No other team in the NHL teeters as much as the Sens on being a Cup contender or just merely a playoff contender. The Sens are talented, but asides from their top players the rest of the roster looks rather average, and once again, because they failed to add some much needed scoring depth, will have to rely on their Big Three. With new coach Craig Hartsburg behind the bench, the Sens will be looking to establish an identity after a monumental collapse last season with John Paddock and the Ray Emery debacle. The Sens are one year removed from being swept in the first round, and two years removed from being Eastern Conference champs. It’s unlikely that either will happen this year, but what will happen is a big mystery.
The Sens have been searching for offensive depth for years. They failed to do that once again this summer, being able to land agitator Jarkko Ruutu after trade deadline acquisition Cory Stillman left for sunny Florida. There weren’t enough quality free agents the tight-pocketed Bryan Murray chose to splurge on, and as a result the Sens forwards corps returns relatively unchanged. The only new face that could make a significant impact is Jesse Winchester, who was signed late last year after 4 strong seasons at Colgate University. The 25-year old, 6’1″, 200 lbs., centre is expected to get a long look at the top line with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. The Sens, trying to balance out their scoring, will have Daniel Alfredsson on the second line with the versatile Mike Fisher and speedy Antoine Vermette. By all accounts Winchester has been only slightly above average with Spezza and Heatley, but the Sens’ coaching staff is confident that he will be able to stick, unlike Brandon Bochenski a couple of years ago. If it doesn’t hold, and history is going against Winchester, Hartsburg will have no choice but to re-unite the Big Three, and hope that Fisher and Vermette can take over second-line duties. After all, Fisher and Vermette did combine for a solid 100 points in 160 games. Chris Kelly, centering the third line, will be expected to chip in as well, while the hard-hitting Chris Neil and Nick Foligno will once again provide some sandpaper and jam. If all else fails, the Sens have a pretty good group of youngsters waiting in the wings in Binghamton, including Europeans Ilja Zubov and Alexander Nikluin, as well as AHL All-Star Josh Hennessey. The offense finished first overall in the league last year, and it’s difficult to see the Sens finish any lower than fifth in that category. Even strength wise, with Spezza’s playmaking ability and Heatley’s shooting, it’s hard to see any other duo in the league be on the same wavelength as those two. Surprisngly, however, the Sens’ powerplay was a rather pedestrian twelfth, and perhaps Hartsburg can implement a new system to improve in that regard.
Say what you want about Wade Redden, about his inconsistency and turnovers, but the fact of the matter is, losing him hurt the Sens. He hasn’t been quite the same since Zdeno Chara‘s departure, but the Sens wouldn’t budge from their $3.5m figure and with Redden’s departure it means that Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov are the de facto top pairing. It’s a little worrisome, because although Phillips and Volchenkov are tops defensively, there’s not much going on in terms of offense – the two defensive stalwarts combined for only 33 points. By comparison, Redden had 38 in a disappointing year, and the recently departed Andrej Meszaros had 36. Jason Smith once again brings another stabilizing presence, but his offensive game is even more limited, which means that the puck-moving duties will solely be placed on the shoulders of Filip Kuba, acquired in the Meszaros trade, and rookie Brian Lee, the Sens’ first round pick in 2005. Lee showed promise in his short Sens’ stint last year, and the Sens might have to throw him into the fire. Kuba was Tampa’s powerplay quarterback last year, averaging close to four minutes of powerplay time per game, but managed to only score 6 goals, and only 2 on the powerplay. Without a true powerplay quarterback the Sens will be hard-pressed to ice a powerplay as lethal as their even strength offense, as strange as that might sound, but the upshot is that the Sens could potentially ice a powerplay with 5 forwards, something Edmonton had experimented with last year.
Martin Gerber enters the season without having to look over his shoulder, and seems ready to take on the challenge, complete with a newly painted mask. The much maligned goalie has often been booed, but played well enough last year down the stretch to quiet some critics and show that he does have the skill set to be a regular number one goalie. Inconsistency has eluded him, which has fueled rumours of a Gerber-Nikolai Khabibulin swap, but with Alex Auld pushing him should help Gerber focus. The Sens’ defense was a weak 24th, but a lot of it had to do with injuries, mainly Volchenkov, but also inconsistent goaltending. It’s PK wasn’t much better at 22nd, but with Hartsburg behind the bench, expect the Sens to be held more accountable and improve in both categories.
The Sens are 4m away from the cap ceiling, and that may be as high as they’re willing to go to start the season. That leaves ample room for emergencies or acquiring extra depth if they wish to do so. Once the season gets underway, and as the rosters start to really shape up, the Sens may wish to pursue better players via trade. The Sens, behind a dedicated owner in Eugene Melnyk, are prepared to do whatever it takes to bring the Cup to the nation’s capital.
Dany Heatley – Jason Spezza – Jesse Winchester
Antoine Vermette – Mike Fisher – Daniel Alfredsson
Nick Foligno – Chris Kelly – Chris Neil
Jarkko Ruutu – Dean McAmmond – Shean Donovan
Anton Volchenkov – Chris Phillips
Filip Kuba – Jason Smith
Christoph Schubert – Brian Lee
Martin Gerber – Alex Auld
scratches: Cody Bass, Alexandre Picard
Coach: Craig Hartsburg
GM: Bryan Murray
Predicted finish: 2nd Northeast, 7th East