• By: OLM Staff

Ottawa Senators 2011-12 Season Preview

The Ottawa Senators will kick off their 20th anniversary season with a game on Friday, October 7th against the Detroit Red Wings. In preparation for the milestone year, the club has unveiled a new tagline (Hockey Makes Us), as well as a promotional calendar for each of their 41 home games. With hockey season finally here, we present 20 points about this year’s Ottawa Senators.

5 Units

Forwards: With Peter Regin and Jesse Winchester currently injured, the Senators will open the year with 15 forwards on the roster, giving Mika Zibanejad and Stephane Da Costa the chance to prove that they can stick in the NHL. Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Daniel Alfredsson are the only locks for the top two lines; Nikita Filatov and Bobby Butler will be given ample opportunity to play in the top 6, while Zibanejad, Da Costa or Regin will occupy the second-line centre spot.

A standout preseason has likely earned Zack Smith the role of third-line centre, with two of Nick Foligno, Chris Neil, Colin Greening and Erik Condra filling the wing spots alongside him. Much of the volatility surrounding Ottawa’s forward ranks won’t be resolved until Winchester and Regin return from injury, forcing the Sens brass to make important decisions about the fate of Zibanejad (who can play 9 NHL games without burning a year off his contract) and Da Costa.

Prospective Lines to Start the Year

Michalek – Spezza – Butler
Filatov – Zibanejad – Alfredsson
Foligno – Smith – Neil
Greening – Konopka – Condra
Da Costa

Defensemen: With Matt Carkner currently injured, the Senators will open the year with eight defensemen on the roster, giving Jared Cowen and David Rundblad the chance to prove that they can stick in the NHL. Judging by last year’s AHL playoffs and this year’s preseason, Cowen looks as if he can make an instant impact in the big leagues, while Rundblad may require an adjustment period similar to that of Erik Karlsson circa 2009. With Carkner expected to be sidelined for the next month, Rundblad will presumably split time with Filip Kuba, barring any further injuries.

Karlsson is expected to assume a leadership role on the back-end in just his third NHL season, one that will hopefully see him refine his defensive game and display his electrifying offensive abilities. Veterans Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar both stand to improve on their putrid 2010-11 campaigns, while Brian Lee has rebounded admirably from his 25-game healthy scratch streak to secure his spot on Ottawa’s blue-line.

Prospective Pairings to Start the Year

Phillips – Lee
Kuba – Karlsson
Cowen – Gonchar

Goaltenders: Craig Anderson almost certainly won’t replicate his .939 SV% from the end of last season, but he’s demonstrated the ability to steal games the Sens have no business winning, particularly when he faces 40 or more shots. Capable backup Alex Auld is back for his second stint in Ottawa; he should be able to man the crease for roughly 20 games in 2010-11. (Contrary to popular belief, the starting goaltender won’t be determined by which player has the shinier head.)

With Anderson locked in for four more seasons and Auld under contract for this year, Calder Cup MVP Robin Lehner will be afforded the time to develop as Binghamton’s starting net-minder from the beginning of the year. Expect to see Lehner up in Ottawa every now and then (if Anderson goes down with injury, Bryan Murray has made it clear that Lehner will be called up to start instead of Auld), though the season will be dedicated to preparing the young Swede for his eventual ascent to full-time NHLer.

Coaching: Former Red Wings assistant Paul MacLean will serve as the franchise’s ninth head coach; he’ll emphasize a physical, hard-skating brand of hockey designed to wear down the opponent and maximize the potential of a team devoid of significant offensive talent. MacLean will be assisted by Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds, who faced off against one another last season in the OHL championship and in the Memorial Cup.

Management: If Ottawa suffers through another miserable midseason stretch and the veterans underperform like last season, Bryan Murray may be busy once again at the February trade deadline. He’ll be looking to ship Filip Kuba away at any opportunity, while Matt Carkner and Brian Lee’s names may also arise, if only to clear the Sens’ logjam on defense. Up front, Chris Neil could hold some value for a Cup contender, while Milan Michalek and Nick Foligno might be used as pieces to complete a larger deal. Murray and his team executed the first stage of the rebuild to perfection; the next phase is incumbent on the proper development on Ottawa’s celebrated group of prospects.

5 Players on Notice

Peter Regin: Regin expounded on his promising six-game stretch in the 2010 playoffs with one of the unluckiest and least productive seasons in recent Senators history, netting just 3 goals and 17 points before being shelved in February with a shoulder injury. With Stephane Da Costa and Mika Zibanejad breathing down his neck for the role of second-line centre, Regin’s best bet to solidifying his place in Ottawa’s future plans may be to prove he can thrive in an offensive role outside of the top two forward lines.

