Ottawa Senators Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
The Ottawa Senators don't need to change much from last season to be Stanley Cup contenders again. But they are grateful for one new thing -- stability.
New owner Eugene Melnyk has invigorated the franchise and the city of Ottawa with his infusion of cash to boost the team's payroll and his fan-friendly ways. Among Melnyk's efforts to reach out to the fans is a free concert by The Eagles for season-ticket holders at the Corel Centre. Previous owner Rod Bryden didn't have enough cashflow to make payroll at one point last season, but it doesn't appear that will be a problem with Toronto billionaire Melnyk at the helm.
The Sens accomplished what they set out to do this summer by keeping the majority of their team together, something they hadn't been able to do recently. Melnyk opened his wallet to pay defenseman Wade Redden (3 years, $14.1 million) and center Bryan Smolinski (4 years, $10 million), but left wing Magnus Arvedson wasn't re-signed and restricted free agent right wing Martin Havlat remains unsigned with training camp just one week away. Ottawa is believed to have a two-year, $1.9 million offer on the table, but Havlat and agent Allan Walsh quickly rejected that number, and communications between the two parties have been minimal.
One other change for the 2003-04 Senators will be a larger role for 20-year-old center Jason Spezza. The former junior star has been frustrated at times by the slow pace in which the organization has brought him along, but it looked like a stroke of genius when he came off the bench in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to dominate against the Devils and extend the series to a decisive seventh game.
"He was the best player on the ice," general manager John Muckler said. "Jason showed a lot of poise for a young guy to be put in a position like that. The pressure did not bother him one iota. He didn't feel a thing. He just looked at it as a great opportunity and that's how it turned out for him."
Spezza spent the summer at home in Brampton, Ontario, and drove the 25 miles to downtown Toronto each day to work out with personal trainer Dave Ablack, best known for his work with Leafs winger Gary Roberts. The Sens' young center dropped 11 pounds to 205 by forgoing fast food and desserts, and focusing on Olympic-style weight training with few repetitions on very heavy weights. Working out with a veteran like Roberts has taught Spezza that offseason training is perhaps even more important than inseason work.
"Gary is just phenomenol," Spezza said. "He's a machine. He works extremely hard. It's amazing now with the age he's at and the shape he is in how well he takes care of his body. So it's good for a young guy like me to see an older guy like that who really takes care of himself. If you can get started early on in your career, and then just maintain it throughout your career, it's a lot easier on your body and you'll probably play for a few more years. If I can get good habits right away, it's something that is going to help me out along the way."
The Sens are going to give Spezza every opportunity to win a spot in the middle of one of the top two lines. They are aware that his spectacular postseason debut has raised the level of expectation for their young star, but believe he has the skills to live up to it and the small ego to accept it.
"Up to that point I had just kind of been on the sideline not really doing much for this club," Spezza said. "So that was exciting, and it was something that doesn't happen every day. Everyone wants to be known as a guy who performs well in the playoffs, and I'm no different. It was just kind of a start for me to play in a few games and get my feet wet. But when the chips are on the line you really want to play well."
Ottawa is also expecting Marian Hossa to continue his development into an elite player. With Hossa, captain Daniel Alfredsson and Havlat, the Sens have a right side that only the New York Rangers (Pavel Bure when healthy, Alexei Kovalev and Anson Carter) can even dream about matching. Ottawa's depth up front is matched by a young, but progressing blueline corps led by Redden and Zdeno Chara. Steady veterans Curtis Leschyshyn, Chris Phillips and Karel Rachunek are joined in the top six by heavy-hitting Russian Anton Volchenkov, who surprised as a rookie last year.
Patrick Lalime has become one of the steadiest goaltenders in the league and his first 40-win season is a distinct possibility. Martin Prusek serves as an able backup, but he will only get a token handful of appearances.
In other words, the Senators have everything needed to outlast the other contenders in the East. And anything less than a trip to the finals will be a disappointment in the Canadian capital.
"We came awful close last year," Muckler said. "I felt we had a great opportunity to be the Stanley Cup champs. I think we've gone through everything you need a team to go through and experienced everything that you need to go through to become champions. There's no reason to think that our team can't take that next step. Every championship team goes through that stage or learning how to win. You face disappointments along the way, but after the disappointments comes success."
The Sens have what it takes to be partying on Parliament Hill with a certain someone named Stanley in the second week of June.
