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Sens getting younger, but are they getting better?

by Brian Compton /
There is a youth movement going on in Canada's capital city, and a new coach to oversee it.


Record: 32-40-10, 74 points, 13th in East

Paul MacLean (1st season)

Interesting fact: Ottawa's AHL affiliate, the B-Sens, won the Calder Cup this summer for the first time in franchise history. The team was led by many players who appeared in games for Ottawa this season, including Erik Condra, Zack Smith and Colin Greening.
For the second time in three years, the Ottawa Senators failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season -- a fact that cost coach Cory Clouston his job. But with former Detroit assistant Paul MacLean the new bench boss in Ottawa, the Senators -- whose AHL affiliate is coming off its first Calder Cup championship -- are hopeful that good times are ahead.

MacLean, 53, spent the past six seasons as Mike Babcock's assistant in Detroit and helped the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in 2008. It's his first head-coaching gig in the NHL, but he did lead the UHL's Quad City Mallards to a stunning .787 winning percentage (112-27-9) over two seasons at the turn of the century.

It will be MacLean's job to oversee the maturation of what will be a young team with a lot of promise. Sure, veteran mainstays such as Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Chris Phillips are back, but eight players are 25 or younger. That doesn't include 21-year-old Nikita Filatov, who was acquired via trade from Columbus on draft weekend.


1. Who will be the team's second-line center?
The position is up for grabs, and there are several players looking to step up to fill the void. One of those players is Mika Zibanejad, the No. 6 pick of the 2011 Draft. He'll get a good look out of camp -- and could also be the team's No. 1 center of the future. Also in consideration? Peter Regin, Zack Smith and Erik Condra.

2. Can Nikita Filatov be a regular contributor?
There's no question the 21-year-old has talent -- that's why the Blue Jackets chose him with the No. 6 pick at the 2008 Entry Draft. But for some reason, things haven't panned out thus far for the Russian winger. A change of scenery might help, and if Filatov has a good training camp, he can compete for a top-six forward spot.

3. What does the future look like for the Senators?
The future looks very, very bright. Ottawa has a strong group of youngsters -- including goaltender Robin Lehner, forwards Bobby Butler, Erik Condra, Colin Greening and Zack Smith -- who are ready to make the jump as big-time NHL contributors. Not only are they talented, but they know how to win. That group led the Sens' AHL affiliate to a Calder Cup this summer, the first in franchise history.

-- Emily Kaplan
Goaltending will be key for this group, which is why GM Bryan Murray didn't even wait for the season to end before he signed Craig Anderson to a four-year, $12.75 million extension. Anderson won 11 of his 18 appearances and had a 2.05 goals-against average after being acquired via trade from Colorado in February. Murray shored up his tandem in July when he signed Alex Auld to be Anderson's backup.

Ottawa's 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season allowed Murray to pluck Mika Zibanejad with the No. 6 selection in the Entry Draft. The skilled center was one of three first-round picks by Ottawa this summer, as some wheeling and dealing by also allowed the Senators to select Stefan Noesen (No. 21) and Matt Puempel (No. 24). While it's unlikely any of the three will land in the NHL this season, the future for this franchise is certainly bright.

After reaching career highs in both goals (11) and points (27), 28-year-old winger Ryan Shannon left the club via free agency last month and signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Also gone is Marek Svatos, who was claimed off waivers from Nashville in February but was limited to just 19 games due to concussions. He remains an unrestricted free agent.

Three of Ottawa's six goaltenders from last season also won't be back. Curtis McElhinney, who went 3-4-0 in seven appearances for the Sens, signed with the Phoenix Coyotes as a free agent. Oft-injured Pascal Leclaire and Mike Brodeur remain on the market.

Fourth-line center Zenon Konopka joins the Senators and will provide the club with plenty of faceoff victories -- and penalty minutes. Konopka appeared in all 82 games for the New York Islanders last season and led the NHL with 307 penalty minutes. The next closest was Ottawa's Chris Neil, who had 210.


Bobby Butler, RW -- It's not easy to reach the NHL when you don't get drafted, but this 24-year-old winger managed to accomplish that feat. The University of New Hampshire product appeared in 36 games for Ottawa last season and did not look out of place whatsoever, tallying 21 points (10 goals and 11 assists) before scoring 13 goals in Binghamton's run to the AHL title. He signed a two-year, one-way deal with Ottawa on July 14.

Sergei Gonchar, D -- If the Senators are going to have any shot at qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season, they're going to need more from their top defenseman. Gonchar, who signed a three-year, $16.5 million deal with Ottawa last summer, was held to just 27 points and was a minus-15 in 67 games in 2010-11.

Erik Condra, RW -- A tremendous find at the 2006 Entry Draft, this seventh-round pick burst on to the scene last season and tallied 11 points (6 goals, 5 assists) in 26 games. The 25-year-old played a major role in helping Binghamton win the Calder Cup as he had 17 points (5 goals, 12 assists) in 23 contests. He figures to be a full-time player in Ottawa this season after signing a one-way deal in July.
Auld, a journeyman backup, is now in Ottawa after signing a one-year deal last month. This will be Auld's second stint with the Senators -- he went 16-18-7 with a 2.47 GAA for the club in 2008-09. Auld was 6-2-2 with a 2.64 GAA in 16 appearances for Montreal last season.

The wild-card for Ottawa this season could be Filatov. The Russian winger was highly touted when he was taken with the sixth pick by the Blue Jackets at the 2008 Entry Draft, but Filatov only appeared in 44 NHL games over three seasons and had 6 goals and 7 assists. He was shipped to Ottawa in June for a third-round pick. Could he put it all together under MacLean? If he does, it will be a steal for the Senators.

The Senators have missed the playoffs twice in three seasons after making the postseason 11 times in row. If they plan on ending their slump, they're going to need to buy into MacLean's system from Day One and also get both durability and production from their veterans.

That means Alfredsson, the team captain who has been a part of the organization since 1994, needs to bounce back from an injury-plagued season that barely saw him break the 30-point plateau. It also means Spezza needs to stay on the ice and return to the form he exhibited from 2005-09, when he gave opponents fits on a nightly basis and tallied 87 points or more in three of those four seasons.

The bottom line is that this is a team in transition. In order for the Senators to return to the playoffs, they're likely going to have to overachieve. It's a safe bet that MacLean will do everything he can to change the culture and bring a winning attitude. But does he have the horses to tally victories consistently? Time will tell.

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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