No one expected the Senators to be that good last season.
Most pre-season predictions had them finishing with a lottery pick, if not the worst record in the NHL. But those same predictions did not factor in Paul MacLean's presence in the dressing room and on the bench. Had it not been for St. Louis's miracle turnaround under Ken Hitchcock, MacLean certainly would have won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
All Eyes on Erik
Defenceman Erik Karlsson will look to show that his Norris Trophy from last season, as well as the Senators' success was not a fluke.
The team made some interesting acquisitions in the off-season, acquiring stay-at-home stud Marc Methot, oft-injured sparkplug Guillaume Latendresse and 2003 first-round pick Hugh Jessiman.
What the team lost, however, was a lot of its muscle. Zenon Konopka and Matt Carkner were both poached in the off-season, leaving Chris Neil as the team's lone enforcer. While Neil did rack up 10 fighting majors last season, that number was half as many as Konopka's.
The Senators have obvious belief in Neil's team contributions as they signed the 33-year-old to a three year contract extension this summer, but whether he alone can step up and defend the young Senators roster when more experienced opposition (and more prolific fighters) come around may be a storyline to watch this season.
The team performed well above expectations in 2011-12, but the task for the Senators now is maintaining that level of play for a second season. Captain Daniel Alfredsson has committed to at least one more year in the Capital and hopes will be high that Erik Karlsson can repeat his amazing Norris Trophy campaign.
If the team's two Swedish cornerstones can effectively shepherd a standout rookie season out of the team's next great Tre Kronor hope - Mika Zibanejad - Ottawa may once again surprise the Eastern Conference.
The Sens stocked their cupboards at the 2011 draft and added a trio of bodies that could one day make up their top six. Mika Zibanejad is the prize among them and has a good shot of staying in the Capital soon. The 19-year-old has battled injuries throughout the year, though, forcing the Sens to keep him in North America instead of allowing him to join the Swedish World Junior team.
Matt Puempel and Stefan Noesen may need a bit more time, but both present intriguing size and skill to one day complement the electrifying Zibanejad.
It's unclear how last season's acquisition of Ben Bishop affects the status of 21-year-old Robin Lehner. The Swedish standout got five games with the big club last year, but with Craig Anderson still under contract for two years and Bishop's arrival, he may be forced into a longer wait than he'd like.
The Sens didn't have to look far on Draft Day, finding Cody Ceci's booming shot available with the No. 15 pick. The Ottawa 67's blueliner should provide the perfect target for Erik Karlsson's feeds in a couple years. The team also has high hopes for wingers Jakob Silfverberg and Mark Stone, both of whom got auditions in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The addition of Marc Methot was an excellent strategic move for the Sens. They get a local guy with three years remaining on a team-friendly deal ($3 million per) in exchange for a restricted free agent in Nick Foligno. Methot adds a dependable stay-at-home presence to counter-balance the run-and-gun game of Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar. He also provides the team with a bridge between Chris Phillips's career twilight and the future hopes for 2009 first-rounder Jared Cowen.
What does Alfie have left in the tank? The Sens' saviour has not played in 80 games or more since he won the Calder Trophy in 1995-96. His 59 points last season were a career-low for seasons in which he played 70 games or more. With his history of injuries and last season's concussion woes, how heavily can the team lean on its leader?
A look at where Senators players went during the lockout:
Ben Bishop (Binghamton, AHL), Erik Condra (SC Riessersee, Germany2), Jared Cowan (Binghamton, AHL), Kaspars Daugavins (Dynamo Riga, KHL), Sergei Gonchar (Metallurg, KHL), Colin Greening (Aalborg, Denmark), Erik Karlsson (Jokerit, Finnish Elite), Milan Michalek (HC Ceske Budejovice, Czech League), Peter Regin (Langenthal, Swedish Elite), Jason Spezza (Rapperswil-Jona, Swiss Elite), Kyle Turris (Karpat, Finnish Elite), Mika Zibanejad (Binghamton, AHL)
Bob McKenzie's Breakdown
One thing you can definitely say about this season's Ottawa Senators - they won't be sneaking up on anyone.
Not after last season, when a team most pegged to finish last in the eastern conference made the playoffs and gave the New York Rangers everything they could handle in the first round of the playoffs.
There are no dramatic changes to the Sens' lineup from last season, so it's basically the same core group coming back to try for an encore performance to get into the post season.
Ottawa is hoping Swedish rookie Jakub Silfverberg, who some think has rookie of the year potential, will fit in nicely on the top line with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek.
The Sens feel they've bolstered the second line by adding a presumably healthy and fit Guillaume Latendresse on left wing with Kyle Turris and captain Daniel Alfredsson, who still has something to offer in what's obviously the twilight of his career.
Ottawa gets great mileage out of grinding forwards such as Zack Smith, Chris Neil and Colin Greening, amongst others but could use a blossoming of a healthy Peter Regin to help out with secondary scoring. The Sens have kids in the minors such as Mika Zibanejad, Mark Stone, Derek Grant and Mike Hoffman, who could be called upon at some point but the plan for now appears to be to give them more time in Binghamton.
The potential concern for Ottawa is likely on the blue line. The Sens obviously need Erik Karlsson to come back with another Norris Trophy-calibre season and newcomer Marc Methot will likely be asked to be the stay at home flip side to Karlsson. Long-in-the-tooth veterans Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips need to be healthy and right on top of their game because the season-long hip injury to Jared Cowen really robs Ottawa of its defensive depth.
Mike Lundin, when healthy, will likely have a spot but unproven kids Patrick Wiercioch, Eric Gryba or Mark Borowiecki may be needed to contribute in some fashion. Perhaps the same could be said for AHLer Andre Benoit.
The goaltending appears to be solid, with a real chance to be better than that. Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop are on one-way contracts and the likely opening-day duo, but prospect Robin Lehner has shown signs in the AHL this season of becoming a stud stopper, though he's on a two-way deal and is more likely to start in bingo.
But if for any reason Anderson or Bishop aren't getting it done. Lehner is only a phone call away.
The key for Ottawa, it would seem, would be to stay healthy. No team in today's NHL holds up well when key players go down with injuries, but Ottawa's lack of depth on the blue line could make them a little more vulnerable than most.