The Ottawa Senators took their fans on an incredible roller coaster ride last season, one general manager Bryan Murray believes was started by having such a young team that was also adjusting to life with a new coach.
Faced with very low expectations coming off a season when the Senators finished 13th in the Eastern Conference (19 points out of a playoff spot), Ottawa began as everyone expected with a 1-5-0 start.
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However, that was followed by a six-game winning streak, then a five-game skid and a three-game winning streak, providing an early indication of how the Senators would play a season marked by extreme peaks and valleys, culminating in a Game 7 defeat in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of the top-seeded New York Rangers.
But with coach Paul MacLean's system -- based heavily on conditioning and relentless skating -- now installed, and with a lot more stability on the roster, Murray hopes the Senators' surprise success last season can carry over to the beginning of this one.
"It very definitely should give us a bit of a springboard this year," Murray told NHL.com over the summer. "Our finish and our performance in the playoffs last season gave us some confidence that we're going in the right direction."
The offseason wasn't just about stability for Murray, however, as the roster turnover was still significant. Nick Foligno, Filip Kuba and Matt Carkner were the most important of Ottawa's player departures, but Murray restocked his roster with an eye toward improving his club defensively.
The Senators finished 24th in the NHL last season with 2.88 goals allowed per game, 29th in the League with 32 shots allowed per game, and 20th on the penalty kill at 81.6 percent. So Murray went out and acquired physical, shutdown defenseman Marc Methot from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Foligno, and signed Mike Lundin as a free agent to supplement the existing core of Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson and veterans Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar on the back end.
Lundin suffered a broken finger playing in Europe and will miss the start of the season. Another young defenseman, budding star Jared Cowen, underwent hip surgery in November and is expected to miss the entire season. It's a big blow; Cowen played in all 82 games last season as a rookie, compiling five goals and 17 points.
Among the forwards, Murray has confidence that young checkers Erik Condra, Kaspars Daugavins and Jim O’Brien will continue to make strides this season and help shore up the penalty kill.
The goaltending situation will see a battle between prospect Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop for the backup position behind Craig Anderson, who was an absolute workhorse last season until he injured his hand in a domestic mishap on Feb 22. At that point, Anderson had appeared in 54 of Ottawa's 62 games played, and he played in seven of the team's final eight games to end the season.
Anderson could take on a similar workload this season due in part to the shortened schedule, but the hope is either Lehner or Bishop can compete for ice time after the departure of last season's backup, Alex Auld. During the work stoppage, Lehner saw the bulk of the duty in Binghamton (AHL), posting the league's second-best goals-against average and save percentage.
The Senators had fewer problems offensively last season, finishing fourth in the League with 2.96 goals per game and 11th on the power play at 18.2 percent, but there will be some changes among the forwards as well.
To replace Foligno's 15 goals and 47 points, Murray took a chance on Guillaume Latendresse with a one-year, $1.2 million contract. He is hoping that Latendresse is not only fully recovered from the concussion issues that plagued him in his time with the Minnesota Wild, but also that he can use his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame to create space on a line that will most likely include Kyle Turris and captain Daniel Alfredsson by providing a strong net presence.
"He's a big body who can go to the net," Murray said of Latendresse. "The one thing we've been talking to him about is his foot speed and making sure he can keep up with those guys."
One of Ottawa's trio of promising young forwards -- Jakob Silfverberg, Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone -- to grab a top-line forward spot alongside Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, a job held last season by Colin Greening. Silfverberg and Stone are right-handed shots and could slide into the right wing spot on that line -- allowing Michalek to move back to his natural left wing -- while Greening shoots from the left side.
"It very definitely should give us a bit of a springboard this year. Our finish and our performance in the playoffs last season gave us some confidence that we're going in the right direction." -- Senators GM Bryan Murray
Silfverberg, who made his NHL debut during last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, leads Binghamton in scoring.
Regardless of how things play out among the forwards, the key cog in the Senators offensive engine remains Karlsson. At 22 years old, Karlsson set the bar extremely high for himself with a historic 78-point season, but Murray still sees lots of room for improvement in his young defenseman.
A mirror image of his team, Karlsson's season was one filled with ups and downs. A perfect example was an 11-game stretch from Jan. 16-Feb. 9 when Karlsson managed two goals and two assists, but he followed that with a torrid eight-game point streak when he compiled seven goals and 11 assists.
Not surprisingly, Ottawa's record during Karlsson's 11-game dry spell was 3-7-1, and its record in the following eight games was 6-1-1.
Murray expects Karlsson's maturation process will help improve not only his game in his own end, but also his consistency and his ability to make adjustments to other teams targeting him the way the Rangers did in the playoffs by getting his teammates more involved.
"I think that's where he'll get better," Murray said. "I think he understands that it doesn't have to be about him, that it's about the group."
And if Karlsson does in fact improve on his prolific Norris Trophy season, the Senators as a group can expect to improve along with him.