The Ottawa Senators' fall from grace was quick, but a strong finish to the season under new head coach Cory Clouston provides reason to hope that missing the playoffs last season was a one-shot deal.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Senators could do this summer.
After going 19-11-4 under Clouston, there is naturally some optimism that the Senators could be a playoff team next season, but it won't just happen on its own, so the Senators still need to make some moves this summer in order to get back into the postseason mix.
"The true colours of this team have shown," Clouston told the Ottawa Sun. "The future is bright and we know there's some areas we have to get better. What we've accomplished in the last couple of months is going to give us a real indication of what to expect next year."
Secondary scoring has been a need in Ottawa, seemingly forever, and it remains the case -- no one aside from Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson scored more than 17 goals.
On the blueline, the Senators have plenty of depth, but could sure use a workhorse to lead the unit.
There's enough talent for the Senators to be a playoff team in 2009-2010, but there was probably enough talent for the 2008-2009 team to get there too, as evidenced by the success experienced once Clouston took the reigns.
Now, Clouston's challenge is to prove that his motivational skills can work on the troops for a full season.
Bryan Murray/Cory Clouston
Top Prospects: Peter Regin (18-29-47, plus-15 in 56 GP; Binghamton-AHL), Jim O'Brien (27-35-62, plus-16 in 63 GP; Seattle-WHL), Zack Smith (24-24-48, minus-4 in 79 GP; Binghamton-AHL), Louie Caporusso (24-25-49, plus-10 in 41 GP; Michigan-CCHA)
While 36-year-old Daniel Alfredsson saw his goal total dip from 40 in 2007-2008 to 24 last season, he was still the Senators' best all-around forward, managing a team-best plus-7 along with his 74 points. As he hits his late thirties, it's fair to expect Alfredsson's game to decline -- especially if his late-season back problems persist -- but he's still likely to be at a high calibre for a few more years.
Triggerman Dany Heatley's 39 goals and 72 points represented his lowest production since the lockout and there were too many nights that he was a step slow. A two-time 40-goal scorer and two-time 50 goal-scorer, Heatley has to get back closer to 50 if the Senators are going to be successful.
Since Heatley rides shotgun on the wing with Jason Spezza, it's no surprise that Spezza's production (73 points) was also his lowest since the lockout. A gifted playmaker, who still turns the puck over too frequently, Spezza's name popped up in trade rumours more frequently during the disappointing season, in part because his no-trade clause doesn't take effect until July 1.
With the money they've committed to Mike Fisher, the Senators need him to produce more than 13 goals and 32 points. Fisher's never going to be a big scorer, but a return to 20-plus goals and 45-50 points is more fitting for one of the pound-for-pound strongest players on skates.
Ryan Shannon is tiny and he's had a hard time earning regular NHL employment; however, he took advantage of his opportunity in the second half of the season and showed that he could contribute offensively. With a new contract, he figures to get a good chance next season.
Like Shannon, Nick Foligno was given more opportunities in the second half of the season and he produced enough that it's now reasonable to expect 20 goals out of him.
Not many players are as aggravating as Jarkko Ruutu, but the yappy Finn did put up career-highs in points (21) and penalty minutes (144), so the Sens would gladly take more of that.
Despite scoring just three goals in 77 games, Jesse Winchester had a fine rookie season. While the 25-yeear-old's offensive upside is limited, his solid defensive play and ability to do the little things right should keep him on the roster.
Speedy Chris Kelly was underrated for the early years of his career, but after signing a new long-term contract, he followed with his worst pro campaign. With more reliable linemates, Kelly could still be very effective as a checking centre.
Hard-working veteran Shean Donovan got precious little ice time last season and the 34-year-old is likely going to face an uphill battle to get more playing time next season.
Shoulder surgery sidelined Cody Bass for much of the season and he's not going to be more than a depth player, but his willingness to scrap could give him additional value if enforcer Chris Neil doesn't get re-signed.
While the Senators aren't flush with cap room, they are in better cap position than their salary commitments would indicate thanks to Alfredsson's cap-friendly contract extension and that could provide enough room for the Sens to bring in more scoring help.
Free agents like Alex Tanguay, Alex Kovalev, Steve Sullivan or Petr Sykora would all be the kind of skilled additions that would give the Sens more options when setting their lines.
