The Ottawa Senators were the surprise team of the NHL last season, making the playoffs in a year that was expected to be a rebuilding effort.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Sens might be able to do in order to build on that unexpected success.
There is a lot to like about a Sens team that has quality prospects on the way and received solid contributions from several rookies last season, but there are also reasons to be wary.
Consider that Sergei Gonchar and Daniel Alfredsson both had bounceback seasons in their late-30s, or that defenceman Erik Karlsson had the most points by a defenceman in more than a decade, or that both Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek stayed uncharacteristically healthy.
Any of these factors could reverse course and come back to stall the Sens' progress next season, but there is at least reason to be optimistic that Ottawa is in position to better handle any potential shortcomings -- certainly better prepared than anyone could have imagined they would be at this time last year.
GM Bryan Murray knows that, while his goaltending is solid with the trade deadline addition of Ben Bishop to complement Craig Anderson, he'll have to address the blueline, where he has three unrestricted free agents that could leave and a restricted free agent in Erik Karlsson that will be in line for a dramatic raise in pay after his prolific offensive season.
The forward group has depth, with lots of young challengers for roster spots, but could always use another proven scorer.
"Our goaltending was really solid, we've got depth there, no question some decisions have to be made on the blueline. Offensively on the blueline, we're really good," Murray told the Ottawa Sun. "We have to find out if one of these (UFAs) we have will come back and be solid or do we have to go get another guy? Up front, we're always looking for somebody to step in and score goals. That line with (captain Daniel Alfredsson) played with Turris, if we had one more guy that could score consistently or be a 20-to-25 goal scorer would make our team different."
Seeing as the Senators had the worst record among playoff teams last season, it doesn't require much to believe that they could miss the postseason next year but, at the start of the 2011-2012 season, any talk of Ottawa making the playoffs was a pipe dream and we all saw how that played out.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Bryan Murray/Paul MacLean
Jason Spezza stayed healthy and productive last season, putting up 84 points, the second highest total of his career. He's one of the best point producers in the league, but missing 42 games in the previous two seasons diminished his star somewhat, so consider it burning brightly once again.
Riding shotgun with Spezza for much of the season, Milan Michalek was also healthier than he had been in recent seasons, played a career-high 19:33 per game and scored a career-high 35 goals. As the centrepiece of the Dany Heatley trade, it's at least somewhat gratifying for the Sens to get 11 more goals from Michalek than Heatley produced in Minnesota last season.
When Daniel Alfredsson suffered through an injury-plagued 2010-2011 season, finishing with a career-low 31 points, it was fair to wonder if his days as a productive scoring winger could be in the past, but he had a tremendous bounceback season last year as a 39-year-old. Alfredsson is only due $1-million in salary next season, which would make it easier for him to walk away, but after such a productive season, it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't play again in 2012-2013.
While Kyle Turris put up respectable numbers (29 points, plus-12, 17:21 ATOI in 49 GP) with the Senators, after coming over in a trade from Phoenix, it's no coincidence that Ottawa's season turned around once they had a viable second line, centered by Turris. The 22-year-old has yet to score 30 points in an NHL season, but the opportunity presented to him in Ottawa suggests that there will be more scoring days ahead of him.
26-year-old Colin Greening proved to be a valuable complementary winger, spending plenty of time on the wing with Spezza and scoring 37 points as a rookie. He doesn't have a high-end ceiling, so could find a role further down the depth chart if other alternatives become available.
Since a strong finish to the 2009-2010 season, Peter Regin has been star-crossed, scoring three goals in 55 games in 2010-2011, then was limited to 10 games last season due to a shoulder injury. The 26-year-old has good size and some skill, so he should be able to fit in a supporting role.
Enforcer Chris Neil had a productive season, his 28 points tying the second-highest total of his career. He doesn't fight as often as he did early in his career, but can still tangle with the big boys when necessary and, just as importantly, can take a regular shift.
Zack Smith's role decreased after Turris arrived, but he is a nice option as a checking centre, thanks to his toughness, size and, it turns out, scoring ability. He's better suited to a role in the bottom six, which will limit his opportunities to score, but Smith is certainly coming off a season that can serve as a foundation for his career.
A sound checking winger, Erik Condra scored just one goal in his last 42 games of the regular season (before scoring in Game One of the playoffs) and that limited production puts a cap on what can be expected from him, but he was a solid plus player and led Senators forwards in penalty killing ice time.
While so many Senators forwards exceeded expectations last season, Bobby Butler failed to build on the promise he showed in 2010-2011, when he scored 10 goals in 36 games, finishing with six goals in 56 games.
24-year-old winger Nick Foligno had a breakthrough season, putting up a career-high in points (47) and penalty minutes (124). He's finding his niche as an agitator with skill, or is it a skilled winger who can agitate?
A first-round pick in 2007, Jim O'Brien was called up in February and was serviceable in a fourth-line role. He played against soft competition and started a lot of shifts (58.3%, per www.behindthenet.ca) in the offensive zone, so he has room to improve before he's assured of an NHL job, but the 23-year-old at least has a shot at establishing himself in the league.
Checking winger Kaspars Daugavins played a significant role early in the year (more than 15 minutes per game through the end of November), but his role declined as the season went on, leaving him in a battle for a spot in the lineup.
With some quality prospects, Jakob Silfverberg and Mark Stone, making appearances in the postseason and last year's first-rounder Mika Zibanejad on the way, the Senators may not be in desperate need for additional forwards in free agency.
Another scoring threat, especially if Alfredsson does decide to call it quits, would make sense, so the likes of Andrei Kostitsyn, Mikael Samuelsson or PA Parenteau would be an upgrade if they could be had for a reasonable price. The added benefit is that signing a veteran scorer would allow the Sens to be more patient with their young forward prospects.