Daniel Alfredsson, RW -- Marian Hossa has replaced Alfredsson as the Sens' top scoring threat, but Alfie's playmaking skills and leadership make him the team's cog. He has been unfairly criticized for disappointing playoff performances the past two postseasons in the series where Ottawa was eliminated. The 30-year-old Swedish right winger won the Calder Trophy in 1995-96 and has played in three All-Star Games. His role as team leader off the ice is as important as what he does on it. Spezza quickly developed a special bond with Alfredsson as a rookie and often turns to the veteran for advice.
"Daniel Alfredsson has been great to me," Spezza said. "I sit beside him in the room and I roomed together with him at the start of the year. He's been awesome. We're lucky to have a captain like that. He kind of took me under his wing and really helped me out. Anytime I had questions I didn't hesitate to ask him, becuase he would always talk to me and be honest with me."
Alfredsson is entering the prime of his career and can probably be counted on to be a point-per-game player for another three or four seasons. But the ultimate reward for the Sens' captain would be to accept the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman.
Not enough roster spots -- No team is the league has fewer holes than the Senators heading into training camp. Jacques Martin has an embarrassment of riches at center, so much so that one or two of the pivots will be moved to the left side. If there is a weakness on the roster, it would be the left wingers, with Petr Schastlivy, Peter Schaefer and Vaclav Varada being the only players naturally accustomed to playing the left side.
"We've got people like Radek Bonk, Mike Fisher, Bryan Smolinski and Todd White who have played left wing before, so I think it's just a case of finding the right fit," Muckler said. "We have a lot of choices, so one surely has to work. With the talent I just spouted off there, surely one can make an adjustment."
Veteran center Shaun Van Allen could be the odd man out once the roster spots shake down, but he is a true professional and likely would accept his role as an extra forward. Van Allen's grit and experience would make him the perfect versatile piece to have on hand in case Havlat doesn't get signed or someone gets injured.
Few coaches have the luxury of having too many good players, but it's a problem that Martin gladly will tackle in training camp.
Can Marian Hossa take the next step to become a superstar?
Hossa netted a career-high 45 goals last season, surging from 31 and 32 in the previous two seasons. A main reason for the boost in points was the fact that Hossa played more on the power play than in previous seasons. Fourteen of his 45 goals and 19 of his 35 assists came with the man advantage, making him one of the most opportunistic players in the league.
"Hossa can be as good as he wants to be," Muckler said. "He's a tremendous talent and he had a tremendous year in 2002-03. I'm looking forward to a better year this year, but he has to take the next step in terms of being a little more consistent. He's shown that he's a complete player. He plays well defensively, he's big, he's strong and I think it's just a matter of getting to know how good he is. And that just has to come from him. He's just a tremendous person and a great athlete. He's a very, very nice man and he has his head screwed on right."
The 24-year-old Slovakian struggled early in his career after being involved in the unfortunate play that caused Bryan Berard's serious eye injury. Since overcoming the emotional struggles surrounding that event, Hossa has steadily improved his all-around game each season.
Hossa certainly has the potential to be a 50-goal and 100-point scorer and he could contend for the Hart Trophy in the near future. Though he needs to use his body more and improve his physical play, Hossa has the potential to become a two-way terror in the Peter Forsberg mold.
Ray Emery, G, 6-1, 204 pounds
Spezza is certainly Ottawa's top player for the future, but he technically has burned his rookie status after playing 33 regular-season games last year. The Sens have a pretty deep minor league system, though trading defenseman Tim Gleason to the Kings at the trade deadline for Smolinski thinned out their blueline prospects somewhat. With Spezza up with the big club and Gleason off to Tinseltown, Emery is the top youngster working his way through the system. And he looks like a good one.
Emery is a big netminder who plays with a very polished style. His skills are first-rate, but he needs to work on keeping his focus at a high level every night and playing more consistently. The only knock on Emery is that he is slow going from side to side because of his size, but his excellent work with his glove and his blocker can help him overcome this deficiency.
"He's got a style of his own," Muckler said. "Ray is very determined, he knows exactly where he wants to be and how he wants to get there. I wish he was a defenseman, because the body on him is unbelievable. He looks like he's carved out of stone and he's got a mean streak in him, too. He'll fight like a tiger. He fought in the AHL and in juniors and he'll probably fight at the NHL level. This guy is all determination and committment."
The Sens would like to give Emery a full season as the No. 1 at AHL Binghamton before allowing him to compete in earnest for the backup job behind Lalime next fall. If Emery has a tremendous training camp, he could beat out Prusek for the backup job, but the best thing for Emery's development would be to have him play 60 games with the Baby Sens this season.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.