|Senators forward Zack Smith, who made the team out of training camp this year after being the last cut in two previous tries, has impressed general manager Bryan Murray with the improvement level he's already displayed (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
The Northeast Division is a highly competitive place to reside in the National Hockey League.
But by the time the dust settles in April, Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray believes the team can contend strongly for top spot in a grouping that also includes the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. Four of the five teams made the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, but all expect to be improved in 2010-11.
"We're all pretty good teams here," Murray told reporters earlier today in assessing his division rivals a few days before the start of a new campaign. "Boston is the bigger, more physical group. I think adding (Nathan) Horton ... lots of people questioned him before, but I really think he's a good young player who will help them. (Milan) Lucic getting healthy will be a factor, there's no question. I like them as a real strong hockey team.
As for the defending-champion Sabres, Murray said "any team that Lindy Ruff coaches is a good team. Ryan Miller (the 2009-10 Vezina Trophy winner) in goal really helps them. I'm not sure if they've made a lot of moves, but they're a real good team."
Murray has also heard that the Canadiens and Maple Leafs both expect to field stronger outfits this season. But he believes the Senators have made the necessary upgrades "to have a chance to be right there" with the Bruins as top contenders for the Northeast title, which would also bring with it no worse than a No. 3 seeding in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Senators should present a team that Murray believes can show a stronger level of puck possession at both ends of the ice, which he feels will be one of the team's biggest strengths.
"Puck skills are going to be upgraded," said Murray. "I think our depth at forward is certainly going to be good. Cory (Clouston, the Senators' head coach) is going to be able to play four lines on a regular basis, if he wanted to do that, and get production from all four.
"Another real strength, I think, is the mobility in the back end. It addresses a big need in the league, the way the games are today and the way the style of hockey is today."
However, Murray did acknowledge the need to see stronger performances from goaltenders Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott than he saw throughout the pre-season. But the Senators GM is also confident he'll get it once the puck drops for real starting Friday, when the Sabres visit Scotiabank Place for Ottawa's home and season-opener (7:30 p.m., Rogers Sportsnet East, Team 1200).
"Puck skills are going to be upgraded. I think our depth at forward is certainly going to be good. Cory (Clouston, the Senators' head coach) is going to be able to play four lines on a regular basis, if he wanted to do that, and get production from all four. Another real strength, I think, is the mobility in the back end. It addresses a big need in the league, the way the games are today and the way the style of hockey is today." - Bryan Murray
"Both of them will be fine," said Murray. "The focus will be different now. We're down to our (final) group, we'll get some good practice time and they'll just get comfortable. We know their capability. There are a few guys on our team that didn’t have great camps and it’s not just goaltending.
"I’m expecting that when they drop the puck for real ... they will be what we thought they are. That’s all you ever ask of a pro. Be what you are and that will be good enough."
Some other thoughts from Murray during today's "state of the Senators" chat with the media:On rookie forward Zack Smith, who made the team on his third try:
"I went over and watched our pro guys practise before camp started and you knew just watching him that he was a different player, ready to go and ready to play. I think that’s what time does for these young people. Zack had to go down last year and whether he was the last cut or not didn’t matter. The fact is, he went down and was a real strong player in the American league and then he got the chance to come back up. Now he’s ready."On top goaltending prospect Robin Lehner:
"He says just put me in, I'm ready to go. I say you have to take time, you have to have some success. You have to go down and play at a level where you’ll get most of the games and we’re hoping for that (in Binghamton). But he’s a very confident young man, a very strong young man and he believes that any time we need him, he’s ready to play."On defenceman Chris Campoli:
"We had some concerns, at times, with Chris last year. But he got an opportunity in training camp, partly because of Filip (Kuba's) injury and partly because of his own play, to get more involved in the offence and I think he’s done a real fine job. Getting points is one thing, but just his overall play is considerably better than we thought going in (to training camp)."On blue-line prospects Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch:
"If we had decided to keep either of them, they probably could have played in the league. We’re trying to do what’s right for these young people and that is to let them be important in important situations. Get lots of ice time and there’s nothing better than that, along with some coaching, to make them players that we believe will be very, very good NHL players in the future."Around the boards
The timetable for the return of defenceman Filip Kuba
, who suffered a broken right leg on the opening day of training camp, hasn't changed. "He's probably going to miss (the first) three weeks of the year," said Murray ... Forwards Mike Fisher and Chris Neil
, who sat out Tuesday's practice in Petawawa to rest some bumps and bruises, are expected to be good to go for Friday's opener ... Fewer than 1,500 tickets
remain for the game against the Sabres, which will feature the full gamut of Red Zone activity for fans in front of Game 1 at Scotiabank Place starting at 5:30 p.m.