There may be no team in the NHL that is looking forward to next season more than the Ottawa Senators.
With all the drama that has surrounded this team ever since the fifth game of last season, general manager Bryan Murray is eager to reap the rewards of all the adversity his players and coaching staff overcame in 2012-13.
For those with foggy memories, within the first month of the season the Senators had already lost Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson (Achilles tendon), Jason Spezza (back) and Jared Cowen (hip) with what were believed to be season-ending injuries (though all three would come back to play). Starting goaltender Craig Anderson (ankle) and top-line left wing Milan Michalek (knee) also sustained long-term injuries.
Spezza and Karlsson were lost within a matter of days in late January, and Murray now can admit he didn't see how his team would be able to overcome blows like that and qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
They not only qualified, but won a round for the first time in six years.
"When Spezza got hurt and Erik got cut, I thought we'd be in for a long year," Murray told NHL.com. "The kids proved me wrong. They just hung in every night."
Those "kids" -- Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad, Jakob Silfverberg, Patrick Wiercioch, Colin Greening, Zack Smith and others -- filled roles they never were expected to fill, and some even younger players who weren't expected to reach the NHL last season took over the support roles that were vacated. Coach Paul MacLean made it all work by convincing his players they could win without the star power, and he was rewarded with the Jack Adams Trophy and a three-year contract extension.
Now, with all those young players having thrown their development on fast-forward due to last season's events, Murray said he expects the benefits to really shine through this season.
"The learning curves for those kids were huge, and I really think that each one of them should be a touch better," Murray said. "There's going to be one of them that might not take off the way we think, but other than that I think three or four guys should be considerably better from going through it.
"That's how you build hockey teams, when you give them a chance most of them improve, and your team winds up being better as a result. We paid the price with injuries last year, but opportunities were given to these guys and I think our team should be better as a result."
That was the underlying feeling following Ottawa's playoff elimination at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins: the best was yet to come. Unfortunately for Murray, the drama didn't end once the season was finished. In fact, the bulk of it only was beginning.
Captain Daniel Alfredsson decided in late June he would come back to play one more season, except it would not be in Ottawa after an apparent misunderstanding or dispute -- depending on which side you believe -- led him to sign a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Detroit Red Wings.
The fallout in Ottawa over Alfredsson's departure was massive -- and still is -- but the Senators were not left empty-handed as a result; far from it.
Murray signed Clarke MacArthur away from the Toronto Maple Leafs for two years and $6.5 million, or $1 million more than Alfredsson’s 2013-14 salary-cap charge with the Red Wings. MacArthur had 28 goals with 35 assists for 63 points in 113 games the past two seasons while playing a second-line role in Toronto; Alfredsson's numbers the past two seasons were 37 goals and 48 assists for 85 points in 122 games.
Alfredsson has been more productive and has a treasure chest of intangibles that practically is unmatched in the NHL. But under the circumstances, MacArthur appears to be an adequate replacement, especially considering that at 28, he's 12 years younger than Alfredsson.
MacArthur's value as a replacement for Alfredsson becomes far greater in light of Murray's acquisition of Bobby Ryan from the Anaheim Ducks, a deal which cost him Silfverberg, top prospect Stefan Noesen and a first-round draft pick in 2014.
Ryan gives the Senators their best pure goal-scoring talent since Dany Heatley left in 2009, and Murray is excited by the possibility of having Ryan team with Spezza and Michalek to form what could be one of the most potent offensive lines in the NHL.
"There's no question Bobby Ryan's a goal-corer," Murray said. "He's got good hands, a good head for the game, he understands how to play. If you ask Dany Heatley, I've heard him say that Jason Spezza was the reason he got 50 goals a couple of years in a row, and I think Bobby has the same type of thing in regards to his ability to finish. The two of them together should be real dynamite. And if Michalek plays there with his speed and work ethic, I think the threesome should be really good."
With the additions of Ryan and MacArthur countering the subtractions of Alfredsson and Silfverberg off the 2012-13 roster, and taking into account the continued development of Ottawa's young players, it would not be crazy to suggest the Senators will be a better team this season.
Murray, for one, is very eager to find out. But one thing he learned from last season is not to assume anything, because things can change drastically midstream.
"We really don't know at this point," he said. "We assume that with Spezza, Michalek, Karlsson, Cowen, Anderson being 100 percent healthy, hopefully for the long term, that our team will be quite different than it was.
"But I have to say that I was pretty proud of the way they played last year. We got the tag 'Pesky Sens' for a reason; these young guys didn't know enough to stop trying. We'd go into third periods down by two goals and come back and win. That became a real characteristic of our team. So when you get your veterans back and everybody's going fairly well, do you have the same perseverance at the end of games? We'll have to find that out."
SENATORS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
UFAs: LW Guillaume Latendresse
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