OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators will be sporting more than just new jerseys on their backs when they open the regular season in Toronto on Wednesday night, according to coach John Paddock.
After advancing to the Stanley Cup final in June and running through the pre-season with a perfect 7-0 record, Paddock says the Senators will start the year as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
"We have a target on our back because we're the standard for the east going into the start of the season," he said Tuesday before the team departed for Toronto, where it opens the season against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre.
Paddock, who makes his return to the NHL as a head coach for the first time since 1995, offered up the observation as both an ambition and a warning to his players, who appear to have picked up where they left off last season when they were one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch.
He does make a point.
Last year's top team in the conference, the Buffalo Sabres, had its lineup stripped by free agency. With the exception of the New York Rangers, who added at the expense of Buffalo (Chris Drury) and the New Jersey Devils (Scott Gomez), and the talented Pittsburgh Penguins, who have a year of playoff experience under their belts, no other teams in the east have made significant enough changes to suggest they'll be greatly improved this time around.
Meanwhile, Ottawa experienced no major upheaval in personnel.
However, the Senators watched last year as the Carolina Hurricanes, fresh off a Stanley Cup victory in 2006, stumbled early in the season and failed to even make the playoffs. And no losing finalist has returned to win the Stanley Cup the following year since the Edmonton Oilers managed the feat in 1984. So the Senators have seen how quickly things can change at the top.
"Last year, Carolina was the standard, up through about 10 games because Buffalo didn't lose, then Buffalo became the standard," Paddock said. "That can change, but I hope we are the standard for the east for the rest of the season.
"We have a target on our back, we'd better be ready to play or we're in trouble.
In the dressing room, the Senators head into their opener with the experience of making it to the final providing a boost to the confidence levels.
The Senators, who return home to play host to the Leafs on Thursday, were the only team to complete the pre-season unbeaten.
"There's a confidence that we can be a good team and we can compete and beat the very best teams in the league," left-winger Dany Heatley said. "We know now that we can play like that."
After watching Paddock spend the exhibition schedule searching for a right-winger to play alongside Heatley and centre Jason Spezza, the opener sees Daniel Alfredsson restored to the top line for the opener to reform one of the league's most dangerous trios.
Ottawa will be without No. 1 goaltender Ray Emery (wrist) and checking centre Dean McAmmond (concussion), but rookie left-winger Nick Foligno will get a chance to make his debut in the city in which his father, longtime NHLer Mike, was a fan favourite.
With Emery out at least another seven to 10 days while he tries to recover from off-season surgery, Martin Gerber will hold down the fort.
It was Gerber who took much of the blame after Ottawa got off to a slow start last season. He'll get the chance to redeem himself while the Senators will get the chance to prove there's nothing to the hangover theory.
"You come that close, you have a burning desire to get back there," defenceman Chris Phillips said.