OTTAWA - There was plenty of room for optimism when the Ottawa Senators opened training camp Friday and for good reason.
After a dismal 2010-11 season, the only direction to go is up for the NHL club.
"It's a new year and there's a lot of optimism. It starts from scratch and last year's in the past now," centre Jason Spezza said as players reported to Scotiabank Place for medicals and fitness testing. "Whether it's a good year or a bad year the year before, you always have to regroup yourself as a player and as a team and that's what we're going to be striving for is to get better every day."
The Senators have plenty of room for improvement after finishing 13th among the Eastern Conference's 15 teams last season and 26th overall. Ottawa's 32-40-10 record for 74 points was only two points better than the last-place Florida Panthers in the east and 19 out of playoff spot.
The performance prompted a roster overhaul that began before the trade deadline and culminated with the firing of coach Cory Clouston after the team missed out on the post-season for the second time in three years.
With former Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Paul MacLean taking over from Clouston, the Senators decided a rebuild was the way to go.
Where the playoffs used to be a given around the nation's capital, the Senators are taking care not to set expectations too high for the coming year.
"We're taking the step of building a foundation for the future of this team and (the playoffs) might not be this year, they could be next year and tomorrow we're going to start going A-B-C, so it's going to be a slow process, but it is a process in mind," said MacLean, who brought in former Ontario Hockey League head coaches Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds to be his assistants for his first NHL head coaching job. "I know where we want to go and a lot of people here want to go to the same place and we want to be patient and do it the right way."
The right way, says the 53-year-old MacLean, will be to make sure the Senators' effort levels are consistent every night, something that Clouston wasn't able to get out of his players.
Because of that, veterans such as Mike Fisher, Chris Campoli, Jarkko Ruutu, Alex Kovalev and Brian Elliott were traded away before the deadline and Ryan Shannon wasn't re-signed in the off-season.
"Realistically, we expect to be competitive every day," MacLean said. "Today, we're getting them ready for physicals. Tomorrow, we're going to try to get better every day, but our competition level is something that we control as a team and as a group and we expect that that level is going to be high and we can be competitive."
With several American Hockey League call-ups in the lineup after the trade deadline and, most importantly, the steadying presence of goalie Craig Anderson, acquired in a deal with the Colorado Avalanche for Elliott, Clouston managed to coax a respectable finish to the season out of the team. It wasn't enough to save his job, but it did allow general manager Bryan Murray to blood some new players and help restore the confidence of veterans like Jason Spezza, who'd been hampered by injuries earlier in the season.
"The way we finished last year, we finished pretty strong with a lot of young guys, we're looking forward to continuing that and starting the year with a fresh start," Anderson said Friday. "Everyone's got a clean slate and everyone's starting from Square 1, so it'll be good to get everyone in camp here and raise up the effort levels and really try to impress the coaching staff."
The Senators are confident they are on the right track with the mix of youth and experience, skill and toughness they've assembled. They'll start to get a better idea of how they look when the exhibition season opens Monday night in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.
"I don't know where we are as far as a team overall, but I know we have some very good veterans here, we have some good leadership here and with a new coaching staff and with the approach that they're going to take — I really think that energy is a big part of our league now, speed is a big part of our league — and I think we've been OK in that area," Murray said.
After Anderson, Spezza, who missed 20 games with a back injury, was the Senators' best player down the stretch, finishing with 23 points over the final 15 games and he'll be counted on to lead the offensive charge again this year.
He stands to fare better if he and captain Daniel Alfredsson can stay healthy.
The team's elder statesman, Alfredsson will turn 39 in December. He's coming off surgery in the off-season to fix a problem that limited him to a career-low 54 games and just 31 points.
He hasn't played since February, but has been given a clean bill of health, along with a couple of other players who endured sub-standard seasons before being sidelined by injuries in defenceman Sergei Gonchar (concussion) and centre Peter Regin (shoulder surgery).
During their absences, Binghamton call-ups Erik Condra and Colin Greening earned themselves NHL contracts in the off-season with their play.
Defenceman Erik Karlsson was arguably the only member of the Senators to emerge from the year with his reputation enhanced after breaking out offensively with 13 goals and 45 points.
While the parent club struggled, the Binghamton Senators went on to capture the Calder Cup as AHL champions with several players coming through as contenders for jobs on the NHL roster and Ottawa's lineup has more openings at the start of camp than it has in previous years.
In the off-season, the Senators added gritty centre Zenon Konopka, a faceoff specialist with a penchant for dropping the gloves, and backup goalie Alex Auld through free agency and embarked on a reclamation project in trading for former Columbus first-round pick Nikita Filatov at the NHL draft, who has yet to fulfil his potential.
Ottawa made a big splash at the draft with picks it stockpiled through the trades of veterans before the deadline.
The Senators' first pick, No. 6 overall, was Swedish forward Mika Zibanejad and, by all accounts, he stood out last week at rookie camp, as did fellow centre Stephane Da Costa, who joined Ottawa late last season as a free-agent signing out of Merrimack College.
The Senators also have high hopes for Swedish defenceman David Rundblad, who was the Swedish Elite League's top defenceman last season, and blue-liner Jared Cowen, who played last year with the Western Hockey League's Spokane Chiefs before joining Binghamton for the playoffs. MacLean confirmed those players are all in the mix for the NHL roster.
Regin, Da Costa and MacLean will all get a look as the Senators try to find a second-line centre. Another dilemma for MacLean in training camp will be trying to find room for so many defencemen. Ottawa has six on one-way contracts in addition to those trying to crack the team like Rundblad and Cowen.
"There's also competition within the team for ice time, who's going to play on the power play, who's going to kill penalties, who gets to play 4-on-4, who's good in the faceoff circle," MacLean said. "I think that's good for the organization that we have the quality of players that there is going to be competition."