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Senators need all veteran hands on deck for success

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
While the Ottawa Senators will ice a much more youthful lineup in 2011-12, veterans such as goaltender Craig Anderson figure to have a big impact on the team's level of success (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).

Youth will indeed be served in Ottawa this season.

But the level of success the Senators might enjoy will depend greatly on the ability of the team's veterans to elevate their games in the 2011-12 campaign.

The Senators have made no secret of their plan to ice a much younger lineup when they assemble for training camp in less than a month's time. That became very evident midway through last season, when Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray unloaded half a dozen veterans and began a retooling of the team's roster.

While the likes of Bobby Butler, Colin Greening and Erik Condra will be given plenty of opportunity to build on the National Hockey League experience they gained toward the end of last season, assistant general manager Tim Murray said it's also vital that veterans such as blueliner Sergei Gonchar rebound from the disappointment of a year ago.

"We have a few guys in that category and I hope we're not overstating it," Murray told XM Radio's NHL Home Ice in looking toward the season to come. "But I think we're being realistic in saying they're going to have bounce-back years. No disrespect to some of our players, but we weren't very good last year and I think there's a great opportunity for a couple of our older guys to bounce back, show the league that they're (still good) players and help our young guys get better."

Murray is confident that Gonchar can be one of those players. The 37-year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Russia, had scored at least 50 points in nine of 10 seasons when he signed with the Senators last summer. However, his first year in Ottawa — which was cut short by injury — mirrored that of his team, as Gonchar scored just seven goals and 27 points.

However, Gonchar's history suggests that production should increase in 2010-11.

"We're certainly expecting a lot from Sergei," said Murray. "In his past, you've seen the bounce back from him in his second year when he's changed teams, and we fully expect him to come in with a great attitude this year. I think he's excited again — and (new Senators head coach) Paul MacLean has something to do with that — and he'll get back to being the Sergei Gonchar that the fans and players know."

After ranking 29th among NHL teams in goal scoring a year ago, the Senators clearly need to add some jump to their offence. And returning veterans, Murray said, will also be key in that area, as Ottawa didn't add anyone via the free agency route this summer, although potential impact scorer Nikita Filatov was acquired in a draft-day trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"We certainly stayed away from the July 1 (free agency) hijinks and all the money that was being thrown around," said Murray. "But we didn't feel we were in a position to add a veteran guy that would help us immediately with the direction we're going and what we have here.

"So Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek and those guys will be counted on heavily to score. But now we get to see if Bobby Butler can do it consistently at the NHL level, and Colin Greening and those (young) guys ... hopefully, the way they played in the NHL last year is the way they're going to come out this year and they'll show us they have graduated from being AHL players."

Perhaps the area of least concern is between the pipes, where Craig Anderson's strong play after his arrival from the Colorado Avalanche earned him a new four-year contract. While Alex Auld was signed as a free agent to back up Anderson, the Senators aren't ruling out the possibility that 20-year-old Robin Lehner might work his way into the mix. The Swedish netminder was named the American Hockey League's playoff MVP after backstopping the Binghamton Senators to the Calder Cup crown.

"Craig wasn't with us (to start) last year and then he came in and played tremendous," said Murray. "He looked like a bona fide No. 1 starter and we felt that, and that's why he got the contract he did. We're ready to move on with him and go long distance with him. Alex was brought in to be a backup and he knows his role quite well ... I think he'll be a good complement to Craig.

"Robin won a championship at 19 years old and he's probably looking (at the situation) and thinking that he doesn't have a chance. We have plans, but he could come to camp and make us change our plans. He was outstanding in the (AHL) playoffs last year and he's only 20 years old. So I think our goaltending has gone from probably a weakness in our organization to a real strength."

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