The Ottawa Senators enter this season as an incumbent playoff team after having fast-tracked a turnaround from a 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference in 2010-11 to nab the eighth spot in the East last spring.
But unexpected performances can sometimes lead to unreasonably heightened expectations, and they also mean the Senators will not be sneaking up on any opponents this season.
How the Senators deal with that newfound status is among the six questions this club faces as it prepares for the 2012-13 season.
1. Can the Senators maintain last season's momentum?
That's hard to say, because practically the entire Senators season was driven by streaks right up to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they dropped two of the first three games in the first round against the New York Rangers after finishing the regular season with three straight losses.
Overall the Senators' season, in chronological order, went like this: a 1-5-0 start, a six-game winning streak, a five-game losing streak (0-4-1), five wins in seven games (5-1-1), six losses in eight games (2-4-2), a 13-2-2 stretch, seven straight losses (0-6-1), nine wins in 13 games (9-3-1), five losses in six games (1-3-2), four straight wins, and finally three straight losses.
If the season were mapped out on a line graph, it would look like the Rocky Mountains.
General manager Bryan Murray would like to see his club avoid a similarly hot and cold path this season, and he thinks increased maturity from his young players can help in that regard.
"I felt there were a couple of games and a couple of losing streaks where, if we were a little more poised, we could have got ourselves out of it," Murray told NHL.com. "But the opposite was true as well; when we got on a winning streak, we'd get so emotionally wrapped up in it that it would carry us.
"But we're going to have to adapt a little quicker and be a little more demanding to avoid those swoons this season."
If the Senators are able to come out of their losing spells quicker and maintain the emotional highs of their winning streaks as well as last season, a climb up the standings is definitely possible.
2. What can Erik Karlsson do for an encore?
The improvement Karlsson showed in just his third NHL season was simply staggering. His 78 points led all NHL defensemen in scoring, putting him 25 points ahead of the second-place finisher, Brian Campbell of the Florida Panthers. It was the biggest gap between the top two scorers on defense since 1989, when Pittsburgh's Paul Coffey was 38 points better than his closest counterpart. Karlsson also improved from a minus-30 rating in 2010-11 to plus-16, and he capped it all by winning the Norris Trophy as the League's best defenseman just a few weeks after his 22nd birthday.
So, can Karlsson continue growing this season?
"I think he'll get better," Murray said. "No, I know he'll get better."
While that may be a frightening thought for the rest of the NHL, one look at Karlsson's performance in the playoffs shows where there may be room for improvement.
The Rangers decided to target Karlsson physically at every opportunity, finishing every check and sending a forward to slow him down as soon as he got the puck. On the power play, Karlsson was closely shadowed and had a man in his face on the point at all times, forcing him to get rid of the puck. The result was he scored just one goal in the seven-game series.
Karlsson will likely see similar tactics deployed against him throughout the regular season from now on, but Murray feels the strides he made last season in terms of maturity will allow Karlsson to make adjustments and create opportunities for teammates when he is being checked so closely.
"The good thing about Erik is he had some cockiness about him when we drafted him, but he's grown so much in the last year-and-a-half," Murray said. "He's a man now."
3. Can the Senators improve defensively?
Ottawa finished 24th in the NHL in goals against per game (2.88), 29th in shots against per game (32) and 20th on the penalty kill (81.6 percent) last season, but Murray worked in the offseason to help remedy that problem.
When Karlsson's defense partner Filip Kuba accepted a two-year, $8 million contract from the Florida Panthers -- a dollar figure Murray says he was unable to match -- he traded restricted free agent forward Nick Foligno to the Columbus Blue Jackets for rugged Marc Methot, an Ottawa native who gave new meaning to the term "stay-at-home defenseman."
"Methot will certainly bring us a different dimension than Kuba," Murray said, noting Methot is more of a physical presence while Kuba is more of an offensive player. "I think we filled that spot pretty well."
30 in 30: Ottawa Senators
Last season a springboard into 2012-13?By Arpon Basu - Managing Editor LNH.com
The Ottawa Senators were a surprise participant in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but they'll have to deal with increased expectations and integrate some new faces to return to the postseason. READ MORE ›
But perhaps the most significant change on defense will come from someone in house.
