Among the whiz-bang concepts thrown around in advertising circles, the advertisers give us the “product life cycle”: research and development, growth, expansion, maturity, saturation and decline. Presumably the NHL took care of its research and development before expansion into Canada’s capital. That leaves growth, maturity, saturation and decline.
Growth -- growing pain, at least -- took place in the early 1990s, when only a Jim Mora rant could do justice to Ottawa’s playoffs chances. The Senators, though, embarked on a remarkable maturity phase under Jacques Martin (Alexei Yashin may have helped) and closed out the ‘90s with seasons of 77, 83 and 103 points. That’s just about where the momentum seems to have stalled.
We’re also willing to admit that Patrick Lalime is, considering the financial climate, a No. 1 goaltender. Seven shutouts in the regular season and four more in the playoffs, where he compiled a .946 save percentage, may not win a Cup, but it should earn Lalime the unquestioned starting job for the first time in his career in Ottawa.
The Senators have averaged nearly 100 points in the three seasons since 1998-99, but with only one playoff series victory in that span, we’re left wondering whether Martin’s message has hit the saturation point and if the Senators are on the decline. Our guess is another near-100-point season and another, but only one, playoff series victory. It’s not progress, per se, but they’ll have something in Ottawa that can’t be said in many NHL cities: a team worth advertising.
Daniel Alfredsson, RW -- What, you were expecting Dennis Bonvie? When a low-revenue team trowels around the vault for what might turn out to be more than $10 million over the next two seasons, as the Senators did this offseason, conventional wisdom says he who gets that $10 million will be relied upon heavily. (Voters on the team’s Web site also picked Alfie as the most popular player in franchise history.) Alfredsson was an animal in 12 playoff games last season (seven goals) and has been almost a point-per-game performer in the playoffs over his career. In the lineup, he is certainly worth the money; it’s the regularity with which he's out of the lineup that concerns the Senators. Over the past five seasons, Alfredsson has averaged only 63 games. Last season he played in 78, the most since his 1995-96 Calder Trophy season.
Taking some heat off Alfredsson is key, and there’s an outside chance the Senators will wind up with five 30-goal scorers. Also within striking distance: Marian Hossa (31 goals in 2001-02), Radek Bonk (25), Martin Havlat (22 in 72 games) and Mike Fisher (15 in 58 games). Had Alfredsson, Hossa, Bonk and Havlat (Fisher was scratched) scored in what turned out to be its final game of the season, Ottawa would have taken Game 7 in yet another Battle of Ontario. Instead that foursome, in 92 combined shifts, went minus-3 with three shots.
Cash -- The only thing more fragile than Alfredsson’s chances of playing 82 games this season is the financial climate in Ottawa. When a team has to think hard and swallow before signing its No. 2 scorer (this isn’t exactly Dmitri Khristich we’re talking about here), that team is in trouble. Radek Bonk scored 70 points in 2001-02 and yet it took general manager John Muckler his sweet old time to agree with Bonk’s arbitration award.
The Ottawa Citizen reports that the Sens’ payroll will be around $33 million, which is among certainly among the reasons veteran Shawn McEachern was dealt to Atlanta for Brian Pothier. Not only are the Senators in a small market, but they’re in a Canadian small market. That’s two strikes. The concern is just how far away that third strike might be.
Ultimately, not a lot. The economic exigencies keep Ottawa from taking the kinds of swings that some others might under similar circumstances. They are deep on the blue line, though now more expensive with the re-signings of Chris Phillips and Sami Salo. Their forwards are skilled and their system of counter-attacking is sound. The mix just hasn’t taken them beyond the second round. Muckler can’t take on a ton of salary and he probably wonders how the team can get much better without paying for it.
This will be a very interesting team to watch throughout the season. A well-below-average payroll team with well-above-average skill has to make smarter moves than a team with money or without playoff hopes.
OK, we’ll try this again. In his second camp, Spezza vows to be more proactive. With inflated expectations last year, the second pick from the 2001 draft earned himself a ticket back to junior hockey, where he scored 42 goals and 105 points in 53 games. Asked on Aug. 26 if he was concerned at the number of pivots when camp opens, Spezza told the Ottawa Citizen, "I don't care if they sign 30 centermen. If you play well in camp, they'll find a spot for you wherever."
With a deep quartet at center, Spezza may not see a ton of ice time if he sticks with the big club out of training camp. An injury could certainly change that, but with a talent like Spezza, it might be wasteful to play him on anything but the top two lines. It may be best for Spezza's long-term development to have him spend all, or at least part, of the season playing with Binghamton in the AHL before making the full-time leap to Ottawa next season. After all, Spezza is just 19, so there is no sense rushing his development.
Jamie MacDonald is a CNNSI.com producer based in New York.