The Ottawa Senators got off to an outstanding start in the 2007-2008 season, but it only preceded a disastrous finish that made their first-round playoff sweep more inevitable than disappointing.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a team that seemed so close to the top just a year ago.
The first objective of the off-season, and one that appears to be getting closer to getting achieved, is hiring a new coach.
Bob Hartley, Craig Hartsburg or even Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, whose contract expires this summer, are names that have crossed the rumour mill and all have enough experience to handle the challenging job of getting the Senators over the playoff hump. Experience alone isn't the answer, as Bryan Murray has enough of that in his own right, but a new voice may be what's needed to inspire the troops.
A secondary issue is going to revolve around what to do in goal, where Ray Emery's precipitous fall from grace could leave him as a prime candidate for a buyout this summer. Emery's poor play, coupled with the improved cap situation that would come with such a decision makes it a viable course of action if the Sens can't find another team interested in taking on two years worth of Sugar Ray.
Clearing out Emery's salary, one way or another, gives the Sens a chance to spend more in free agency, in order to address the team's most glaring needs. While some might suggest that goaltending remains one of those needs, Murray has other ideas.
"We'd like to get a skill defenceman that can help us get the puck going a little better," Murray told reporters at season's end, before noting that a second-line forward would also be a welcome addition.
Figuring out the right pieces for this roster is only half the battle, though, as the culture of the team also needs a shake-up; a change in attitude that will help prevent the kind of disheartening collapse that has the Sens back at the drawing board.
Top Prospects: Alexander Nikulin, Jim O'Brien, Josh Hennessy
Dany Heatley didn't score 50 goals or 100 points, for the first time since the lockout, but he still managed 41 goals and 82 points in 71 games -- premier production for a scoring winger. However, Heatley was invisible in the first-round playoff loss and it doesn't do the Senators any good to have him setting records for Team Canada at the World Championships.
He's still one of the few players in the league averaging better than a point-per-game in the playoffs (35 points in 34 career postseason games), but now that Heatley is on his big money contract extension, his value is going to be determined by future playoff performances.
Heatley's running mate, Jason Spezza, is one of the most-criticized 90-point scorers in the league. Though the 24-year-old playmaker put up a career-high 92 points in 2007-2008, Spezza's lack of care with the puck (his turnovers just inside the opposition blueline are all too frequent) makes him a scapegoat when he's not producing.
The Senators made a big financial commitment to Spezza too, but if the Sens consider making a blockbuster shake-up this summer, he may be the most marketable of Ottawa's big-ticket performers.
35-year-old Daniel Alfredsson is playing his best hockey, scoring a point-per-game or better for five straight seasons. A late-season knee injury sabotaged Alfredsson's playoffs, giving them virtually no chance against Pittsburgh.
Second-line centre Mike Fisher could be a star with better finishing ability and more consistent production, but he brings a whole lot to the table otherwise. The 27-year-old is an excellent skater, strong as an ox and the consummate team player.
Veteran Dean McAmmond has seen his numbers steadily decline as he hits his mid-30s, but he's still useful in a depth role because of his versatility.
A few years back, Chris Neil broke through for a 33-point season and looked like he might be on the way to becoming a decent complementary scorer in addition to providing muscle. Coming off a 20-point season, however, Neil is looking more like an enforcer who can play a little bit so keeping him in a limited role seems to be the right fit for him.
Nick Foligno saw sporadic action in his rookie season, but he had some good moments when he showed potential to create chances on the forecheck. Playing in an energy-line type of role over a full season should get him solidly established in the NHL next season.
Likewise, agitator Cody Bass provides a spark and should bring a welcome dash of feistiness to the fourth line.
Antoine Vermette continued his steady progress, increasing his point total for the fourth straight season. He's a skilled winger who can play in all situations and needs to continue his career ascent if he's going to have real value for the Senators.
Brian McGrattan is a legitimate heavyweight, capable of matching up with the biggest and baddest, but he hasn't scored a goal in the last two seasons, so there's only so much value to his policeman role.
The Senators may be able to count on a prospect or two making the jump, but none appear ready to play a top-six forward role so the Sens may need to dip into free agency for a scorer like Ryan Malone, Brian Rolston, Markus Naslund or Pavol Demitra; any of whom would provide the kind of support necessary behind the big line of Heatley, Alfredsson and Spezza.
If the Sens can't lure Chris Kelly back into the fold, then a checking centre also needs to be on the shopping list. Bobby Holik and Sergei Fedorov are possibilities, though perhaps too expensive. Character veterans like Craig Conroy and Mike Peca might be worth some interest at the right price.
Top Prospects: Kirill Lyamin
Though not quite the dynamo that he had been in the previous couple of seasons, Anton Volchenkov is tougher than a $2 steak and his willingness to block shots at any and all angles makes him valuable, even if he has the occasional gaffe when handling the puck.
Volchenkov's partner on the Sens' shutdown pairing is Chris Phillips, a reliable veteran who doesn't have the puck skills that one might expect from a first overall pick. Nevertheless, Phillips is strong and durable, playing 78 or more games in four of the last five seasons.
Swingman Christoph Schubert is a physical presence, whether on the wing or back on the blueline. Given the Senators' relative lack of depth on defence, it probably makes sense to give Schubert a regular role on defence and let him stick with it.
Top blueline prospect Brian Lee was pressed into duty late in the season and, while it may have been a little sooner than expected, it's reasonable to think that the 2005 first-round pick will be able to make the jump and play regular minutes next season.
22-year-old Andrej Meszaros already has three productive seasons under his belt and, presuming he gets re-signed, will have to play a major role. With the mid-season trade of Joe Corvo and the anticipated departure of Wade Redden, Meszaros becomes the best puck-moving defenceman on the roster.
The Sens could surely use a couple of veterans just to fill out their defence corps, but one top-four calibre offensive defenceman needs to be in the plans to at least mitigate the effects of Redden leaving as a free agent. Some players that might fit the bill: Brian Campbell, Ron Hainsey, Michal Rozsival or Mark Streit.
If a quality free agent doesn't sign on, though, the Senators may need to get creative and make a trade that will bring in a competent puck-moving defenceman.
Top Prospects: Brian Elliott, Jeff Glass
Martin Gerber emerged as the starter, as he was supposed to be when he initially signed with the Sens, but seemed to struggle under the weight of the job and couldn't maintain his strong start to the season, though he played well in the first-round playoff defeat. The plus side of Gerber's season is that he could have some value in trade, to a team that wants a serviceable starter for another season, but the Sens need better than serviceable if they are going to be Cup contenders.
Of course, Gerber was light years better than his in-house competition, Ray Emery. After taking the Sens to the Cup final the year before, Emery was slow to return from off-season wrist surgery, played poorly when given the chance and had questionable practice habits; the kind of record that virtually assures he'll be elsewhere before next season, whether it's via trade or buyout.
Prospects Brian Elliott and Jeff Glass aren't ready for primetime yet, so the Sens probably want to look for help elsewhere, with veterans like Washington's Cristobal Huet and Colorado's Jose Theodore among the more interesting free agents, while Dan Ellis hits the free agent market after one terrific season in Nashville.
18th - Mattias Tedenby, Colby Robak, Kirill Petrov
The Senators have approximately $47-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top six forward, depth forwards, top four defenceman, goaltender
What I said the Senators needed last year: Two top six forwards, one defenceman
Who did they add? Randy Robitaille, Shean Donovan, Luke Richardson
Jason Spezza, Andrej Meszaros, Ray Emery, Martin Gerber
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com