The Ottawa Senators endured a difficult 2010-2011 season and, after a massive roster purge, will go about trying to rebuild.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what GM Bryan Murray might be able to accomplish with a team that should have several new faces in full-time roles next season.
The first order of business for Murray would be to get a new coach to replace the ousted Cory Clouston. Whether it's a veteran like Craig MacTavish, Ken Hitchcock or a young coach like Dave Cameron or Kirk Muller, the new bench boss will need to have plenty of patience dealing with a largely inexperienced team that will take some time to grow.
Once it became apparent that the Senators were on the road to nowhere last season, Murray started cleaning house, dealing veterans Mike Fisher, Alex Kovalev, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu and Chris Campoli and opening up tryouts for next season, giving plenty of opportunity for players like Bobby Butler, Colin Greening and Erik Condra a chance to prove they are ready for full-time NHL employment next season.
In addition to the players who have already been given an opportunity, the Senators also have some prospects, particularly on the blueline, that could make the jump next year as well, so fans may not be able to tell the players without a program, at least until they get familiar with the new pieces that are being put in place.
The tough part about the rebuilding process is that, for the long-term betterment of the franchise, the Senators may have to suffer through some short-term pain.
As a team that has only missed the playoffs twice in the last 14 seasons (but now two of the last three), the Senators are faced with the prospect of being also-rans again next season, unless the new faces all fit together seamlessly and that seems a bit much to ask.
If there is going to be a radical turnaround for the Senators, the driving force will have to be goaltender Craig Anderson, who was an immediate upgrade after arriving from Colorado and is now the latest in a long line of goaltenders asked to save the Sens.
For long-time Sens Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, the rebuilding process may not be easy, but there's no easy way to fix a team that was 14-9-1 in the last 24 games to finish with the 26th-best record in the league (to say nothing of the lower draft pick as a result).
No matter, the Senators embarked on their rebuilding process when they decided to clean house last season. Now it's going to take some time to build it back up and it's going to fall on Murray to provide a foundation that will last long after his three-year contract extension has expired.
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Despite health problems and declining talent around him, Jason Spezza remains a productive player when he's in the lineup, scoring 57 points in 62 games last season.
However, Spezza's absence creates a gaping hole in the lineup, so he has to remain healthier than he's been the past two seasons -- when he's missed a total of 42 games -- if the Senators are going to make any progress.
There was a time when it looked like Milan Michalek might be a first-line winger, but injuries and a dip in production (about a point every two games over the last two seasons) seems to have put a cap on his upside.
It's not like there isn't value to having a big winger who can score 20-plus goals, and Michalek is still only 26 so circumstances can change, but it's looking less and less likely that he'll ever again reach the 66 points he scored for San Jose in 2006-2007.
Age may have finally caught up to captain Daniel Alfredsson as the 38-year-old played in a career-low 54 games, scoring a career-low 31 points and putting up a career-worst minus-19 in 2010-2011.
If Alfredsson's back issues subside, he can be an effective player, though at this point it might be worth investigating the possibility of finishing his career elsewhere because the rebuilding Sens don't figure to be contenders for the two seasons remaining on his contract.
23-year-old winger Nick Foligno played a bigger role down the stretch and finished with a career-high 34 points, but that's not enough for anything more than third-line duty.
Maybe that's the level that suits Foligno, but it's still conceivable that he could be a 20-goal scorer with the right linemates, so the Sens ought to keep that as a possibility until proven otherwise.
After a strong finish, including the first round of the playoffs, in 2009-2010, expectations were high for Peter Regin entering last season and he didn't come close to achieving them, scoring just three goals in 55 games (including just one in his first 47 games!).
Regin has talent, size and upside worth exploring, but expecations must be modest coming off such a poor season.
Veteran winger Chris Neil offers a measure of toughness on the fourth line -- his 210 penalty minutes last season was the second-most of his career -- but his minus-14 rating was also the worst of his career.
It's fair to question whether it's worth paying Neil a couple million dollars a season for what he provides, particularly for a rebuilding team, yet at the same time there are going to be a lot of inexperienced players in the lineup, so it doesn't hurt to have his veteran presence.
Through three-plus seasons, Jesse Winchester has managed 44 points in 201 games, playing 10:33 per game, so his role isn't a large one, but he's effective in that limited ice time.
If only he could finish on a few more opportunities -- Winchester's shooting percentage of 2.9% over the last three seasons is third-worst among all NHL forwards to have played at least 100 games (ahead of only the Penguins' Craig Adams and Rangers' Derek Boogaard) in that time.
The future, or at least the immediate immediate future, of the Senators forward ranks will depend on collegiate forwards who all tasted NHL action last season.
Winger Colin Greening worked his way into a significant role down the stretch for the Senators and the 25-year-old has good size and speed to handle a checking role even if he can't carry his offensive production (13 points in 24 games with Ottawa) forward.
Bobby Butler finished with a flurry, scoring ten points in his last ten games to finish with 21 points in 36 games, but the Regin experience should caution against putting too much stock in a few weeks' worth of production.
Butler does have a goal-scorer's pedigree, from 29 goals in 39 games as a senior at New Hampshire to 22 goals in 47 AHL games last season before scoring ten in 36 games with Ottawa, so he'll be given the opportunity to fulfill a role as an offensive winger.
Erik Condra showed well in the 26 games that he played for Ottawa late last season. While he managed a modest 11 points, Condra had a favourable shot differential and would figure to have a good chance to stick in a checking role.
Ideally, all three of these forwards would be able to play regular roles in the 2011-2012 season.
Centre Zack Smith doesn't provide much offence, but he does have the size and belligerence to hold a spot on the fourth line.
When it comes to unrestricted forwards Ryan Shannon, Marek Svatos and Francis Lessard, Shannon could be brought back after a career-high 27 points, but there's no breaking the bank for that kind of production. Svatos didn't do much and Lessard is a willing pugilist, but not much more.
There is certainly room for the Senators to augment this lineup in free agency, though the focus needs to be long-term and with the understanding that the Senators, coming off a down season, may not be a leading free agent destination.
Nevertheless, there could be some value if the Sens go after a skilled forward like Jussi Jokinen, who might be a fine fit as a second-line centre, or versatile wingers like Curtis Glencross or Christopher Higgins.
Prospect Stephane Da Costa, signed out of Merrimack College, also figures to get a long look, particularly if he's capable of fulfilling a role as a playmaking centre.
Erik Karlsson is a brilliant young blueliner. A smooth skater with terrific offensive instincts, the 20-year-old still has work to do on his game away from the puck, but with some tightening up in that area (his minus-30 rating ranked third-worst in the league), he has a chance to be a true difference-maker for the Senators.
Particularly considering the lack of creative forwards on the roster, Karlsson's ability to generate offence when joining the rush and working the power play will play a big part in the team's success.
After signing a three-year, $16.5-million deal, veteran Sergei Gonchar almost immediately looked like a fish out of water in Ottawa, not least of all because head coach Cory Clouston insisted on playing Gonchar at the left point (as opposed to his familiar spot on the right) on the power play.
Gonchar's defensive shortcomings were only exacerbated by pairing him with Chris Phillips and Gonchar was minus-19 through his first 39 games. However, he was plus-4 in 28 games from January on, so even though 27 points and a minus-15 rating didn't meet expectations, Gonchar can still be a contributor on what figures to be a relatively young defence otherwise.
That said, 34-year-old Filip Kuba may be an expendable piece on the Senators' blueline. Injuries have caused him to miss 47 games over the last two seasons and he was minus-26 in the 64 games he played in 2010-2011.
On the plus side, Kuba did have a respectable shot differential in five-on-five play and is going into the final year of his contract, which might make him appealing enough for a team that is needy on defence. Otherwise, he could be a buyout candidate, making more room for younger defencemen that need ice time to develop.
Matt Carkner adds a dose of intimidation to the Senators lineup and is effective enough in limited, third-pair minutes, but his season was cut short by a knee injury. Assuming Carkner is healthy, he should be able to hold down a regular spot.
Trade rumours dogged veteran Chris Phillips for much of last season yet, even though he was on his way to a league-worst minus-35, which earned him a three-year contract extension that, somehow, included a no-trade clause.
Given the hard minutes that Phillips plays, against the opposition's top lines, and Ottawa's subpar goaltending for much of the year, it's understandable if Phillips is the one to bear the brunt when things aren't going well for the Sens, but results -- including his team-worst shot differential -- have to be better.
It seemed like a reach to take Brian Lee ninth overall in the 2005 draft and his play hasn't done anything to disprove that theory. The 24-year-old can hold a roster spot, and kill some penalties, but is a sixth or seventh defenceman unless he becomes a more assertive presence.
The best news for the Senators' defence is that they have some top prospects on the way. David Rundblad and Jared Cowen should both be ready to not only play, but perhaps play significant roles for the Senators next season.
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Craig Anderson looked like he was the long-term solution to Colorado's goaltending problems after a stellar 2009-2010 season, his first as a full-time starter in the NHL, but then he struggled last season, prompting his trade to Ottawa.
