2008-09 Team Preview: Ottawa Senators
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunIf there's a team that needs to turn the page to a new season, it's the Ottawa Senators. After storming out of the gates last season and looking every bit the Cup contender, the team plummeted down the standings and barely got into the playoffs before being swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round.
In between, there was talk of dressing room issues, led by the antics of former goalie Ray Emery, who since has exited to Russia. So yes, this is a team that desperately needs a fresh start.
"We've got a new coach [Craig Hartsburg], which always brings a new look and a bit of enthusiasm to everything," center Jason Spezza told ESPN.com. "We're putting our failures of last year behind us. We've got some new bodies in; we're looking forward."
GM Bryan Murray didn't sit idly by after his team's ugly finish. He brought in Hartsburg, a coach who won't let his players off the hook, and added veteran defenseman Jason Smith, who was a captain last season with the Flyers. He also added gritty winger Jarkko Ruutu, who had been a popular member of the Penguins and kept the room loose.
"I think Bryan wanted to bring in good people, guys that are hard to play against," Spezza said. "And playing against Jarkko Ruutu and Jason Smith -- that's an understatement; they're both really hard to play against and they both play really hard. Just bringing [Smith] into our leadership group in Ottawa I think will really help because of his experiences, and he's a guy who doesn't take a night off."
On the surface, this didn't look like an area of concern last season with the Sens leading the NHL with 258 goals. But there was a significant drop-off after the three-headed offensive machine of Spezza, Dany Heatley and captain Daniel Alfredsson. Secondary scoring was a huge issue. Hartsburg was attempting to find two scoring lines this season, keeping Alfredsson away from Heatley and Spezza. But after the trio spent significant ice time together during the preseason, the players were reunited on the top line on the eve of the team's season opener in Stockholm. It remains to be seen whether the line will be broken up again if times get tough. Getting career years from Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette certainly would help the cause.
The blue line took a hit with the losses of Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros. The Sens welcome Smith, Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and Brendan Bell to the group, but there's a loss in back-end offense here. Perhaps Bell will be a surprise; he is shifty and has shown offensive ability in the past. Picard also showed some in the AHL. Chris Phillips (one of the NHL's top shutdown guys), Anton Volchenkov, Christoph Schubert and Brian Lee round out a defensive corps that's not as deep as in years past.
Martin Gerber stole the No. 1 job from the troubled Emery last season, and while he had good stretches, he didn't completely erase doubt that he's a true NHL starter. His 2.72 GAA was 29th among NHL goalies, while his .910 save percentage was 20th. True, some of that can be attributed to a shaky team defense in front of him, but he enters the season needing to prove himself to many.
A clever signing might be Alex Auld, who was brought in to be the backup. He played some big games with the Vancouver Canucks before losing himself on a bad Florida Panthersteam the past two seasons. Keep an eye on him.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Ottawa took place when the circus left town and signed in Russia. With all due respect to former net minder Ray Emery, the constant distraction and side-show drama negatively impacted the team and cost a very good coach his job. There is a new sheriff in town now, and you can expect Craig Hartsburg to establish discipline and control, both on and off the ice. GM Bryan Murray brought in quite a bit of sandpaper and grit this season, from the no-nonsense coach to agitator extraordinaire Jarkko Ruutu to heart-and-soul leader Jason Smith. They join Chris Neil, one of the most talented tough guys in the game today, and the always dangerous Mike Fisher, who plays well at both ends of the ice and isn't afraid to take (or give) a hit to make a play.
For this team to reach the promised land, it is time for Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza to lead by example, not just in the regular season but, more importantly, during the playoffs. The trio combined for 115 goals last season, but failed to score a single goal in the postseason. The answers the Sens seek may be found within the four walls of the locker room; this time, the players shouldn't look to the changes behind the bench or in the manager's suite if the questions aren't answered correctly.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 43-31-8
• Division: Second in the Northeast
• Conference: Seventh in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in first round vs. PIT
• The Sens close out the regular season with eight of their last 11 games on the road, with stops in New York (Rangers), Carolina, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Florida, Boston, Montreal and Toronto.
Experience: Six years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• A new voice behind the bench was sorely needed for a team that at times lacked discipline last season. Hartsburg is back as an NHL coach after almost a decade in exile. During that time, he racked up wins like nobody's business in junior hockey, while also leading Canada to back-to-back gold medals at the 2007 and 2008 World Junior Championships.
He's got a big challenge in Ottawa, a team that appears to be fading from the contender role. He also must straighten out a dressing room whose character has been called into question. It's a tall task for Hartsburg.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Dany Heatley
• Entering his fourth season with the Sens. Has scored 141 post-lockout goals. Enough said.
F -- Jason Spezza
• Entering his sixth season with the Sens. Heatley's set-up man is looking for a more consistent year.
F -- Daniel Alfredsson
• After early signs pointed to former Colgate University standout Jesse Winchester to start the season with Healey and Spezza, Alfredsson moves back into the top line on the eve of the regular-season opener against the Penguins.
D -- Chris Phillips
• Entering his 11th season with the Sens. One of the NHL's top defensive defensemen, and a fearless one at that.
D -- Jason Smith
• Arrived via free agency from Philly. A much-needed boost in the character department.
Answer: "Obviously, we want to win as soon as possible," Spezza said. "But Heater and I both signed for a long time; I think that gives us a good chance. We definitely have some guys locked up for a long time. So we're not going to lose too many guys. We know things may change, but with the group we have now, we feel we can win. There's no point waiting for something else to happen. Hopefully we can get it done this year."