Sunday, October 30, 2011

A closer look at the Surprising Senators

There were murmurs this past offseason that rebuilding Ottawa had been asked by their only remaining star forward Jason Spezza to facilitate a trade.  Spezza denied it.  He earned a lot of respect by openly addressing the topic and dismissing it as a rumor.  Trade request or not it’s been openly known the Oilers have been trying to pry Spezza out of Ottawa for the past couple years and the package of young talent and draft picks a true #1 Centre nets would have any GM in rebuild mode salivating.  Kudos to GM Bryan Murray for sticking with Spezza through a tough 2010-11 campaign and trusting he could help bring along a young team with limited offensive prospects. Jason has 15 points in 11 games as of tonight, tied for second in the league; his play and leadership have pulled Ottawa from a rocky start to fourth in the East after tonight’s victory in the battle of Ontario.
Tonight’s win was Robin Lehner’s first of the season and the sixth straight for the Sens.  He was recalled to step-in for injured back-up Alex Auld and quickly got in to game action in the second of back-to-back games turning aside 23 of 25 shots in the W.  Lehner was forced in to starting duty last season as a rookie in the spring just after his infamous World Junior performance which included an obscenity laced postgame interview in which he ripped game officials. Despite the signing of Craig Anderson he is still considered the goalie of the future in the Nation’s Capital and will likely return to the AHL when Auld is healthy.
The Senators were questioned when drafting Erik Karlsson from the Swedish Elite League at 15th overall while so many highly touted picks were still available – they were on to something. After just one full year in the SEL Karlsson debuted in the bigs with 26 points in 60 games in 2009-10 and followed that up with a breakout performance last season tallying 45 points and establishing himself as one of the game’s best power play quarterbacks.  He’s off to a flying start this year performing at over a point per game clip. Sergei Gonchar, the prized pick of the UFA market two offseasons ago, had an off year in 20101-11 but has returned to form in the 2011-12 campaign helping the Sens to an astounding 31% power play success rate.
Gonchar and Karlsson are joined by long awaited prospect Jared Cowen who showed a surprising offensive flair in the preseason and David Runblad who was quietly snatched out of St.Louis’ system by Murray in the offseason.  Along with Filip Kuba and veteran Chris Phillips the Sens have an intriguing d-corpse that could round in to one of the leagues finest with experience.  Playing in front of any of three capable keepers, Auld, Anderson or Lehner, this team could put the embarrassing five, six and seven goal against games from early in the season in the rearview in a hurry.
Milan Michalek is on pace for a career year with 13 points through 11 games.  He’ll have to keep it up following the loss of Daniel Alfredson who has been out since a collision with New York’s Wojtek Wolski. It was a tough choice to return one of the few prized forward prospects, this year’s 6th overall pick Mika Zibanijed to the Swedish Elite League but it was the right one. He managed one assist in his nine game trial and will benefit from the increase in ice time he will receive in the SEL. Nikita Filatov, acquired from Columbus this offseason, has been recalled to replace him.  The former first round pick of the Blue Jackets has one of the finest skillsets in the game and hopes to put it all together in a fresh start with the young Sens.
Murray also added veteran centre Zenon Konopka whose pugilistic abilities are seconded only by his faceoff skills. Colin Greening and Zack Smith have come out of relative obscurity to provide depth scoring alongside Chris Neil, Nick Foligno, Jesse Winchester and rookie Stephane Da Costa. Shots against is still over 30 and the penalty Kill is in the low 70s but this team has more depth than they get credit for and a youthful exuberance that will remedy those numbers with time and experience.
Paul MacLean was hired from Detroit to help fit this rag-tag group of career AHLers, rookies and veterans together. His six years of experience in the Red Wings’ system will be invaluable to the team as they find their identity and were clearly targeted in the search to replace Cory Clouston.

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