regular-season dominance with postseason disappointment, but they still turn out in droves.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
The Senators lost Zdeno Chara, but the Sens still boast one of the league's deepest blue lines. Wade Redden is a more than adequate leader, while newly acquired Joseph Corvo and Tom Preissing are underrated scorers for fantasy. It will all help goalie Martin Gerber, who came over from Carolina, thanks to his dominant track record against these Senators. (If you can't beat 'em, sign 'em.) Remember, Dominik Hasek was a No. 1-caliber goalie before getting hurt last year. Gerber can be that, too. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Senators:
1. Brian Lee, 19, D, North Dakota (WCHA)
Statline: 43 GP, 3 G, 22 A, 44 PIM
2. Alexei Kaigorodov, 23, C, Magnitogorsk
Statline: 50 GP, 9 G, 23 A, 42 PIM
3. Vitali Anikeyenko, 19, D, Yaroslavl (Russia)
Statline: 26 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 28 PIM
4. Jeff Glass, 20, G, Charlotte (ECHL)
Statline: 19-15-4 record, 3.22 GAA, .907 SV%
5. Igor Mirnov, 22, C, Moscow
Statline: 33 GP, 8 G, 10 A, 36 PIM
• Subscribe to The Hockey News

Ottawa Senators
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record52-21-9 (113 points)
DivisionFinished first in Northeast
ConferenceFinished first in East
PlayoffsLost 4-1 to Buffalo in second round

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Jason Spezza
The former child prodigy has grown into an NHL star. Now can he grow into an NHL leader?
Winger: Daniel Alfredsson
Captain Daniel Alfredsson is one of the game's true gentlemen. He took the Senators' playoff loss to Buffalo personally, as he does every spring playoff letdown. Can he bounce back as he has in the past?
Defense: Joe Corvo
The U.S.-born Corvo has a chance to play on a big hockey stage having proven himself in the shadows of Los Angeles.
Goalie: Martin Gerber
Swiss star Martin Gerber lost his job last year in Carolina to rookie Cam Ward. He'd like to keep sophomore Ray Emery from doing the same thing this year in Ottawa.

Key Moves
GM John Muckler essentially had to decide between Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara, a difficult choice between defensemen. He chose Redden, but did he choose wisely? Was Tom Preissing's breakout season in San Jose a mirage or a harbinger of things to come?

SportsNation
Rating the Senators
The Ottawa Senators finished first in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Senators in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
Vote now, SportsNation!