With the announcement of the NHL all-star game rosters last week, Ottawa drew a lot of attention, mostly for the ballot-box stuffing by its fans.
While there is an argument to be made for the presence of four Ottawa Senators (Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek and Erik Karlsson) among the six players voted into the game by the fans, there is no question the Senators as a whole are one of the NHL's most pleasant surprises this season. Quick development by several youngsters on the team, combined with veteran leadership and scoring from Spezza, Alfredsson and Michalek, plus the excellent work of rookie head coach Paul MacLean, have the Senators solidly in playoff position, something few pundits saw coming in October.
Count Senators general manager Bryan Murray among the surprised. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year, as the Senators retooled from a roster stocked with homegrown veterans who fell short to a crop of talented but green youngsters.
"I can't say I saw exactly where we would be in the [Eastern Conference]right now," Murray said. "But neither did I think we'd be 15th in the East."
The standouts among the kids are Karlsson, 21, whose offensive explosion from the blue line allowed Murray to trade blue-chip defence prospect David Rundblad for Kyle Turris, a top prospect at centre, and forward Colin Greening, 25, who was picked for the Young Stars game at the league all-star game.
A lot of the kids played together on the Senators' American Hockey League team in Binghamton, N.Y. They were given some seasoning on the NHL team last season and then went back to Binghamton and won the AHL championship.
"That's where we got the feeling we could make some changes on the big roster, because of the way the kids played," Murray said.
The biggest help is the resurgence of Spezza, Michalek and Alfredsson. Spezza is back among the league's scoring leaders after two off-years, Alfredsson is back in form after injury troubles and Michalek is finally paying dividends almost three years after he arrived in the Dany Heatley trade.
Spezza thinks a lot of credit should go to the players as a whole for quickly finding a way to work together despite the numerous changes to the roster last summer.
"We have great chemistry in the room and we have performed well because of it," he told The Ottawa Citizen. "There are a lot of unselfish players, guys playing different roles on different nights. Everybody has stepped up, and that's why we're in a playoff spot. We've had contributions from everyone.
"You can look back at big goals in big games by different guys. There have been some unlikely heroes along the way, and that has a lot to do with chemistry."
The improvement brought one unexpected side effect for Murray. In the next few weeks, as the NHL trade deadline approaches, the Senators will be among those teams expected to make some moves.
Murray admits his approach to the trade deadline changed. He said he wants "to give our players a chance to do well in the playoffs" but not at the cost of sacrificing any of the organization's young talent. He expects another five or so youngsters in the system to make the team next season, headed by centre Mika Zibanejad of Sweden.
"We're certainly not going to sacrifice [prospects]to bring in a veteran player," Murray said.
JETS NEED TO TAKE OFF ON THE ROAD
There are several NHL teams that need to pick up the pace as the all-star break comes on the horizon after getting off to a good start to the season. Among them are the Minnesota Wild, Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars. All three are on the bubble for a playoff position.
Also needing to pull up their socks are the Winnipeg Jets, Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning, among others.
The Jets are an interesting case study, since they played like champs at home until recently and were chumps on the road. Perhaps that might be attributed to the lively atmosphere at their home, the MTS Centre.
None of the Jets can lapse into a prolonged snooze in front of the home crowd, which is often a problem on the road. The rink may be the smallest in the league but the fans have quickly earned a reputation as the noisiest.
This is important on a team with an uncertain group of forwards. The Jets are in contention because of goaltending and defence. On the road, the forwards often do not establish their fore-checking but an appreciative home crowd seems to keep their feet moving.
They need to do that more on the road. A great opportunity for that awaits, as the Jets play in Ottawa against the Senators on Monday and then in Newark, N.J., against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday.
A WILD RIDE
When last we looked in on the Minnesota Wild, they were riding high at the top of the Western Conference. Now, because of an offence that is without punch even by the Wild's historical modest standard, a hopeless power play and wobbles in the team's normally sound defensive game, the Wild are struggling to stay in the top eight in the West.
Like the Jets, the Wild just can't win on the road. They are in the midst of a four-game trip that ends Thursday in Toronto versus the Maple Leafs and rookie head coach Mike Yeo said this stretch could decide if the Wild are a playoff team or not.
"We've got some tough games coming up. If we hope [for]what we want to happen, it's not going to happen," Yeo told the Pioneer Press newspaper in St. Paul, Minn. "It's time we decide, 'Do we want to make this happen?' and start doing it."
Among the problems is the normally reliable goaltender Niklas Backstrom. Before he came down with an illness at the end of last week, Backstrom was 1-5 in his previous six starts with a save percentage of .890 and a 3.54 goals-against average.
The scorer with the most to prove is Devon Setoguchi. Between Nov. 30 and last Tuesday, when he was scratched from a game for missing a team meeting, Setoguchi had one goal. He scored in his first game back but will have to pick up the pace considerably.
A GM TO WATCH
A lot of people are keeping an eye on Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman. He has some work to do with his underachieving team in the weeks leading up to the NHL's Feb. 25 trade deadline.
While Yzerman would like to add a top-four defenceman, that is the hardest thing to get in a trade. His greatest need is a goaltender, which is a little easier but still difficult.
Ideally, the Bolts would like to get a young goalie who will stick around, such as Cory Schneider of the Vancouver Canucks or Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles Kings.
The one to keep an eye on here is Bernier. The Kings' offence still needs improvement and since the highly-regarded Bernier is Jonathan Quick's backup he could be used to get a scorer and more.