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 raised the bar rather high last season by overcoming a slew of injuries to become perhaps the NHL's most surprising team.
With all of those key pieces now healthy, the main question is whether this team overachieved in reaching the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, or if it was a taste of bigger and better things to come.
"Time will tell, but we're at the point where we're no longer a young, overachieving team," new captain Jason Spezza told NHL.com. "We're a team that is expected to make the next step. We've added Bobby [Ryan], [Clarke] MacArthur and [Joe] Corvo, and these are guys that should help us get to the next level. Now it's up to us to continue to grow."
Here are three things that may determine just how much these Senators will be able to grow this season:
1. What impact will Daniel Alfredsson’s departure have on the leadership dynamic? -- There's no way one can overestimate the influence Alfredsson had on the Senators' dressing room as captain. When he decided to sign as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings, the Senators officially were treading in uncharted waters, because no one on the team ever has known anything other than having Alfredsson as the unchallenged leader in the room.
Spezza inherited the captaincy when he was given the role early in training camp, and he doesn't anticipate a difficult transition into the role.
"I feel like the last few years I've been expected to be a leader on our team and had to make some changes to different things," Spezza told NHL.com. "I think leadership is something that comes naturally and I feel like I'm naturally a leader in our dressing room."
Spezza will have other veterans to help provide leadership, such as Chris Phillips, Chris Neil and Milan Michalek, but the captain always carries an extra burden. And it is something general manager Bryan Murray feels Spezza is more than ready for.
"With Jason, we really felt like we were getting a guy on the rise," Murray told the Ottawa Citizen. "We were getting a guy who has gone from a young, talented, immature player on the ice to a man now that has grown, his game is better, he's stronger, he's more committed. You can tell that by just the physical testing we do, but also the growth that he has demonstrated off the ice."
2. Who will play on the second line? -- Through the first two weeks of training camp, coach Paul MacLean has made it clear that his first line at the start of the season will have Spezza centering Ryan and Michalek.
After that, there are a lot of balls remaining in the air.
The second line will be anchored by center Kyle Turris and free-agent signee MacArthur, but who lands on the right side of that line remains a mystery.
Cory Conacher, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Andre Petersson all have been given chances in training camp to seize the role, and center Mika Zibanejad was given a look as well, though the organization prefers to have him in the middle.
No one has been given an extended look in that spot, and MacLean suggested to reporters gathered at training camp recently that may continue through the start of the regular season.
"Maybe it'll be someone who rotates through," he said. "In the past I've been a believer that if two guys can get chemistry the third guy can always change depending on circumstance. We'd like to get something going, but if we don't we're prepared to keep going along, moving people in and out."
Conacher likely has the inside track on the job due to familiarity with the team and MacLean from last season, but even if he starts the season there he will need to produce in order to stay.
3. How often will Craig Anderson start in goal, and can he maintain last season's play? -- Anderson was a rock in goal for the Senators last season, keeping his team in games while an injury-depleted lineup struggled to find ways to score.
In theory, Anderson should have more room for error this season because the Senators shouldn't finish 27th in the NHL in goals per game, but in Murray's mind, he probably won't need the extra support.
"Very definitely I think he can do it again," Murray told NHL.com. "He's a young goaltender, really. He's athletic, he's well-conditioned, he's real strong. But I think the biggest thing with Craig is his mental toughness; whenever something bad happens he's just able to put it aside and move on. I think he's got a number of years left here where he's going to be a high-caliber guy."
The question of Anderson's workload will not depend solely on how he plays, however, as backup Robin Lehner appears ready to take on more responsibility. At 22, Lehner could be ready for a breakout season, but he'll need to see some significant action in order for that to happen.
Anderson played 63 games in 2011-12, his lone full season in Ottawa, and if Lehner were to get the balance of the work it nearly would double his career total of 25 games played. But it's possible a more equitable split of games between the two could benefit both goaltenders, and give the Senators the most intimidating goalie tandem in the League.
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