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Senators look for more after last season's rebound

by John Kreiser
The disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2008-09 has turned to optimism in Ottawa.

One season after seeing their 12-year streak of making the playoffs ended amid a coaching change and surviving an offseason that ended with the trade of two-time 50-goal scorer Dany Heatley, the Senators bounced back with a solid season that saw them finish fifth in the Eastern Conference. Coach Cory Clouston, in his first full season -- he took over Feb. 2, 2009 -- got the Senators back into the playoffs despite injuries that saw top-six forwards Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Alex Kovalev miss substantial portions of the season, plus the loss of starting goaltender Pascal Leclaire for almost half the season.

The Sens' 44-32-6 mark and 94 points represented a big improvement from their 36-35-11 record, 83 points and 11th-place finish in 2008-09. Not even a first-round playoff loss to Pittsburgh was enough to negate the improvement or dampen the optimism in Canada's capital. The Senators actually won twice in Pittsburgh but were unable to take any of the three games at Scotiabank Place, where they had won 26 times in 41-regular-season games.

That loss showed GM Bryan Murray that there's still plenty of work to be done if the Senators are to get back to the Stanley Cup Final, a feat they achieved just three years ago. Murray opted not to tinker with his core group of forwards, hoping that better health for players like Spezza and Michalek will provide more goals. He made some adjustments on defense but opted to stay with his goaltending tandem of Leclaire and Brian Elliott, a 2003 ninth-round pick who helped save the season when Leclaire was injured.

But expect the Senators to play the same kind of game they did last season, with aggressiveness up front and a focus on puck movement from the defense.

The Senators opted to let a key piece of their blue line leave when Anton Volchenkov, one of the NHL's top shot-blockers, signed a long-term contract with New Jersey. Volchenkov has been credited with more blocked shots than any other player since the NHL began keeping that statistic five years ago, but those numbers were down during the past couple of seasons, and Murray chose not to make a lengthy investment in a player who doesn't generate much offense and missed 18 games last season due to injuries.

Murray also opted not to bring back two late-season acquisitions, center Matt Cullen (Minnesota) and defenseman Andy Sutton (Anaheim).

The only other major departure was forward Jonathan Cheechoo, part of the package the Senators received from San Jose in the Heatley deal. He was bought out of his contract after scoring just 5 goals in 61 games, continuing his slide from a career-best of 56 goals in 2005-06.

The Senators made a big splash in the opening hours of free agency by signing defenseman Sergei Gonchar away from Pittsburgh. Gonchar's skills as a power-play quarterback should fill a huge hole for the Senators and were enough to convince Murray that the 36-year-old defenseman was worth a three-year deal, reportedly worth about $16.5 million.

That's a big investment in a player on the far side of 35, but Gonchar has been among the best point-producers on defense for the past decade, and when healthy has showed no signs of slowing down. He has missed time with injuries during the last couple of seasons, always a concern for an older player. But Gonchar also brings a Stanley Cup ring (from Pittsburgh in 2009) and should bring out the best from players like Spezza and captain Daniel Alfredsson.

The Senators also added depth to their system by signing defenseman David Hale and forward Mario Lessard. Both may start the season with Binghamton, the Senators' AHL farm team, but give Ottawa some NHL-ready talent that can step in when injuries hit.

The addition of Gonchar gives the Senators even more depth on the blue line and should boost the power play. With youngsters like 2009 first-round picks Jared Cowen and David Rundblad (from St. Louis) knocking on the door, the Senators could deal a defenseman if Murray wants to add a top-six forward.

The question up front is health. Michalek only recently began skating again after undergoing knee surgery in the spring. Kovalev, now 37, also is coming off knee surgery that kept him out of the playoffs. Alfredsson had sports hernia surgery and turns 38 in December, but he's still a point-a-game player and the face of the franchise. Spezza missed 22 games with a knee injury but was dynamite when he returned, helping to spur the midseason burst that revived the Senators' season.

If the big guns can stay healthy, the Senators have good support troops, such as center Mike Fisher and forwards like Jarkko Ruutu and Chris Neil. Youngster Peter Regin, who had 13 goals in his first full NHL season, has the potential to score a lot more.

The Senators paid a big price to bring Leclaire over from Columbus at the 2009 trade deadline, only to see him get hurt again last season. Elliott saved the season, leading Ottawa on a couple of long winning streaks in the second half of the season. He finished 29-18-4 with five shutouts and a 2.57 goals-against average; the question is whether he can do it again. If not, the Senators have to hope Leclaire's injury problems are over and he can play like the goaltender who had nine shutouts for Columbus in 2007-08.

The Senators were at the top of the heap among the Eastern Conference's second tier of playoff teams last season. To go any higher, Gonchar must boost the power play, the top-six forwards have to be healthier and one of the two goaltenders must assert himself.

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