The Senators apparently saw enough from Anderson (11-5-1, 2.05 GAA, .939 SV% in 19 games) after the trade to decide that he would be the long-term solution to their longstanding goaltending woes. Anderson has shown that he's capable, and the results could be good if the Senators have a solid defensive group in front of him.
As for the backup, that would seem to be an open position, as neither of free agents Pascal Leclaire or Curtis McElhinney are ideal answers. Alex Auld, Mathieu Garon or Ty Conklin are three free agents that could be of interest as veteran backups.
|David Rundblad||D||Skelleftea (SEL)||11-39-50,+5, 55 GP|
|Jared Cowen||D||Spokane (WHL)||18-30-48,+44, 58 GP|
|Robin Lehner||G||Binghamton (AHL)||2.70 GAA, .912 SV%, 22 GP|
|Jakob Silfverberg||RW||Brynas IF Havle (SEL)||18-16-34,-12, 34 GP|
|Stephane Da Costa||C||Merrimack (HE)||14-31-45,+9, 33 GP|
|Patrick Wiercioch||D||Binghamton (AHL)||4-14-18,-14, 67 GP|
|Jim O'Brien||C||Binghamton (AHL)||24-32-56,+17, 74 GP|
|Louie Caporusso||LW||Michigan (CCHA)||11-20-31,+17, 41 GP|
|Derek Grant||C||Michigan State (CCHA)||8-25-33,+1, 38 GP|
|Roman Wick||RW||Binghamton (AHL)||20-22-42,+10, 70 GP|
Not to go overboard before he's even played in the league, but defenceman David Rundblad has a chance to make a major difference on the Senators' fortunes. A first-round pick of the Blues in 2009, Rundblad was acquired last summer (with a pick used to get Russian winger Vladimir Tarasenko) and then went out and dominated the Swedish Elite League, easily leading all defencemen (and ranking third in the entire league) with 50 points in 55 games.
Adding Rundblad's puck skills to Karlsson's ought to immediately help the Senators get out of their own end, which both ignites the offence and eases the pressure in the defensive zone.
It took some time for Jared Cowen to recover from a knee injury suffered in 2009, but he appeared to be up to full speed last season and projects as a shutdown defender with his imposing size, but he also improved his production in his fourth year in the WHL.
Cowen could spend some time in the AHL, but there would figure to be a good chance that he would be ready to play in Ottawa right out of training camp next season.
19-year-old goaltender Robin Lehner got into eight games with Ottawa last season, a sign of just how desperate the Sens' goaltending situation had become, and while he showed promise, he could certainly use more time to develop in the American Hockey League. Now that Anderson is signed to a four-year deal, there is no need to rush Lehner to the NHL before he's ready.
A second-round pick in 2009, Jakob Silfverberg had a nice jump in production in the Swedish Elite League, scoring 34 points in 53 games (putting him just behind former Senator Andreas Dackell in the scoring race for Brynas Gavle). The 20-year-old may be ready to test the North American waters next season.
Stephane Da Costa was highly sought-after coming out of college and got a four-game trial with the Senators at the end of the year, but he may still need time in the AHL get used to the pro grind and prove that he can carry his offensive game (90 points in 67 games with Merrimack) to the next level.
A second-round pick in 2008, Patrick Wiercioch struggled in his first year as a pro, after two very good seasons at the University of Denver. He's still just 20-years-old, so there is time to develop, but Wiercioch needs a strong season to re-establish his value as a long-term prospect.
22-year-old centre Jim O'Brien made significant progress in his second AHL season, and appeared in six games for Ottawa too, but the 2007 first-rounder hasn't shown enough yet to be considered more than a fill-in.
Louie Caporusso completed a productive four-year career at the University of Michigan, though his point totals decreased after his sophomore campaign. The Senators have had some good fortune developing college forwards, so Caporusso should have an opportunity to prove himself in the AHL.
Lanky centre Derek Grant left Michigan State following his sophomore season and contributed six points in 14 games with Binghamton late in the AHL season. The 21-year-old needs time, but should develop better in the minors than he would with the Spartans.
Swiss winger Roman Wick performed well enough in his first North American pro season to get promoted to Ottawa for seven (largely forgettable) games. He's already 25, so their isn't a lot of upside left to explore, but Wick may be useful as organizational depth.
23-year-old winger Kaspars Daugavins may have more upside as a scorer, and his strong showing in the AHL playoffs this year should earn him a look if the Senators are going to undergo significant changes up front.
6th - Sean Couturier, Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Strome.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Senators have approximately $45.3M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 17 players.
Needs: Second line centre, two top four defencemen, backup goaltender.
What I said the Senators needed last year: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman, one additional defenceman.
They added: Zack Smith, Sergei Gonchar, David Hale.