OTTAWA - It wasn't all that long ago the Ottawa Senators were considered to be among the elite of the NHL's Eastern Conference, but times have changed and so have their expectations.
The past couple of training camps featured talk of the Senators taking another crack at the Stanley Cup that eluded them when they lost the 2007 final. This year however, the players have a more modest achievement in mind.
"We should be able to fight for a playoff spot and make the playoffs, that's our goal," captain Daniel Alfredsson said during training camp.
Back-to-back dismal seasons have dialled back the expectation levels around Canada's capital. Last season's tumultuous ride, ending with a playoff-less spring in Ottawa for the first time since 1996, was particularly disheartening for the team and its followers.
But there's reason to think the Senators won't suffer the same fate this time around. Even after a summer in which the black cloud of disgruntled star Dany Heatley hung over the team, there's cause for optimism, albeit conservative, in Ottawa.
"Our team looks deeper than it's been in a long time," centre Jason Spezza said. "The morale around here is pretty good right now."
"There's lots of new faces. Sometimes change is needed and that's what we've gone through here. We had a couple of years where we haven't been very good and underachieved and we've probably needed this change. Now that we've (got) it, we're pretty excited about the season ahead."
During the off-season, the Senators didn't offer contracts to Mike Comrie and defenceman Brendan Bell, allowed veteran blue-liner Jason Smith to retire and traded away goaltender Alex Auld.
General manager Bryan Murray made a splash in the free-agent market by signing sniper Alex Kovalev to a US$10-million, two-year deal.
And, of course, the biggest move - and most drawn-out saga - was the trade that saw Heatley dealt to the San Jose Sharks.
Despite losing a two-time 50-goal scorer and the franchise record-holder for most goals (50) and points (105) in a season, the Senators received wingers Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo from the Sharks, players who could help solve the Senators' long-standing problem of secondary scoring.
Cheechoo scored 56 goals to win the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's top sniper in 2005-06, but his declining production since - seasons of 37, 23 and just 12 goals last season - suggest that was a one-time deal. However, expecting 20 goals from the 29-year-old, who's finally healthy after battling injury problems, isn't that far of a stretch.
Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Michalek appears to be the key to the deal for the Senators. The six-foot-two, 225-pound Czech, who has scored 26, 24 and 23 goals the past three seasons, gives them an added element of size and speed.
Either Michalek or Nick Foligno, who scored 17 goals last season, will fill Heatley's role at left wing on the top line alongside Spezza and Alfredsson. Cheechoo is expected to play right wing with Ryan Shannon at centre on the third line.
"You're never going to replace Dany Heatley, but the parts we've brought in have really given us a lot of depth," Spezza said. "Any night, any of our lines can hurt you and that's something that we haven't had as much in the last couple of years, so I think we're a stronger team than we were last year."
Then there's the addition of Kovalev, who is coming off an inconsistent season in Montreal. He bristles at the notion that he's under any pressure to produce, but, given his skills, he'll be heavily counted on to help carry the offence.
"I don't have any pressure," he said. "I don't have to prove anything. I'm just excited to be with this team. For me, I'm just trying to rebuild what I started with the previous team. I believe this team can go pretty far.
"This team has a lot of talent. There's so many possibilities, you can make the lines so many different kinds of ways and the lines can still be successful."
Danish centre Peter Regin is expected to make the jump from Binghamton of the American Hockey League to at least start the season with the big club. The Senators were so impressed with the work of the 23-year-old, who had a goal and an assist in 11 NHL games last season, that they moved Mike Fisher to left wing with Kovalev joining them on the team's second line.
Defencemen Erik Karlsson and Matt Carkner may also be given a shot to make the roster.
The Sens hope the 19-year-old Karlsson will eventually blossom into a top offensive defenceman, while the six-foot-four, 229-pound Carkner gives them a tough presence on the blue-line.
Another new face is goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who was acquired in March from the Columbus Blue Jackets along with a draft pick for centre Antoine Vermette.
He has yet to play a regular-season game for Ottawa after having last season cut short by ankle surgery. Now that he's fully recovered, the Senators are counting on him to finally provide stability in another position that's been a sore spot for years.
"I don't know what happened (before)," said Leclaire, who, like Kovalev, shrugs off the idea that there's any added pressure on him. "To me, the real pressure is coming from gaining the confidence of my teammates and earning their trust."
Coach Cory Clouston says the 26-year-old native of Repentigny, Que., provides the Senators with a "calming presence."
The downside to Leclaire is that he's had a history of injury problems over his first four full NHL seasons. When healthy, he's shown he's more than capable of being a No. 1 goaltender. His best season was in 2007-08 when he posted a 24-17-6 record, 2.25 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 54 games.
"He's a good goalie, there's no question," Alfredsson said. "It's a step up in that area for us. It's too early to critique his game, but he's a level-headed guy who can handle ups and downs well."
The Senators wrapped up their pre-season Friday night with a 2-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, finishing exhibition play with a 2-4 record. The first regular-season test comes Oct. 3 at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.
After that, Ottawa plays 16 of its next 22 games at home, and a quick start to the season will give the team and its fans even more reason to feel good.
"I think we're a better team," said Clouston, who led the Senators to a 19-11-4 finish after taking over when Craig Hartsburg was fired in February.
"What we've done is we've balanced out some scoring, we have more options. I think we're more dangerous from top to bottom. You can't just key on one line and I think that's very important."