Free Agent Defencemen
Top Prospects: Erik Karlsson (5-5-10, plus-3 in 45 GP; Vastra Frolunda-SEL), Patrick Wiercioch (12-23-35, plus-2 in 36 GP; Denver-WCHA), Mattias Karlsson (9-42-51, minus-11 in 73 GP; Binghamton-AHL)
There are too many NHL-calibre defencemen here, but that's not a bad problem to have. Sure, it would be nice to have a frontline defenceman to lead the group but, barring any dramatic changes, the Sens can still roll out a solid unit.
Filip Kuba tends to be overlooked, as he doesn't make the most out of his size, but he can play a prominent role and is coming off the best season of his career, during which he scored 26 of his career-high 40 points on the power play, earning a new contract.
Alexandre Picard came over from Tampa Bay with Kuba, in the Andrej Meszaros deal, and he has the requisite skills to work the power play. The question is whether or not he is reliable enough defensively to secure regular duty. Until he proves he's more, Picard is at least an asset as a puck-moving depth defenceman.
After coming to Ottawa from the New York Islanders, Chris Campoli turned his season -- and perhaps his career -- around. Campoli is mobile, can move the puck and is aggressive offensively, but he wasn't a liability in his own end with the Sens and if he do that and earn more power play time, he could be primed for his best season.
There's no denying that Anton Volchenkov is a warrior, but he's coming off what may have been the worst season of his career. Even so, the 27-year-old sacrifices his body like few others in terms of hits and blocked shots. If he can stay healthy for more than 70 games (he hasn't in each of the last two seasons), he brings a gritty defensive presence on the back end.
It took some time for him to get up to speed, but Brian Lee started to play pretty well in the second half of his rookie season. He may not be an elite defenceman, but the 22-year-old seems well on his way to handling a top-four role in the future.
Chris Phillips is asked to shoulder a lot of responsibility on the shutdown tandem with Volchenkov. It wasn't the best year for them in '08-'09, but Phillips is big, strong and has enjoyed a lot of success when he's left to his defensive devices.
Years of battling in the trenches seem to have caught up with Jason Smith, with last season's 63 games representing his lowest total since he established himself as an NHL regular in the mid-90s. He still lays his body on the line every night, so he can still carve out a defensive niche.
Swingman Christoph Schubert is probably a better long-term fit on the blueline, if not in Ottawa, then somewhere else. His ability to play forward is helpful, but hasn't helped him establish a consistent presence in the lineup.
Brendan Bell saw the most action of his NHL career and had a real nice stretch in the middle portion of the season. If Bell, a restricted free agent, is re-signed, the Sens will have more than enough depth on the blueline, to the point that one or two of these blueliners should be moved to make room for a defenceman at the top of the depth chart.
Top Prospect: Jeff Glass (17-19-3, 3.22 GAA, .903 SVPCT in 41 GP; Binghamton-AHL)
Goaltending has gone from a major concern to what should be a position of strength going forward.
The trade deadline acquisition of Pascal Leclaire gives the Senators the most talented puck-stopper the franchise has ever had, though he's had trouble staying healthy, playing more than 33 games just once in his four seasons and coming off a season in which ankle surgery limited him to just 12 games. If he's healthy, though, Leclaire is a real upgrade in goal.
Alex Auld played well for the Sens, though his lack of consistency over the course of the season makes him a strong backup as opposed to an ideal starting option.
Ottawa's organizational depth is solid now that Brian Elliott has proven he's a capable NHL goaltender. Elliott could end up as the odd man out in the goalie rotation if Auld remains with the team, potentially meaning more seasoning on the farm, but if Auld were to get traded, Elliott would still be a good backup.
9th - Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Nazem Kadri, Jared Cowen, Scott Glennie.
The Senators have approximately $53.4-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Two top nine forwards, top pair defenceman
What I said the Senators needed last year: One top six forward, depth forwards, top four defenceman, goaltender
Who did they add? Jarkko Ruutu, Ryan Shannon, Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard, Alex Auld.
Jason Spezza, Alexandre Picard, Brendan Bell, Brian Lee, Christoph Schubert, Jason Smith, Alex Auld.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca