Off-Season Game Plan: Ottawa Senators

Scott Cullen
5/25/2010 3:00:59 PM
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After earning the fifth-seed in the Eastern Conference, the Ottawa Senators battled in a first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh and head into the summer with some big decisions to make.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Senators' roster and what they might be able to do, given the restrictions under the NHL salary cap.

Despite surrending 13 more goals than they scored last season, the Ottawa Senators still had a relatively successful season, landing a playoff berth and competing admirably against the defending Stanley Cup champions despite dealing with injuries that kept several regulars out of the lineup.

Nonetheless, now that the Senators are eliminated from the playoffs, it's time to make plans for next season and deal with the challenges of trying to sign unrestricted free agents like Anton Volchenkov, Matt Cullen and Andy Sutton when the club's salary cap situation doesn't make it look like big signings will be part of the summer's plans.

"If you're looking for a bright side," team owner Eugene Melnyk told the Ottawa Sun, "You have to look at who has stepped up during this time. (Peter) Regin, (Erik) Karlsson, (Zack) Smith and (Nick) Foligno. These are all young players that made great contributions and they're going to mature another year.

"I think we have to tinker a little bit," Melnyk went on to tell the paper.

Melnyk have every right to be optimistic about the young players on the Ottawa roster, as some of them will take on very prominent roles as soon as next season, but he's also right to know that this team needs to be tinkered with, even if only to make up for some of the talent that could be heading out of town.

The Senators have made the playoffs in 12 of the last 13 seasons, so they are going to be expected to reach that goal again next season, but just making the playoffs is only the first step.

While GM Bryan Murray may have some tough financial decisions to make this summer, it will likely be an easier off-season than last, when he was forced to deal Dany Heatley after the star winger demanded a trade.

Murray is a savvy veteran of the hockey wars, so he's well-equipped to do the tinkering that Melnyk wants done with his team and he's also done a good job stocking the cupboard and the Senators have more promising talent on the way as a result. 

Even so, the Senators are precariously positioned and need the right moves made this summer if they are going to remain in the playoff mix next season.

Bryan Murray/Cory Clouston

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Daniel Alfredsson 83.32 $4.875M
Jason Spezza 80.47 $7.0M
Mike Fisher 80.44 $4.2M
Milan Michalek 71.45 $4.33M
Alex Kovalev 69.69 $5.0M
Chris Neil 68.55 $2.0M
Jarkko Ruutu 67.21 $1.3M
Chris Kelly 66.67 $2.125M
Jonathan Cheechoo 61.09 $3.0M
Ryan Shannon 59.78 $625K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Matt Cullen 74.35 UFA $2.875M
Peter Regin 71.15 RFA $608K
Nick Foligno 68.81 RFA $850K
Jesse Winchester 63.00 RFA $550K
Shean Donovan 57.38 UFA $625K

Daniel Alfredsson finished with better than a point-per-game again. Even if his 71-point total represented his lowest total 2001-2002, Alfredsson is the fifth 37-year-old to score a point-per-game in the last 20 years. The others? Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Wayne Gretzky and Adam Oates, so it's pretty good company he's keeping, but a decline in production does seem inevitable, particularly as injuries start to creep in at this stage of his career.

There were fears early in the season that Jason Spezza was going to be lost without Dany Heatley to finish for him, and Spezza started the year with 15 points in 25 games.

However, after returning from a mid-season knee injury, Spezza rolled to 38 points in the last 30 games of the regular season, showing that he's still capable of being an elite point producer, even if 57 points accounted for Spezza's lowest-scoring season since before the lockout.

Strong two-way centre Mike Fisher did set a career-high with 25 goals (10 on the power play) and 53 points, but he slumped late in the year after a terrific start. Even if 53 points represents a high end for his offensive production, there's a lot to like about a strong physical centre that can play in any situation.

A late-season knee injury contributed to Milan Michalek's finishing with a career-low 34 points and minus-12 rating, but he had been sliding well before then, starting the year with 15 goals in the first 25 games before his production waned. If healthy, the four-time 20-goal scorer can still be a productive part of the Senators attack and, at his salary, he needs to be.

Consistency has not been the strong suit in Alex Kovalev's game and he (figuratively) limped to the finish (two points, minus-15 in his last 17 games) of the regular season, before he was sidelined with a knee injury, finishing with 49 points and a minus-8 rating. The 37-year-old is undeniably gifted, but expectations have to be tempered because of his up-and-down history.

