The window of opportunity to win a Stanley Cup may finally be closing for the Ottawa Senators.
Ottawa again faces high expectations to avoid the failures of seasons past heading into their season opener Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre against their provincial archrivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Last year, the Senators topped 100 points for the fifth time in seven years. Ottawa also won the Northeast Division title for the fourth time in that span, but again failed to win the Eastern Conference, losing in the semifinals to Buffalo.
General manager John Muckler made several offseason moves, most notably signing free agent goaltender Martin Gerber to a three-year, $11.1 million deal to replace future Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek. Gerber won 38 games for Stanley Cup champion Carolina last season before losing his starting job to eventual Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward.
"We thought he was the best goalie available," Muckler said of Gerber in July. "I think he's going to do a very good job for us. I know he played very well against us. He was the go-to guy all season long. We're happy to have him."
Muckler also was forced to make some difficult decisions to stay under the salary cap. He re-signed defenseman Wade Redden, but had to watch Norris Trophy finalist Zdeno Chara leave via free agency to division rival Boston.
Muckler conceded he would not be able to sign talented but injury-prone right wing Martin Havlat to a long-term contract, and instead shipped him to Chicago as part of a three-way deal that brought back defenseman Tom Priessing from San Jose. Muckler also signed free agent defenseman Joe Corvo, but he will miss at least the first two weeks of the season with a broken foot suffered in the preseason.
Despite the roster shuffle, the Senators are still expected to be among the league's elite thanks to their high-powered offense. Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley set a franchise record with 103 points, and Heatley became the team's first 50-goal scorer in franchise history.
First-line center Jason Spezza had 71 assists and 90 points, while 20-goal scorers Peter Schaefer, Antoine Vermette, Patrick Eaves and Mike Fisher all are expected to receive more ice time with Havlat's departure.
Redden is coming off a career-high 50-point season, and defenseman Andrej Meszaros will be expected to progress further after totaling 39 points and finishing with a player rating of plus-34 his rookie season.
The Maple Leafs also are in a state of flux heading into the season after failing to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1998. General manager John Ferguson fired head coach Pat Quinn and replaced him with Paul Maurice, hoping he will be more trusting of younger players Alexei Ponikavrosky, Alexander Steen, Matthew Stajan and Kyle Wellwood than Quinn was.
Toronto still has a strong veteran presence in holdovers Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle as well as free-agent acquisitions in forward Michael Peca and defensemen Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill. It will be up to Maurice to help Toronto avoid missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 1997-98.
Andrew Raycroft will be starting in goal for the Maple Leafs, who decided against keeping 41-year-old Ed Belfour. Raycroft, acquired from the Bruins in the offseason, won 29 games en route to the 2004 Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie, but fell out of favor during a miserable post-lockout season after going 8-19-0 with a 3.71 goals-against average.
"He's only 26 and he's still getting better as a professional," Ferguson said. "Last season is not reflective of his entire body of work. I'm not sure we make any decisions that don't involved risk. You look around the league and there's only a few guys who've earned starting positions at his age."
Kubina will miss this game to serve a one-game suspension for cross-checking Detroit's Jiri Hudler in Toronto's final preseason game last Sunday.
The Senators embarrassed the Maple Leafs last season, winning seven of the eight games between the teams by a combined 39-19 margin. Alfredsson, Heatley and Spezza combined for 21 goals and 30 assists, and all three players are averaging better than one point per game lifetime against the Leafs.
Sundin, who is four goals shy of 500, has 18 goals and 51 points in 55 lifetime games versus Ottawa.
The teams play again Thursday in Ottawa.