NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
The Ottawa Senators earned the nickname "Pesky Sens" last season because of a team-wide refusal to believe that their long list of injured star players should prevent the team from winning.
With those star players now healthy, and with another big name joining the ranks, the Senators shouldn't need to be quite so pesky in order to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season.
"We probably surprised a few people last year with our injuries and being able to finish the way that we did," Senators forward Zack Smith told the team's website early in training camp. "I think this year there are a lot more expectations from different people, but if we're a healthy club it's going to be exciting to see what we can actually do."
The departure of long-time captain Daniel Alfredsson during the summer hurt the organization and fan base, but it also put an unfortunate damper on the acquisition of Bobby Ryan from the Anaheim Ducks later the same day.
Goal scorers like Ryan don't grow on trees and almost never are traded. The fact general manager Bryan Murray was able to add a talent like that while losing just one roster player in the process should have made for a summer of celebration in the Canadian capital.
"The puck goes in the net for him," coach Paul MacLean said recently of his new sniper. "He seems to shoot at a way bigger net than all the other guys seem to be shooting at. He brings that pedigree with him; he's scored 30 goals in this League more than one time. So he has that ability and he's certainly showed that through every day of training camp here."
Ryan never will be able to fill the leadership void left by Alfredsson's departure, but after the Senators finished 27th in the NHL in goals per game last season he definitely should help address a glaring need.
"I don't think we'll be 27th," Murray told NHL.com before training camp started. "But you never know. You start the year and you're optimistic as hell and then something happens. But I think we've got enough offense."
That something Murray is referring to obviously is injuries, which no team can really plan for, especially in the salary-cap era.
Having a healthy Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Craig Anderson, Milan Michalek and Jared Cowen all season long, with the additions of Ryan and free agent Clarke MacArthur, should make the Senators a better team than the one that reached the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the spring.
But just as the Senators didn't allow injuries to ruin them last season, they will have to prove they can maintain the same level of motivation and execution if that adversity is not present this season.
MacLean may have one of the most potent top lines in the NHL this season, as he has stuck with the combination of Spezza surrounded by Michalek and Ryan on the wings throughout training camp with the intention of at least starting the season relying on that trio to play major minutes at even strength and on the power play.
With Ryan just entering his prime years at age 26, Michalek needing a good season in the final year of his contract and Spezza embracing his new responsibilities following Alfredsson as captain, the line appears to have all the ingredients necessary to succeed.
Spezza is one of the NHL's most creative playmakers, and in theory surrounding a player like that with two sharpshooters like Ryan and Michalek should work.
But if it doesn't, no problem, Spezza says.
"I look at it as an opportunity to play with a great player [Ryan], but if it doesn't work and we don't have chemistry, then he'll have chemistry with Kyle Turris because we're different players," Spezza told NHL.com. "If for whatever reason it doesn't work with me it's going to work with him because it's going to work with someone."
If there is one area of concern it would be Ottawa's second line, centered by Turris. MacLean has used MacArthur on the left wing of that line throughout camp, with various players getting auditions at right wing, including Cory Conacher, Mike Hoffman and center Mika Zibanejad.
Having a secondary source of scoring often is cited as a vital component for any team. That would appear to put some pressure on the Turris line, however it eventually looks, to alleviate the scoring burden on Spezza's line.
Except MacLean sees it differently.
"I hope it's the other way around, that Spezza's line can take pressure off the Turris line," MacLean said. "That's what we'd like to have happen."
Among the bottom six forwards, the main question is whether last season's playoff hero, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, will force MacLean to move Zibanejad or Zack Smith from center to the wing in order to make room for him in the middle. Thus far in training camp, Pageau's play has suggested that his performance in the spring was not a fluke.
"He's playing well, and if he continues to play well he's going to make it very hard," MacLean said. "Those are hard decisions. His game has been very consistent and training camp is a long time, we'll see how he can come as you go, but right now he's playing well enough for sure. You just want to keep watching him every day and see how he keeps going."
The Ottawa defense was a strength last season despite missing Norris Trophy-winner Karlsson for most of it.
With Karlsson fully recovered from his lacerated Achilles tendon and Cowen getting his contract issue settled by signing for four years and $12.4 million, the Senators' defense should be stronger than it was last season in spite of the loss of veteran Sergei Gonchar.
The top pairing of Karlsson and Marc Methot remains intact, but the second pair should see Cowen with Patrick Wiercioch ascending to a role of prominence for the first time in his career. Wiercioch, 23, was signed to a three-year, $6 million contract during the offseason in the hope he could build off a season where he had 19 points in 42 games, tying him in scoring with such stars as the Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara, Jack Johnson of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers.
Wiercioch will be given a chance to play with Karlsson and the Spezza line on Ottawa's top power-play unit as well, so his production should increase this season.
"Right now Patrick and Erik will anchor the first unit of the power play and we'll give them every opportunity to show that they can do it," MacLean said. "We anticipate that they're going to be very good at it."
Most of the intrigue comes on the third pairing, where there are numerous candidates to play alongside veteran Chris Phillips, including free-agent acquisition Joe Corvo and the rugged Mark Borowiecki. Eric Gryba, who emerged last season as a strong, physical presence defensively, has missed most of training camp with an undisclosed injury, but he also will be in the mix to fill that No. 6 spot.
Then there's the longshot Cody Ceci, Ottawa's first-round pick at the 2012 NHL Draft (No. 15). The injury to Gryba could mean he has a chance to stick on the roster to start the season.
"I'm not going to say [when Gryba may return], but I do know one man's injury is another man's opportunity, and that hasn't changed since the start of organized sport," MacLean said. "If somebody's out, somebody has to take his place, and that's an opportunity for someone."
The Senators may have the best goaltending tandem in the NHL, but the question remains as to just how much of a tandem it will be.
Anderson is coming off one of the best seasons any goalie has had in the NHL's modern era, with a 1.69 goals-against average and .941 save percentage, albeit in just 24 games. His backup, Robin Lehner, 22, is one of the top young goalies in the League.
Anderson played 63 games in 2011-12, his only full season with the Senators, and if he maintains his level of play, there's no reason to believe he won't have a similar workload this season. But he's fully aware he will have to earn it.
"We're always trying to prove ourselves and everything you do in this game you earn," Anderson said early in camp. "Your ice time you earn, you earn the respect of your peers by going out there and working hard and performing at the level you're expected to."
Lehner was outstanding in limited action last season, with a 2.20 GAA and .936 save percentage in 12 games. Should Anderson show any signs of coming back down to earth, Lehner will be ready to pounce on the opportunity.
Ultimately, it will be the Senators who benefit from the internal competition for the net.
Senators Projected lineup
IN: Joe Corvo, D (free agent, Hurricanes), Curtis Lazar, RW/C (draft), Ludwig Karlsson, RW (free agent, Northeastern University), Clarke MacArthur, LW (free agent, Maple Leafs), Bobby Ryan, RW (trade, Ducks).
OUT: Daniel Alfredsson, RW (free agent, Red Wings), Andre Benoit, D (free agent, Avalanche), Sergei Gonchar, D (trade, Stars), Guillaume Latendresse, LW (free agent), Mike Lundin, D (free agent), Stefan Noesen, RW (trade, Ducks), Peter Regin, C (free agent, Islanders), Jakob Silfverberg, RW (trade, Ducks)
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