Enforcer Chris Neil is sound enough as a player to take a regular shift and has reached 10 goals and 20 points four times each in his eight-year NHL career, including last season. He's well-compensated for that role, but the Senators made that long-term commitment last summer and Neil responded with an effective season.

Few players get under the skin of opponents like Jarkko Ruutu and it's all the more troubling for opponents when he's contributing offensively, as he did last year, with a career-high 12 goals and 26 points.

29-year-old checking centre Chris Kelly has been a steady player for the Sens, scoring at least 30 points in four of five years while missing a total of eight games in those five seasons.

One-time sniper Jonathan Cheechoo has fallen off dramatically, from a 56-goal and 93-point season in 2005-2006, to career lows of five goals, 14 points and a minus-13 rating in 61 games, resulting in his being waived to the American Hockey League. With one year left on his contract, he's a prime buyout candidate.

Small and speedy forward Ryan Shannon isn't quite good enough to handle regular duty on a scoring line, which leaves him as a 'tweener, because playing as a depth forward doesn't make the best use of his skills; he should either be able to score more than 16 points in 66 games or provide better defensive play.

Peter Regin enjoyed a fine rookie season, providing superb two-way play, but raised his game offensively late in the year and into the playoffs, raising expectations going forward that he ought to be seen as a viable scoring winger.

22-year-old winger Nick Foligno also has offensive potential but, after scoring two goals in the last 28 games, he still has room to grow before the Senators can count on him in a top-six role.

Jesse Winchester is a solid depth forward. He scores on a shockingly low percentage of his shots on goal (2.6% in his young career), so it would be helpful if that would change, but he's an industrious player for the fourth line.

The Senators may be interested in keeping unrestricted free agent Matt Cullen, a versatile forward who struggled upon first arriving in Ottawa, but scored eight points in six playoff games with the Senators. 33-year-old Cullen is a checking forward who can also man the point on the power play, but may be too expensive for the Sens.

Failing that, the Senators don't have glaring needs up front; a two-way forward like Alexei Ponikarovsky, Christopher Higgins or Matt Cooke could be the kind of addition that would give the Senators adequate forward depth.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Erik Karlsson 70.82 $1.3M
Filip Kuba 70.06 $3.7M
Chris Phillips 68.94 $3.5M
Matt Carkner 62.04 $700K
Brian Lee 57.72 $875K

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Anton Volchenkov 67.88 UFA $2.5M
Chris Campoli 65.44 RFA $633K
Andy Sutton 63.18 UFA $3.0M

Early in his rookie campaign, Erik Karlsson was sent to the American Hockey League for more playing time and the move paid off as the 19-year-old Swedish defenceman evolved into a primetime player late in the season and into the playoffs. He can still get better in his own end, but he's already likely to be a productive power play quarterback as soon as next season.

Injuries limited Filip Kuba to 53 games and he only played two games after the Olympic break due to back trouble. When healthy, he's a capable puck-mover with good size and a streaky game.

Chris Phillips has been a strong shutdown defenceman for years and he's been good in that role. The question is, will he still be as effective if his tag-team partner, Anton Volchenkov, departs as a free agent?

After eight years of toiling in the minors, Matt Carkner finally got his shot in the NHL and, while he's not the most nimble afoot, he's a tough customer and showed that he can handle a regular role.

23-year-old Brian Lee seems destined to fall short of the lofty expectations created when he was drafted ninth overall in 2005, but now it's a matter of whether or not he's even going to secure a full-time NHL job. Lee has played 76 games in the NHL over the last two seasons, but could easily be bumped down the depth chart.

Chris Campoli made an immediate impact when he joined the Senators in the spring of 2009, but last season was different. He fell out of favour at times, with shaky defensive play, and he only ended up with 18 points in 67 games. The 26-year-old is an ecomonical option, but needs power play time if he's going to maximize his potential.

With Volchenkov and Andy Sutton heading towards free agency, the Sens may need to find physical replacements for the back end if they can't keep at least one of them.

Zbynek Michalek, Dennis Seidenberg, Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman or, if healthy, Willie Mitchell would be among the free agent options that could help fill the potential void on the Senators blueline.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Cap Hit
Brian Elliott 74.80 $850K
Pascal Leclaire 54.04 $3.8M

25-year-old Brian Elliott started last season as the backup, but he stepped up when needed and played pretty well. Maybe a few too many highs and lows in his performance but, given the expectations, Elliott came up big for the Senators.

Presumably, it was enough to give Elliott a leg up in the battle for the starting job going into next season.

Pascal Leclaire was brought in to solve the Senators' goaltending woes, yet he only added to them when his game collapsed part way through the season. It's up the to the 27-year-old to try and recapture the form he displayed in 2007-2008, when he started 52 games for Columbus.

Top Prospects

Player Position Team/League Stats
Jared Cowen D Spokane (WHL) 8-22-30,+23, 59 GP
Patrick Wiercioch D Denver (WCHA) 6-21-27,+11, 39 GP
Robin Lehner G Sault Ste. Marie (OHL) 27-13-3, 2.80 GAA, .918 SVPCT, 47 GP
Zack Smith C Binghamton (AHL) 14-27-41,-7, 68 GP
Mike Hoffman C Saint John (QMJHL) 46-39-85,+38, 56 GP
Bobby Butler RW New Hampshire (HE) 29-24-53,+17, 39 GP
Erik Condra RW Binghamton (AHL) 11-27-38,+4, 80 GP
Kaspars Daugavins LW Binghamton (WHL) 21-25-46,-3, 72 GP
Colin Greening C Cornell (ECAC) 15-20-35,+14, 34 GP
Eric Gryba D Boston University (HE) 4-6-10,-2, 38 GP

Last year's first-round pick, Jared Cowen, is still working his way back into form after suffering a knee injury in January 2009. He had a solid year in the Western Hockey League, but the 19-year-old may need further time to develop before he's ready for the show.

Another big blueliner who can skate and move the puck, Patrick Wiercioch was signed out of the University of Denver following his sophomore season, after putting up 62 points in 75 collegiate games, and the 2008 secon-rounder could be ready to help soon.

Swedish goaltender Robin Lehner came over to the Ontario Hockey League to play with Sault Ste. Marie and he adjusted well. He's still only 18 years old, so there is time for him to be groomed, but Lehner does seem like a good goaltender of the future for the franchise.

Gritty centre Zack Smith played 15 games with Ottawa last season and impressed enough that he should have a good shot at landing a fourth-line role next season.

A late bloomer, Mike Hoffman started slowly in his junior career but, with 98 goals in 118 games over the last two seasons, he's ready to see if he can take his playmaking skills to the next level.

A big senior season at the University of New Hampshire made Bobby Butler a hot free agent commodity. Even though he got into a couple of games with the Senators after signing, Butler may need some time in the American Hockey League to prove he can score consistently in the pros.

Erik Condra had a solid rookie season in the AHL last year and though he didn't put up points like he did in college at Notre Dame, his all-around play could earn him consideration for a depth role with the Sens.

Latvian sniper Kaspars Daugavins showed some finish with Binghamton last season, after a false start (three points in 23 games) the year before. If he can build on it, then perhaps Daugavins will be able to help Ottawa at some point.

With 99 points in 106 games over his last three years at Cornell, Colin Greening has developed nicely for a seventh-round pick in 2005. He'll get a chance in Binghamton next season.

Rough and tumble defenceman Eric Gryba scored a total of 22 points in four years at Boston University, so there's not much flash, but he's big, strong and defensive-minded and that's valuable in its own right.

The Senators have a healthy list of prospects that may be further out on the horizon, from 24-year-old Swiss forward Roman Wick, who opened eyes at the Olympics, Swedish wingers Jakob Silfverberg and Andre Petersson, or collegians Derek Grant (Michigan State) and Louie Caporusso (Michigan), the Senators have significant depth in the organization.

16th - Jack Campbell, Alex Burmistrov, Dylan McIlrath, Nick Bjugstad

According to, the Senators have approximately $49.6M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 16 players.

Needs: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman.

What I said the Senators needed last year: Two top nine forwards, top pair defenceman.

Who did they add? Alex Kovalev, Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo, Erik Karlsson.

TRADE MARKET Alex Kovalev, Jonathan Cheechoo, Chris Campoli.

Scott Cullen can be reached at and followed on Twitter at


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