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Cameron, young players have Senators optimistic

by Chris Stevenson /

OTTAWA -- The Ottawa Senators returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season after going 21-3-3 in their final 27 games.

The key elements of the Senators' playoff run are back after they made few moves during the offseason.

Here are four reasons for the Senators to be optimistic:

Erik Karlsson has room to improve: Karlsson had a spectacular season, winning his second Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman and growing into the captaincy in his first season. There's reason to believe that at 25, his game can grow.

Like his teammates, Karlsson got off to a slow start last season. But after a coaching change and the return of partner Marc Methot, who missed the first 37 games with an injury, Karlsson flourished; he had 43 points in his final 47 games. In the playoffs, Karlsson might have played his best game with the Senators in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Montreal Canadiens. He played 31:12, attempted 12 shots, had six hits, and assisted on Ottawa's only goal.

Coach Dave Cameron used a baseball analogy to explain his approach to handling Karlsson's sometimes high-risk play: He wants to allow him to try to keep hitting home runs while cutting down on his strikeouts.

With Cameron and Methot in place at the start of the season, the Senators hope Karlsson can pick up where he left off.

A full season for coach Dave Cameron: Cameron became an NHL coach at age 56 after Paul MacLean was fired on Dec. 8. He led the Senators to a 32-15-8 record, including a closing stretch of 23-4-4, to qualify for the playoffs.

The players pointed to Cameron's communication skills (he's a former teacher) and his emphasis on a more up-tempo skating game as two reasons for the improvement. He also gave bigger roles to young players at the expense of veterans Chris Phillips, Colin Greening and David Legwand.

"I don't think it's necessarily an age thing," Cameron said. "My job as coach is to put on the ice what I think are the best players on a given night that give us the best chance to win. I'm not really looking at birth certificates when I do that."

Cameron, like his young players, got better as the season went on. If he can continue to learn and improve, it will help the Senators' chances of returning to the playoffs.

Mark Stone's second season: The forward was a question mark going into last season, but made the Senators in training camp. He had eight goals and 17 points in his first 34 games, but took off after Cameron replaced MacLean.

Stone had 47 points in the final 46 games of the regular season and became a finalist for the Calder Trophy, though his effectiveness in the playoffs was limited after he was slashed on the right wrist.

Stone's 26-goal, 64-point season earned him a new contract.

Room for improvement among the young players: Among the Senators' core players, four skaters are 30 or older: defenseman Methot (30) and forwards Clarke MacArthur (30), Milan Michalek (30) and Chris Neil (36). It remains to be seen how Neil will fit into the plans given the youth movement and with Mark Puempel, Nicholas Paul and Shane Prince knocking on the door.

Karlsson is 25; and No. 1 center Kyle Turris is 26.

With those two and Stone, Mike Hoffman, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Curtis Lazar, Mika Zibanejad, Patrick Wiercioch, Cody Ceci and Mark Borowiecki having played key roles down the stretch, there's reason to believe the Senators have plenty of upside.

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