Jared Cowen will be entering his second full season in the NHL and, at age 21, big things are expected out of the No. 9 pick in the 2009 draft.
"I think as he gets older, he'll be one of the good shutdown defensemen in the League," Murray said. "Towards the end of the season, he was as good as any defenseman on our club."
Murray says prospects Mark Borowieczki and Patrick Wiercioch -- two standouts in the American Hockey League with Binghamton last season -- will battle for the seventh defenseman's spot in training camp, giving the Senators "depth that we didn't have before."
As strong as the Senators were offensively last season, Murray knows that's not enough to achieve the team's ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup.
"We can't count on being fourth or fifth in the League in goals [Ottawa was fourth last season with 2.96 goals per game], but I know we have the ability to improve defensively," Murray said. "I'm all for scoring goals. But to be a champion, we need to improve defensively."
4. Are the kids ready for the big stage?
The Senators promoted a number of their players from the Binghamton team that won the Calder Cup in 2011 to begin last season in Ottawa -- a group that included Cowen, Colin Greening, Jim O'Brien, Kaspars Daugavins, Erik Condra, Bobby Butler and Zack Smith.
Once again this season there will be three high-end forward prospects who will be battling for spots on the club.
Mika Zibanejad, the No. 6 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, received a nine-game audition last fall before being sent back to Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League. While there he scored 13 points in 26 games, but he also scored the gold medal-winning goal for Team Sweden at the 2012 World Junior Championship.
He will be competing with fellow countryman Jakob Silfverberg, a second-round pick in 2009, and 2010 sixth-round pick Mark Stone for a potential spot on Ottawa's top line with Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek. Both Silfverberg and Stone saw action in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, suggesting they may possibly have a leg up on Zibanejad in training camp.
But there is little doubt among the Senators' brass that all three are ready for a legitimate shot at prime time.
"Up front, we have guys that we strongly believe will be top-six contributors on our team," Senators director of player personnel Pierre Dorion told NHL.com.
And there is no rule stating that a high-end scoring prospect needs to play on the top two lines in order to stay in Ottawa, as long as head coach Paul MacLean gives the kids a chance to see the ice regularly.
"My thing with coaches is that if you have a young guy, then he has to play," Murray said, "and Paul's been great with that."
Addressing one of the team's biggest needs forced Murray to trade away one of his most promising players when he sent Foligno to the Blue Jackets in exchange for Methot.
To help replace Foligno's 47 points, Murray took a chance on the oft-injured Guillaume Latendresse with a one-year, bonus-laden contract with a base salary of $1.15 million.
Latendresse, 25, showed what kind of offensive potential he had as soon as he was traded from his hometown Montreal Canadiens to the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 23, 2009, scoring 25 goals in 55 games with the Wild the remainder of that season.
But that marked the start of a horrible run of injuries that included a groin issue that cost him 58 games, a hip injury that sidelined him for another 14 games, and finally concussion-related problems that kept him out of all but 16 games last season.
Latendresse received a clean bill of health prior to signing with Ottawa, and he hopes he can put his medical problems behind him for good.
"I'm really 100 percent now," Latendresse told reporters after signing on July 1. "I think if I can be the player I was when I first came to Minnesota, I think I can bring a lot to this team. I think everyone's pretty excited right now."
Now, he just needs to stay healthy.
6. Who will be the backup goalie, and how much will he play?
Bishop, 25, likely has the inside track on the job after his performance last season helped keep the Senators in the playoff hunt when Anderson was injured Feb. 22 with a lacerated tendon in his hand.
Acquired four days after Anderson's injury, Bishop played in 10 games with the Senators and had a 3-3-2 record with a 2.48 goals against average and .909 save percentage.
Lehner turned 21 on July 24, and in his five NHL games last season he went 3-2-0 with a sparkling 2.01 goals against average and .935 save percentage.
With Bishop standing tall at 6-foot-7 and Lehner not far behind at 6-3, the Senators are at least assured of having a big backup behind Anderson, who is the shortest of the three at 6-2.
"We like both of them," Murray said. "They're both big, strong goaltenders who can stop the puck."
When healthy, Anderson appeared in 61 of Ottawa's 70 games, but that number should be reduced with a promising, young goaltender behind him instead of journeyman Alex Auld.
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