Welcome to the most wonderful time of the year.
The start of a new hockey season is like a breath of fresh air. Every team has the same hopeful enthusiasm and excitement. Players are itching to hit the ice for the first meaningful game in a few months. And fans are anxiously pulling their jerseys out of their closets and over their heads.
While the Ottawa Senators still have one more sleep to go before they officially kick off their 20th anniversary season, it never hurts to play spectator on the first night to get an early sense of what teams will look like.
In saying that, of course, it’s a long road from now until when playoffs start again. Team identities may change, rosters will shift, coaches will inevitably get fired; that’s just how the hockey cycle rolls. But if you can get an early sense of what your opponents are shaping up to be, it’s certainly help more than hindrance.
The Senators have already been quickly written off by lot of media outlets and predicted to finish last or in the lower ranks of the league. While realistic expectations are key so that fans aren’t constantly ripping hair out of their head or swearing off their allegiances early on, it’s important to focus on some of the positives especially with a young team in hand.
As of right now, there are five members of the reigning Calder Cup champion Binghamton Senators on the opening roster for the big club in Bobby Butler, Zack Smith, Colin Greening, Erik Condra and Jared Cowen. They’re all expected to step in and play a big role regardless of where they’re being pencilled in.
The Senators blueline appears to be young, soft and inexperienced but there are still the likes of Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar who will play leadership and mentor roles. Cowen and David Rundblad are looking to squeeze themselves into the logjam of defenders, but the opportunity is there with Matt Carkner out for at least a month following knee surgery.
Cowen appears to be the most NHL-ready between him and Rundblad, but that’s not to say both could improve drastically by the time Carkner is able to return to the line-up. By no means are things set in stone and both are still fighting to keep a job with the big boys.
The hockey pundits and experts are predicting the Senators will struggle to score goals this year as they did last season, so the onus is on Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza to be in top form. Yes, Alfredsson is returning from a back injury but the captain still manages to find a way to put up points.
However, there’s no question about Spezza. With a shiny ‘A’ permanently stuck to his chest, he’s expected to be nothing short of the leader in the offensive category. Luckily, he’s going to have players with plenty of potential to feed off when it comes to putting the puck in the net. It’s just a matter of chemistry and how long it’s going to take for it to develop.
Secondary scoring has always been a huge question mark for the Senators, which is where Nikita Filatov and Stephane Da Costa come into play. Filatov has offensive talent written all over him, but it all comes down to execution in the end. Hopefully with a new change of scenery and playing with someone like Spezza will open the floodgates for him.
Da Costa can be considered a pre-season surprise, scoring a bunch of goals and showing an offensive prowess that surely most people didn’t expect out of him. If he can come in and contribute right away on a nightly basis, the Senators should score more goals than expected out of them.
Of course, players like Nick Foligno and Peter Regin are still on the hook to have better seasons than last. Fingers and toes are crossed that Regin recovers from his recent injury quickly and stays healthy because there’s a lot of untapped potential in him that just hasn’t been given the opportunity to explore.
Foligno just needs to keep his game clean and simple because his skill range doesn’t allow him to rely on being flashy and exciting every single game. If he keeps to his hard-working forecheck game and drives to the net looking for rebounds and garbage goals, he should retain an important role on the team.
And finally, we have the Achilles heel of the Senators, the goaltending. Locking Craig Anderson down to a four-year contract was the first step in solidifying the net. All Anderson has to do now is take his play from the last two months of the season and apply it to the next seven.
There’s doubt he will steal games for the team when the goals don’t come easily but that’s what Ottawa has been looking for essentially since the day they returned to the league. Alex Auld will provide very reliable back-up goaltending and thankfully he’s already experienced what it can be like from the media and fans when the pucks that should be stopped aren’t.
To sum it all up, there are a lot of factors that have to go right for the Senators to even get close to a playoff spot this season. However, the magical word of potential is there for them to prove all those naysayers wrong and surprise them by exceeding expectations, even if that just means winning a handful more games than anyone predicts them to.
Lastly, a message to the Senators faithful: enjoy this anniversary year. We have so much to be excited about with the new heritage jersey, all the special events the organization has planned and of course, the NHL All-Star game. If the team is destined to be what the media says it will be, wading through the bottom pool of the league, then so be it. But that shouldn’t stop all of you from showing them fans in this city do care and are behind this team no matter what. Remember what it was like for this city when we made the Stanley Cup finals in 2007 and harness that energy towards this season. We’re building our way back to that and hopefully, we’ll have a real parade down Elgin Street sooner rather than later.