And so begins Year 2 of the three-year re-building plan of the Ottawa Senators.
As owner Eugene Melnyk conceded Sunday that squeaking into last year’s playoffs and taking the New York Rangers to seven games was “something that was very, very unexpected” – it’s hard to know what to expect in the 48-game second phase of the franchise’s stated three-year program.
“We’re not sure what’s going to happen,” said Melnyk.
No one is, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of guesses and questions out there, including:
1. What’s It All About, Alfie?
To listen to the 40-year-old captain of the team tell it Sunday, it’s all about winning. “The way we play,” he said, “that’s what’s going to win the fans back.” Alfredsson had a stellar season last year and says he’s in good shape and injury-free to start what is widely expected to be his final year as the face of the franchise. He told the assembled media that he is excited to “find out if I’m too old or if I can keep up to these young guys.” Best guess is that he’ll not only keep up but that the shortened season will work to his advantage.
2. Who’s That Masked Man?
The Senators have three potential netminders: last year’s able veteran Craig Anderson, the traded-for giant, Ben Bishop, and young prospect Robin Lehner. Lehner is having a MVP year with the Binghamton Senators of the AHL, but he’s also the only one on a two-way contract, meaning he’s more likely to be left in the minors to develop. However, should either Anderson or Bishop falter, the hyper-competitive Lehner is sure to get his opportunity.
3. Norris Redux?
He’s too skinny, too young, too risky to be a top-four defenceman – by all measures, but the one that counts: results. Defenceman Erik Karlsson was the surprise winner of the Norris Trophy last year as the NHL’s top defenceman. Karlsson’s 78 points earned him a seven-year $45.5-million contract extension last summer, but can the 22-year-old do it again? How much will he miss the steadying influence of Filip Kuba, who gave Karlsson the freedom to dangle? Kuba signed a two-year $8-million deal with Florida Panthers and is now long gone.
4. What’s Back There?
The Senators love to talk about the depth in their organization, but you can see the fingers crossed behind the back when the topic of defence comes up. Some are aging – Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips – and some, like Mark Methot, are new to the team and unknown. One who offered youth, strength and reliability, Jared Cowen, is gone for the season following surgery to repair a torn labrum, an injury he suffered while playing for Binghamton. If minor-league prospects cannot fill the gaps, watch for a serious trade by GM Bryan Murray for some blueline assistance.
5. Head Scratchers
Can coach Paul MacLean work the magic that made him a finalist for coach of the year? Can Jason Spezza continue his climb to assume leadership of this team both on the ice and on the score sheet? Can Kyle Turris be a true NHL second-line centre? Does newly-signed Guillaume Latendresse, once so promising as a power forward, have anything left to offer? And, perhaps more important than anything else, will the fans forgive? Will the offers of free parking and $1 popcorn and letting some kids in free early on in the new season return the Ottawa Senators to the regal throne they have occupied since the NHL shocked the hockey world by awarding a franchise to the nation’s capital?
No one knows for sure, as Eugene Melnyk said.
But, as he also said, “Nothing is more forgiving than a winning team.”