General manager Pierre Gauthier has an aversion to high numbers, so how's this: For the first time in its six-year history, Ottawa isn't projected to finish No. 26 in the 26-team NHL. Of course, the Senators were so bad that they often looked as if they would finish 30th in a 26-team league. That was until last year's stunning march to the playoffs, the result of a new professionalism instilled by Gauthier and coach Jacques Martin and the maturation of high draft choices. Ottawa has some good players, although you might need a scorecard to identify them this season.
Gauthier banned uniform numbers above 35, ridding the Senators of those gauche numbers that look great on Wayne Gretzky but self-promoting on everyone else. So right wing Alexandre Daigle is dropping from number 91 to number 9 and center Radek Bonk from number 76 to number 14, and a handful of others also have been numerically cut down to size. Now if Daigle can only get his grim-130 plus-minus career stat into double digits, the Senators might have something.
Daigle, though, always has been the No. 2 Alex in Ottawa. Alexei Yashin, who, like Daigle, joined the Senators in their second season, is ready to explode into a 100-point center. Assuming Gauthier's passion for small numbers doesn't prevent him from coming to terms with outstanding two-way rightwinger Daniel Alfredsson, a restricted free agent who was unsigned at week's end, the Senators will have one of the few explosive offenses in the tight-checking Eastern Conference.
Until last season Ottawa had been horrid on defense. In training camp, however, they had nine defensemen they could count on; plus 1996 No. 1 draft choice Chris Phillips seems ready to contribute. The Senators' biggest concern could be goaltending. Damian Rhodes hopes to regain the top job from Ron Tugnutt, a career backup who was outstanding down the stretch and in the playoffs after Rhodes went down last February with an ankle injury. Rhodes had a lot of rehabilitation to do, not only to his ankle (he underwent minor surgery in the off-season) but also to his reputation. There were whispers that he wouldn't play hurt, one of the NHL's cardinal sins.
But in Ottawa, cardinal sins are out and low cardinal numbers are in. If you are what you wear, the Senators could be headed toward No. 1 by the end of the century.