With the Senators set to play their first game after the Olympic break and with the trade deadline looming, here's a look at 10 burning questions for the Ottawa Senators heading into the stretch drive.
1. Do the Senators really need to find a winger for Jason Spezza?
We are less than a week away from the NHL trade deadline and most experts agree that the Senators need help up front - specifically finding a winger for Jason Spezza. Bryan Murray told reporters last week that he would ideally like to get a winger who has term left on his contract, saying he would prefer to stay away from rentals. While Spezza has struggled at times this season, he did head into the Olympic break on a hot streak - collecting six points in his last three games. Milan Michalek also seemed to be playing his best hockey of the season before the break and if he can return to a reasonable facsimile of his 2011-12 self, the Sens may not need to add a scoring forward on Spezza's wing.
Still, the Sens only have three games left before the Olympic break, so it would be a tall order for the Greening-Spezza-Michalek line to convince Murray that they have re-discovered their chemistry. The smart money is on the Senators finding another winger to bring into the mix, but obtaining a rental still may be the most likely scenario.
2. What is the future of Chris Phillips in Ottawa?
Chris Phillips becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and there is no doubting the Senators could land a nice return for the veteran blueliner if they moved him at the deadline. The market for a veteran defenceman was set fairly high last year when the Buffalo Sabres received two second round picks from the Los Angeles Kings for Robyn Regehr.
However, the Senators have always been hesitant to move a defenceman at the deadline when they are in the playoff race. In 2010 they hung onto Anton Volchenkov, in 2012 they did not move Filip Kuba and last year they kept Sergei Gonchar. All three cases had the exact same outcome:
1. The Senators made the playoffs
2. The Senators lost in the first or second round
3. The defencemen left the team in the off-season. (Volchenkov and Kuba via free agency, while Gonchar was dealt just before the start of free agency for a late-round pick).
Phillips' case is a little more intriguing because he is perceived as a legacy player and in the aftermath of the Daniel Alfredsson saga, the organization may be a little more cautious dealing with him. But considering Murray has never moved a defenceman at the deadline before, it's hard to see him changing his mind this year - especially with a player with Phillips' reputation in this community. It's more likely that Phillips' future will be decided in the off-season and if he does want to explore free agency, the Senators could try and use the same approach they did with Gonchar and move Phillips for a draft pick.
3. Should Bryan Murray trade a defenceman at the deadline?
For most of this season, the Senators have been carrying eight defencemen on the NHL roster. But Joe Corvo has been essentially sent into exile - having suited up for just two games since the calendar flipped to 2014. Eric Gryba has played his way into the lineup lately, leaving Patrick Wiercioch as the odd man out.
The club also has Mark Borowiecki playing in the minors and he appears ready to play at the NHL level right now. Since there are always an abundance of teams who need defencemen at the deadline, Murray could be dealing form a position of strength here.
But if he moves someone like Wiercioch, you would have to imagine Murray would be looking for someone with term on his contract - and not simply a rental.
4. Is Cody Ceci ready to play heavy minutes in crucial games?
It's ironic that the Sens could be in the position to move a defenceman because two months ago, Bryan Murray's biggest need was on the back end. He pursued Michael Del Zotto from the New York Rangers, but balked when the asking price was too high. Instead, the Senators went for an internal solution with Cody Ceci and the 20-year-old was instrumental in solving the club's puck-moving woes.
But while Ceci was logging more than 20 minutes a night for a while, his ice time was drastically reduced just before the Olympic break. In crucial games against Pittsburgh and St. Louis, Ceci played just over 11 minutes on both nights. Considering those were must-win games on the road, it will be interesting to see how Paul MacLean uses Ceci down the stretch in some very important games.
5. When will Jared Cowen go back to being Jared Cowen?
In the Canadian hockey rule book it clearly states there has to be a whipping boy for the fans and media each season. This year, nobody has taken as much abuse as Jared Cowen from the Senators faithful.
Cowen has not looked anywhere as good as he did during his rookie season in 2011-12, when he established himself as one of the most solid young defencemen in the game. This season has been a struggle for the young blueliner, who is still playing more than 20 minutes a night. This is also the first year of his new four-year contract which will pay him an average of $3.1 million per season. There have been some fans grumbling that Cowen is entering Tyler Myers territory, but it's probably too soon to make that comparison.
He still looks like he is recovering from the effects of hip surgery from last season and much like Erik Karlsson, it may take him a significant amount of time to return to his old self. But if Cowen can look like the 2011-12 version of himself who was dominant on some nights, the Senators back end will look a lot more intimidating.
6. Will Mika Zibanejad and Zack Smith get enough ice time at centre?
Paul MacLean has come back from the Olympic break and announced that Mika Zibanejad will be a centre from this point forward - barring any unforeseen circumstances. So if that is the case, how will MacLean juggle his lines so that his centremen will each get enough ice time to be effective?
Spezza and Turris usually play between 18-20 minutes a night and if that trend continues, it would leave roughly 20-22 total minutes to be shared by Zibanejad and Smith. So if Zibanejad were to play 14 minutes, that could leave only six or seven minutes for Zack Smith.
Perhaps the solution here is to really roll four lines and centremen who all log close to 15 minutes of ice time each night.
7. Can Craig Anderson continue his strong play?
Craig Anderson won't be in the building tonight against the Red Wings, but the Senators netminder will have to be razor-sharp when he does return to the lineup this weekend. He was 6-1-3 in January and had a save percentage of .917 for the month as the Senators crawled back into the playoff race.
But if Ottawa wants to cement a playoff berth, they will likely need their No.1 goalie to play at least 17 of the final 23 games and come out with about 12 or 13 wins. Anderson has shown in the past that he can get hot and carry this team and they will need that type of goaltending from him down the stretch.
8. Can Turris and MacArthur re-create their magic?
Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur have been the Senators dynamic duo this season, but their production slowed down just before the Olympic break. MacArthur collected just one assist in his last seven games and that forced Paul MacLean to shuffle up their line a little bit.
He is keeping Turris and MacArthur together, but he has moved Bobby Ryan off to another line and brought in Erik Condra to play on the wing.
9. Can Bobby Ryan find his scoring touch again?
Bobby Ryan still has a team-leading 21 goals, but the winger has been moved away from his regular linemates and has struggled for the past few weeks. Ryan has just five goals in his last 24 games and that pace would make him only a 17-goal scorer over the course of a full season.
Ryan may have been battling some sort of undisclosed injury and was even given some time off by MacLean after the Olympic break ended. If he can return to his form from the start of the season - when he scored nine goals in the first 16 games - the Senators will not be so worried about their offensive production.
10. Could Curtis Lazar see any NHL action this season?
No player within the Senators organization has seen their stock rise as much as Curtis Lazar in the past few months. Had it not been for an injury in training camp, the teenager could have pushed for an NHL roster spot to start the season in Ottawa.
But he is receiving rave reviews for his play with Edmonton in the WHL and is being talked about as one of the most NHL-ready players in the world right now. However, it's doubtful that we will see Lazar in a Senators jersey until next fall. His Oil Kings could be primed for a deep run in the playoffs and the Senators would love to see him gain experience at that level before making the jump to the NHL.