38-year-old Sergei Gonchar rebounded from a disastrous 2010-2011 season to be an asset on the Senators blueline last season. He's no longer the driving offensive force that he was for much of his career, but Gonchar still played more than 22 minutes per game and his 37 points ranked 22nd in the league among defencemen.
Yet another Senator that bounced back from a subpar 2010-2011 season, Chris Phillips had a reduced role -- his 19:07 average time on ice per game was his lowest since 1999-2000 -- but it worked for him, as his plus-12 rating was his best since 2007-2008.
Rookie Jared Cowen played significant minutes in the middle of the season, averaging more than 23 minutes per game in December and January, but settled between 16-17 minutes the rest of the season while playing all 82 games, a valuable growing experience for the 21-year-old.
The most dynamic offensive defenceman in the game, Erik Karlsson has made rapid improvement in his game and while he's not a shutdown presence by any means, he's getting better without the puck. Getting him signed to a new long-term deal will be a top priority for the Senators this summer because Karlsson is one of the few defencemen in the league that helps to consistently generate offence.
While the Senators face the prospect of losing three blueliners to free agency, it would certainly make sense to retain Filip Kuba, if only because the 35-year-old formed an effective partnership with Karlsson last season.
Even if Kuba does return the Senators could use a few more bodies to round out the group. Maybe Matt Gilroy sticks around, but there would be a certain amount of injury risk with a defensive group that includes Gonchar, Kuba and Phillips, all three in their mid-to-late-30s.
For that reason, the Senators may want to spend on a top-four quality defenceman like Brad Stuart, Barret Jackman, Jason Garrison or Bryan Allen.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'11-'12 Cap Hit
As Craig Anderson struggled early in the season, the Senators were treading water, but he posted a .931 save percentage from December through the end of the season (with some unplanned time off after a kitchen accident), showing once again that he's capable of backstopping a playoff team.
When Anderson got hurt, the Senators went out and picked up Ben Bishop, who had been dominating in the AHL (2.26 GAA, .928 SV% in 38 GP with Peoria) and Bishop helped hold the fort while Anderson was injured. Signed through next season, Bishop now gives the Senators a strong tandem in goal going forward, even before considering prospect Robin Lehner.
||Djurgardens IF Stockholm (SEL)
||5-8-13, -2, 26 GP
||Brynas IF Gavle (SEL)
||24-30-54, -2, 49 GP
||38-44-82, +18, 63 GP
||41-82-123, +45, 66 GP
||13-22-1, 3.26 GAA, .907 SV%, 40 GP
||17-16-33, -3, 30 GP
||43-47-90, +34, 57 GP
||5-17-22, even, 73 GP
||4-16-20, -14, 57 GP
||23-21-44, -7, 60 GP
The sixth overall pick last summer, Mika Zibanejad played nine games with the Senators before returning to Sweden for another season. The 19-year-old is a strong two-way talent and while he'll need time to develop, he could be ready for a full-time job as soon as next season.
After scoring 54 points in 49 Swedish Elite League games, Jakob Silfverberg joined the Senators for a couple of playoff games. The 21-year-old was a second-round pick in 2009 and has grown into more of an offensive threat.
The Senators' second first-round pick last year, Stefan Noesen has been productive enough in two OHL seasons to think that he might ultimately find his way into a top six role, but seems safe to expect in a top-nine role if his offence doesn't develop in the pros.
A sixth-round pick in 2010, Mark Stone is a big winger with a scoring touch. His skating is a question mark, but after 229 points in his last two junior seasons and an assist in his one playoff games with the Senators, it does appear that Stone's size and scoring touch will overcome any skating questions.
Goaltender Robin Lehner played well (2.01 GAA, .935 SV%) in five games with Ottawa last season, but the 20-year-old's AHL numbers suggest that it wouldn't hurt him to spend more time growing in the minors and, with Ben Bishop signed, there is no reason to rush him.
Injuries have hampered Matt Puempel's development, but he did get healthy enough for nine late-season AHL games. Staying healthy for a full year of development in 2012-2013 should be goal No. 1.
Shane Prince is a pretty skilled player, and 178 points in 116 OHL games over the last two seasons is reason for hope that, with some time in the American League, he can dispell any concerns about his lack of size and strength.
A solid physical defenceman, Ottawa native Mark Borowiecki earned a couple of games with the Senators last season and might be able to compete for a job next season, but part of the reason for that is that Ottawa isn't exactly overrun with top defence prospects at the moment.
Patrick Wiercioch was expected to be one of the Senators' top defence prospects when he came out of Denver University a couple of years ago, but the 21-year-old likely needs some more time before he's considered for an NHL job.
A fourth-round pick in 2008, Andre Petersson was productive in his first year in North America, so the 21-year-old is at least worth watching for further improvement.
Centres Mike Hoffman and Stephane Da Costa are a couple more forwards that might be on the radar after relatively productive AHL seasons.
15th - Matt Finn, Olli Maata, Pontus Aberg, Sebastian Collberg
According to www.capgeek.com, the Senators have approximately $37.3M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 15 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Senators roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top six forward, three defencemen.
What I said the Senators needed last year: Second line centre, two top four defencemen, backup goaltender
They added: Stephane Da Coata, Mika Zibanejad, Nikita Filatov, Zenon Konopka, David Rundblad, Jared Cowen, Alex Auld.
TRADE MARKET Nick Foligno, Peter Regin, Bobby Butler, Kaspars Daugavins, Colin Greening, Erik Condra.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.