Milan Michalek: Hampered by injuries in each of his first two seasons in Ottawa, the Senators’ spot in the standings will largely depend on Michalek’s health and offensive output. Signed for three more seasons at over $4 million a year, the former Shark will eventually have to justify his contract and prove he’s a viable top-6 winger as the rebuild rolls forth.

Bobby Butler: A dismal pre-season has overshadowed Butler’s stellar play down the stretch of last year’s regular season and in the AHL playoffs. If he’s not scoring goals, then he isn’t doing much of anything on the ice, but Butler will be one of several players that will rotate through Ottawa’s top 6, in the hopes that he can reclaim the chemistry he enjoyed with Jason Spezza.

Jesse Winchester: Responsible defensively, adept in the face-off circle and devastatingly efficient along the boards, Winchester may yet fall prey to a numbers game in Ottawa – the number of Sens forwards with higher offensive potential, the number of prospects on the precipice, the number of one-way contracts handed out by Bryan Murray, you name it. The reality is that he’s the equivalent of Matt Carkner up front: the perfect man to plug a hole when the need arises, but the very definition of replaceable.

Brian Lee: Lee played the best hockey of his short professional career down the stretch in 2010-11. Paired with Chris Phillips, the two combined to form an effective shutdown tandem, with Lee displaying a previously unforeseen callousness on the back end. 2011-12 should be the year where the hockey world finally bears witness to Brian Lee, legitimate top-4 NHL defenseman.

5 Key Games

Minnesota at Ottawa, Oct 11: Ottawa’s home opener coincides with the return of the Wild’s most ballyhooed offseason addition, Dany Heatley, to Scotiabank Place.

Ottawa at Boston, Nov 1: The Sens travel to Boston to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in the first of six meetings on the year.

Nashville at Ottawa, Feb 9: Mike Fisher returns to Ottawa to face his former squad for the first time as a member of the Predators.

Toronto at Ottawa, Mar 17: The final match-up in the 2011-12 Battle of Ontario will take place in Ottawa on St. Patrick’s Day, with the Sens slated to wear their highly anticipated heritage jerseys.

All-Star Game, Jan 29: Will Daniel Alfredsson stay healthy and captain one of the teams? Will Erik Karlsson earn his second straight All-Star selection? Most importantly, will a new scoreboard be installed at Scotiabank Place in time for the festivities?

5 More Storylines

Jason Spezza’s evolution as a leader. The latter half of 2010-11 saw Spezza emerge as a mainstay on the Senators’ penalty kill, a mentor to several of Ottawa’s AHL call-ups and the team’s undisputed on-ice leader in the absence of Daniel Alfredsson. One of the few veterans remaining after the February fire sale, Spezza has proven that he finally possesses the defensive intensity to match his prodigious offensive talents, and he looks primed to assume the captaincy once Alfredsson chooses to hang up his skates.

The evolution of Ottawa’s prospects. Bryan Murray’s commitment to restocking the Senators’ prospect pool has left the team with a bevy of youngsters looking to make an impact at the junior and professional levels. Mark Stone, Stefan Noesen, Matt Puempel, Shane Prince and Jean-Gabriel Pageau are all poised to explode for their respective CHL teams, while Jakob Silfverberg and Marcus Sorensen are expected to make strides in the Swedish Elite League.

Binghamton’s title defense. Several veterans are gone from the 2010-11 Calder Cup champion squad, most notably Ryan Potulny, Ryan Keller, Cody Bass, Andre Benoit and Geoff Kinrade. In their place are several intriguing newcomers, some of which played a cursory role in Binghamton’s playoff run (Derek Grant, Mark Borowiecki, David Dziurzynski) and some seeing their first action in the organization (most notably Swedish prospect Andre Petersson).

The 2012 draft. Next year’s draft class is considered to be the deepest and most talented pool in years, with several international forwards (Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Alex Galchenyuk, Filip Forsberg) and North American defensemen (Ryan Murray, Matt Dumba, Nick Ebert, Griffin Reinhart) at the top of the board. With the Sens expected to claim another lottery pick, they could hardly go wrong with any selection: a potentially elite forward would instantly strengthen Ottawa’s meager forward ranks, while a well-rounded defenseman would solidify the team’s touted future defensive corps.

A prediction. The 2011-12 Ottawa Senators will compete every night. They will skate for 200 feet, for 60 minutes a game, for 82 games a year. Their goaltender will stop a lot of pucks. Their defense will create a lot of chances, both for and against their team. Their forwards will display flashes of brilliance, if not a large amount of goals. They will give Sens fans something to cheer for. They will finish 12th in the Eastern Conference. And for now, that’s perfectly fine.