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30 in 30: Karlsson, Anderson two Senators questions

Tuesday, 08.20.2013 / 3:00 AM / NHL.com's 30 in 30 package: 2013-14

By Arpon Basu - Managing Editor LNH.com

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30 in 30: Karlsson, Anderson two Senators questions
Erik Karlsson made a surprise return to the Senators' lineup after suffering an Achilles injury last season, but he struggled during the postseason. His play is one of the top questions facing Ottawa in 2013-14.

The Ottawa Senators had everyone questioning their ability to succeed last season, and they answered all of them with their play on the ice.

But entering this season, the Senators have a number of questions, and many of them are linked to the adversity the team overcame to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season despite missing so many of its best players.

NHL.com has chosen six of them to try to answer here:

1. Can Erik Karlsson pick up where he left off? -- Karlsson's Achilles tendon injury was supposed to keep the defenseman off the ice until this season, but he worked extremely hard to make it back for the final three games of the regular season and the playoffs.

It was a huge emotional lift for the Senators, and Karlsson had an immediate impact, playing at least 27 minutes in each of his three regular-season games and getting four assists. His first few games in the playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens were effective, but his play began to slip as the series went on and continued to deteriorate in a second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It was not the Erik Karlsson the Senators had grown accustomed to, and he knew it.

"I think coming back as quickly as he did definitely had a big effect on him," Senators general manager Bryan Murray told NHL.com. "I talked to Erik about this after the year, and he was thinking all the time about what he could do or couldn't do."

That hesitancy had a major impact on Karlsson's play. Instead of just making the move that came naturally to him, he was taking a split second to consider whether or not he could pull it off; that split second was the difference between success and failure.

"He's an instinctive player, and there's no question having time to get the Achilles back in the condition it has to be in. … I think he'll come back 100 percent healthy," Murray said. "I think he'll get back to what Erik Karlsson is."

2. Who will fill the leadership void left by the departures of Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar? -- The Senators traded the rights to Gonchar to the Dallas Stars prior to the opening of free agency, then were shocked when Alfredsson signed with the Detroit Red Wings once the market opened.

In one fell swoop, 37 years of NHL experience left the organization.

"You have to give credit to the guys who left," Murray said. "[Gonchar] came in here and was a good veteran defenseman and [Alfredsson] was obviously a good captain and a good leader who did a lot by example. The respect level he brought to our young guys, I don't know if we can measure it yet."

The Senators have gotten significantly younger as a result of Alfredsson and Gonchar leaving, but Murray said he is convinced there are enough veteran voices who remain to pick up the slack.

"We have a number of guys here who are really strong in the room, with [Chris] Phillips and [Chris] Neil and Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek," Murray said. "These are real strong people who have been around the League and are good veterans. I think they'll step in, and whether they do to the same level I can't say that, but I think they'll be good leaders."

In Alfredsson's absence, the Senators will have a new captain for the first time in 13 years. Spezza appears to be a natural candidate to take over, but Murray would not say whether that will be the case.

Regardless, Spezza will be looked upon to take on a larger role in the leadership department.

"Whether he wears the 'C' or not," Murray said, "I think he'll be one of the strong forces on the team going forward."

3. How will Bobby Ryan react to being the go-to-guy in Ottawa? -- Ryan has played second fiddle to Anaheim Ducks stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry his entire NHL career, but now he will be looked upon to be a top goal-scorer for the Senators after Murray acquired him in a trade July 5.

Ryan appears to be embracing the opportunity.

"I'm getting this opportunity where I've always been the fourth or fifth man in the offensive scheme to where I'm coming in and I think I'm going to be second or third and that's a cool feeling," Ryan told Team 1200 AM in Ottawa. "It changes things. There's a little more pressure with it, but it's a pressure I've been trying to embrace for a couple of years now as things have progressed and now I want to do it on a broader scale. I can't wait."

Murray gave up a lot -- Jakob Silfverberg, prospect Stefan Noesen and a 2014 first-round draft pick -- to acquire Ryan, and the GM is banking on the fact Ryan is ready to take this next step in his career.

"I think Bobby has just been champing at the bit to be a top guy," Murray said. "It was tough company in Anaheim; Getzlaf and Perry are big guys and big scorers and they certainly deserve the recognition they get.

"But I think Bobby has a chance now to be really recognized. In this hockey market, his game should blossom greatly."

4. Can Craig Anderson provide the same other-worldly goaltending he did last season? -- Anderson's .941 save percentage and 1.69 goals-against average in 24 games last season represented one of the best seasons for a goaltender in modern history. If it weren't for an ankle injury that cost Anderson more than five weeks, he was in position to make history.

Craig Anderson
2012-13 STATS
RECORD: 12-9-2
GAA: 1.69 | SVP: 0.941
His absence didn't derail his momentum, however. Anderson was dominant in the playoffs, playing a starring role in the Senators' five-game elimination of the Canadiens in the first round by stopping 171 of 180 shots (.950 save percentage).

With the bar raised so high, how can Anderson possibly match it? Murray has little doubt.

"Very definitely I think he can do it again," Murray said. "He's a young goaltender, really (32). He's athletic, he's well-conditioned and 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."

Hitting those same numbers this season may be a tad unrealistic for Anderson, considering no goalie in the modern era who has played more than 40 games has done it. But if Anderson is able to make goaltending an afterthought when he's in net like he did last season, he successfully will have maintained his level of play.

5. Who will play on the second forward line and second defense pairing? -- The departures of Alfredsson and Gonchar created holes on the second forward line and second defense pairing.

Each will be filled as a result of a training-camp battle.

Kyle Turris and free-agent acquisition Clarke MacArthur are likely to play on Ottawa's second line, but who fills the remaining spot remains in question.

Murray said the Senators would prefer keeping Mika Zibanejad at center, meaning he would be in the middle on the third line. So the candidates to fight for that second-line spot include Colin Greening, Cory Conacher and Zack Smith, who would move to the wing after spending most of last season at center.

"Those are the interesting things coming into camp from a management point of view and a coaching point of view, is that we've got a couple of big decisions to make and a couple of opportunities to provide," Murray said. "It's just a matter of who steps up."

On defense, Karlsson and Marc Methot are set as the first pairing, but Cowen will need a partner on the second pairing.

Murray said Patrick Wiercioch, who was signed to a three-year, $6 million contract in the offseason, is ready to take on that role.

"I think Patrick Wiercioch has been waiting for a chance to become a prime player," Murray said. "He can play the right or left side, and if he has the camp we think he'll have, he could play the right side with Jared. Well, in my lineup, anyway."

6. How will Kyle Turris benefit from the return of Jason Spezza? -- When Spezza had back surgery Feb. 1, the role of No. 1 center fell to Turris. He had a difficult adjustment at first, with six assists with no goals in the 18 games following Spezza's surgery. But Turris finished the season with eight goals and eight assists in 23 games, and he shined in the playoffs with six goals and three assists in 10 games.

With Spezza returning, Turris should be freed to face less difficult matchups and play the role he was brought in by Murray to play when he acquired him from the Phoenix Coyotes in 2011.

"We never brought him here to be the No. 1 center; we thought he would be a really good No. 2 when we made the trade," Murray said. "This guy might wind up being a No. 1 center. He's been stuck in the gym all summer, he practices hard, he's become really confident and he's such a good teammate. He really cares about the team and the guys he plays with. I think he's just going to get better and better."

For all 30 in 30 stories go to NHL.com/30in30stories and for the full 30 in 30 schedule visit NHL.com/30in30.

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