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Cup finalist Ottawa Senators out to take next step in 2007-08

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OTTAWA - Jason Spezza was asked earlier in training camp if his appearance on the cover of a popular video game this fall could expose him to a "jinx" that's befallen stars in other sports in recent years who've had the same privilege.

"I hope not. Talk to me next year," he said.

The Ottawa Senators hope not, either, since their star centre will once again figure prominently in any success they might have when the puck drops on their 2007-08 season at Toronto's Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night.

It's a big year for both Spezza and the Senators. Spezza becomes a restricted free agent next July and he's just one of a number of regulars in Ottawa's camp who are up for free agency after this season.

Star left-winger Dany Heatley and veteran defenceman Wade Redden will be unrestricted while blue-liner Andrej Meszaros and forwards Antoine Vermette and Patrick Eaves are all restricted.

Given that the Edmonton Oilers may have touched off a new trend by extending big-money offer sheets to Buffalo's Thomas Vanek and Anaheim's Dustin Penner, the latter of whom they eventually signed, it wouldn't be a surprise to see teams go after the 24-year-old Spezza or others.

The Senators are taking steps to lock up some of the pieces, signing centre Mike Fisher to a five-year, US $21-million extension during training camp and are in negotiations with Heatley, but there's the fear that if Ottawa doesn't win this year, it may have trouble retaining all its parts.

After making the first Stanley Cup final appearance in the team's modern history in June, anything less than a return trip, and probably even a win, will likely be seen as step backward.

"That's the challenge I want," new coach John Paddock says.

The Senators managed to hang on to most of the pieces of last year's title contender.

They said goodbye to defenceman Tom Preissing, who signed with the L.A. Kings, while Mike Comrie joined the New York Islanders and fellow forward Oleg Saprykin returned to Russia.

Left-winger Peter Schaefer was dealt to Boston in exchange for veteran Shean Donovan. At 38, veteran defenceman Luke Richardson was signed to provide depth on the blue-line. Fellow newcomers with NHL experience, such as Niko Dimitrakos, are likely ticketed for Binghamton of the American Hockey League.

Ottawa's biggest shuffle came in the front office where John Muckler was fired as general manager and replaced by Murray, while Murray's assistant Paddock takes charge behind the bench and the Senators expect it to be a smooth transition.

"The deep-rooted things of how you play the game, how you see things, we were pretty much the same on," says Paddock, who's the boss at the NHL level for the first time since he was with the Winnipeg Jets in 1994-95.

The Senators got off to a slow start through the first half of last season before catching fire in the new year and in the post-season, they disposed of the questions marks that have hung over the team in the past, ones regarding their heart and desire come playoff time.

With captain Daniel Alfredsson, whose leadership skills have been questioned in the past, pointing the way, they brushed aside the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres, all in relatively easy five-game series, to win their first Eastern Conference championship, before finally succumbing to the Anaheim Ducks team in the final, also in five games.

So rather than personnel changes, the Senators are counting on the experience of making it to the final as the final part of their learning curve.

"We went through a very roller-coaster season last year and we learned a lot from it," Alfredsson says. "We've got a lot of players back from last year.

"The way we jelled as a team in the second half, a lot of players found their roles."

As a result, there's been little competition for spots in training camp.

Fisher has missed the pre-season with a groin injury suffered in the final and centre Dean McAmmond suffered a concussion after a vicious hit during an exhibition game from Steve Downie, which resulted in the Philadelphia Flyers prospect receiving a 20-game suspension.

Their status has left the door open for a couple of extra bodies to stick around, at least to start the year.

Ontario Hockey League graduate Nick Foligno, the son of ex-NHLer Mike, has impressed in the pre-season and appeared to be getting a chance to stick around to take a spot at left wing. A couple of Russian prospects at centre, Ilya Zubov and Alexander Nikulin, also stand to prosper from the uncertainty over Fisher and McAmmond's return.

One position to watch is in goal, where Martin Gerber's early struggles last year cost him the No. 1 job the Senators expected him to hold down when they signed him to a big contract in the summer of 2006.

Ray Emery emerged as a top-notch goaltender, but whether he can repeat the feat - especially after missing much of the pre-season while recovering from surgery to repair torn cartilage in his catching wrist - is still to be determined.

Gerber wanted to be traded in summer, but Murray couldn't find any takers and the Swiss netminder has made no secret of the fact that he wants to play, in Ottawa or somewhere.

The Senators signed Emery to a three-year, $9.5-million deal and hired his personal consultant Eli Wilson to be the team's goaltending coach, so how the dynamic plays out will be interesting to watch, although Emery insists the situation is a healthy one.

"There are no hard feelings I get from him," Emery says of his relationship with Gerber," and I definitely have none toward him."

Likewise, whether or not Redden, who self-admittedly struggled last season, finishes the campaign in Ottawa will likely be determined in part by his play and in part whether or not Murray finds a taker for the remainder of the $6.5 million he's due to collect this year.

During training camp, Paddock experimented with various combinations in an attempt to find a right-winger to play on a regular basis with Spezza and Heatley.

It's the same predicament Murray went through last year since the Senators are hesitant about putting all their eggs in one basket by employing Alfredsson in that spot.

They'd much rather use Alfredsson with Fisher and Vermette to provide a 1-2 scoring punch.

Last year, Heatley became the first player to record back-to-back 50-goal seasons since Pavel Bure did it in 1999-2000 and 2000-01 and if he tops the mark again this year, he'll be the first since John LeClair did it from 1996-98 to three-peat.

Of particular interest to poolies, Spezza likes his chances.

"Heatley? Fifty again? Why not?" he says.

Accomplishing the feat would likely open up a few chequebooks around the league, too, and the Senators know it, so they sat down with Heatley's agents, J.P. Barry and Stacey McAlpine on Thursday.

However, the Heatley camp is reportedly seeking $8.5 million a season while Ottawa came in at the $7-million range. Heatley's agents have said they won't negotiate once the season begins, so time is running out to get a deal done.

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A closer look at the Ottawa Senators heading into the 2007-08 NHL season:

Last Year: 48-25-9, fourth in the Eastern Conference, Stanley Cup finalists.

Who's In: Shean Donovan, Luke Richardson.

Who's Out: Tom Preissing, Mike Comrie, Peter Schaefer, Oleg Saprykin.

The Storylines: Will the Senators avoid the injury bug they largely managed to avoid last year? Can Ray Emery regain his form after off-season surgery? Will the Senators be able to take the final step?

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