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Senators 'setting the bar high' for new season

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Senators blueliner Matt Carkner prepares to take a stretching test while coach Marc Power looks on during the opening day of training camp at Scotiabank Place (Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photogrpahy/OSHC).

Hope always springs eternal across the National Hockey League on this, the opening day of training camp.

Listen closely to anyone associated with the Ottawa Senators, though, and it quickly becomes apparent that a true sense of optimism is floating through the hallways at Scotiabank Place, which was a beehive of activity earlier today as medicals and fitness testing officially launched the 2010-11 campaign.

"We will set (the bar) pretty high for ourselves," Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said as 50 players began preparations for the season to come. "We've got high expectations, with (all our) guys being healthy.

"Everything is geared toward us having a nice, good training camp and starting the regular season. It's a good feeling and it's a lot of fun to be starting this process."

Buoying the optimism is the way the Senators finished last season. They pushed the defending Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins to six games before bowing out in the first round and did it without veterans Alex Kovalev, Milan Michalek and Filip Kuba — all shelved by injuries — and with Alfredsson playing through a sports hernia injury that required off-season surgery.

"After the way last season ended, we have some motivation coming into this one, that's for sure," said defenceman Matt Carkner. "I think we know that if we could have got past Pittsburgh ... you never know would have happened. We were so close to going far in the playoffs.

"Basically, we're hungry to get going and we're not looking that far ahead right now. I think we have some expectations that we want to do a little better each year. As a team right now, we're looking pretty good."

Indeed, head coach Cory Clouston suggested the team the Senators will send onto the ice for the season-opener against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 8 won't come close to resembling the unit that tangled with the Penguins. If for no other reason than defenceman Sergei Gonchar — one of the league's top power-play quarterbacks — switched sides, signing with Ottawa as a free agent on July 1.

"There are a couple of openings, I believe. I think it's going to take a great camp by somebody to make it a real tough decision for us. But we want to win games. So if a guy has a great training camp, we can't just discount him because we have a certain amount of contracts. We'll have to find a way to make somebody fit if indeed they blow our socks off. I think it'll take a performance like that to get his foot in the door, but we've seen it before." - Tim Murray
"Guys like Kuba, Michalek and Kovalev (are returning from injury) and with the addition of Gonchar ... those are four pretty important players," said Clouston. "We (also) had guys that went through some nagging injuries through most of last season and, in speaking with those players, they feel they're as close to being 100 per cent as they can be right now."

Gonchar's signing by general manager Bryan Murray sent a "good message" to the rest of the team that the Senators intend to become serious contenders in the Eastern Conference, said goaltender Pascal Leclaire.

"We want to be right in there and with Sergei coming in, he's going to help us a lot," said Leclaire. "He's one of the best defencemen in the league. We all know in the group, too, that we want to go as long as possible. With the way last year went, we believe we're ready to take a step forward and Sergei's going to help us do that."

Already, Gonchar knows there is a lot being placed on his shoulders, but he is also very much aware that he'll hardly be working alone on an island.

"If I look around this room, every one of the forwards is a skilled guy," he said. "This team is very dangerous offensively, I can tell you that."

While the high volume of players locked into one-way contracts and the salary cap would suggest there is very little room for a newcomer to crack the roster, a number of young prospects are going to at least try. That group would include highly-regarded blueliners Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch, along with forwards Zack Smith, Bobby Butler, Roman Wick, Mike Hoffman and Corey Locke.

"There are a couple guys on the blue line and there are three or four up front that have a legitimate chance," said assistant general manager Tim Murray. "There are a couple of openings, I believe. I think it's going to take a great camp by somebody to make it a real tough decision for us. But we want to win games.

"So if a guy has a great training camp, we can't just discount him because we have a certain amount of contracts. We'll have to find a way to make somebody fit if indeed they blow our socks off. I think it'll take a performance like that to get his foot in the door, but we've seen it before."

Around the boards

Clouston indicated players such as Alfredsson, Kovalev and Michalek, who are just back from major surgery, likely won't play in the Senators' first two pre-season games. "We expect them to be 100 per cent but we're also going to be smart," he said. "We're going to monitor their progress as camp goes on." ...  While Michalek said he feels "pretty comfortable now about my knee and really confident," he knows the real test is yet to come. "The big test is going to be in the games and when I get to (taking) contact," said the Czech winger. "That's going to be the biggest test for it" ... A year ago, defenceman Erik Karlsson was a teenage rookie taking his first steps in a new country while fighting to land a spot on the team. But the 20-year-old Swede enters this season as one of the team's top blueliners. "I can focus a little bit more on the hockey this year, I think," said Karlsson. "I got settled in last year, so it might be a little easier to focus on some other things this year."



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