Ottawa could take Northeast Crown

Sergei Gonchar (Dan4th/Flickr)

The evenings are getting cooler and NHL training camps are right around the corner… I can’t wait for a new season to begin, so it is time to jump back into The Hockey Writers pool as the Ottawa Senators analyst!

The Ottawa Senators were first to dive into the free agent market on July 1 with the Sergei Gonchar signing, but for the rest of the summer, the Sens concentrated on depth at the AHL level with the addition of several players.

Moving on from the Senators organization this summer: Anton Volchenkov (New Jersey), Andy Sutton (Anaheim), Matt Cullen (Minnesota), Shean Donovan (still a UFA), Jonathan Cheechoo (invited to training camp in Dallas), Martin St. Pierre (Europe), Jeremy Yablonski (Europe), Tomas Kudelka (Europe), Josh Hennessy (Europe), and Andy Chiodo (Europe).

Arriving in Ottawa and Binghamton this season: Sergei Gonchar, Corey Locke, Andre Benoit, David Hale, Francis Lessard, David Rundblad, and David Dziurzynski.

For a team with most of its roster from last season returning this year, there are many questions surrounding the franchise and the 2010-2011 season. Milan Michalek and Alex Kovalev are returning from knee surgery, Pascal Leclaire is looking to rebound from an average season, and the media swarmed Jason Spezza in late June, wondering if he wanted out of the nation’s capital. Even with these issues (and a few others), my prediction for the Senators this year – Northeast Division champions.

Once again, the powerhouses in the NHL live in the Western Conference and the East is up for grabs. While the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins are expected to lead the way in the Conference again this season, there is no clear consensus amongst hockey analysts on where the other thirteen teams will finish.

Can the Bruins find the net this season and improve their goal scoring totals? Can Ryan Miller backstop the Buffalo Sabres for another year? Can the Montreal Canadiens survive the media and their fans with Carey Price as the number one goaltender? The Toronto Maple Leafs are ready for a return to respectability but are certainly not ready to challenge for the division crown, which leaves a solid group of players in Ottawa ready to take the division crown.

In the next few weeks, we will look at the questions on defence and at the forward positions, but for today; let’s start in goal, looking at Pascal Leclaire, Brian Elliott, Mike Brodeur and Robin Lehner.

Both Leclaire and Elliott enter the season in the final year of their contracts; Leclaire will become a UFA, Elliott falls into the RFA category. The main question in net heading into camp is – who is number one? At this time last year, Leclaire was the clear number one, but several freak injuries limited his playing time and he never dominated the opposition, leaving Elliott to assume the role of starting goaltender in Ottawa.

Leclaire will need to demonstrate he has overcome his injury jinx after two difficult seasons with Columbus and Ottawa, and return to the form he demonstrated in the 2007-2008 season, his last full year in Columbus. With the Blue Jackets, he played in 54 games that season, posting a 2.25 goals against average and a .919 save percentage. In 12 games with Columbus during the 2008-2009, his save percentage dropped to .867. In his 34 appearances last year in Ottawa, his GAA was 3.20 and his save percentage was .887. Although, when called upon in the playoffs, the Leclaire of seasons past returned – posting a 2.84 GAA with a .920%. Perhaps the confidence from his playoff appearances will carry over into the new season; a fresh start and a clean slate could be just what the doctor ordered for Leclaire.

In Elliott’s case, the ninth round selection in the 2003 draft has emerged as a legitimate NHL goaltender. With each season, his numbers and his abilities have improved. Last year he set career highs in games played and wins, and he improved on his already impressive goals against average and save percentage. The former University of Wisconsin Badger appeared in 55 games last season, winning 29 games with a 2.57 GAA and a .909 save percentage; he recorded five shutouts as well. Going into this season, his confidence must be at an all-time high. An RFA at the end of the season, Elliott has the opportunity to build on his already impressive NHL credentials and demonstrate that he will be an NHL regular for years to come. While his playoff numbers were not overly impressive, he gained something very valuable in the Senators first round loss to the Penguins – experience. If both goaltenders come into camp ready to compete, head coach Cory Clouston will have a nice problem on his hands – two goaltenders capable of carrying the team and stealing a few games along the way.

In Binghamton, Mike Brodeur and Robin Lehner will share the net minding duties for Ottawa’s AHL affiliate. While Brodeur impressed Ottawa fans in three games at the NHL level last season, winning all three games and posting an impressive 1.00 GAA and a .966%, he is destined for the AHL again this year. He has posted some impressive numbers in the AHL, especially in the 2008-2009 season with the Rochester Americans, and he could get the call from Ottawa if the injury bug returns, or the Leclaire/Elliott tandem falters.

Lehner is entering his first full season in the Senators organization. The young goaltender from Gothenburg, Sweden played two games for Binghamton last year after playing in 47 games with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the OHL. With the Greyhounds, the second round selection in the 2009 draft (46th overall), posted a win/loss record of 27-13-3, with a 2.80 GAA and a .918 save percentage. His contract with Ottawa runs through to the end of the 2012-2013 season, so the management team in Ottawa will want to get a good look at one of their top young prospects. While he may see some action at the NHL level (Brian Elliott appeared in one game during the 2007-2008 season), carrying the load in Binghamton will be his assignment this season.

At times in their history, goaltending has been a weakness for the organization, but Bryan Murray has set up the franchise with four quality net minders. The defence and the forwards in Ottawa and Binghamton will be able to take the occasional risk, knowing that they have solid goaltenders ready to make the timely save when called upon.

  • Mike

    Remembering back a few years ago when Spezza, Alfredsson and Heatley were together and this team went to the Finals, that was the peak of an open window to seriously contend for a title. With Heatley shipped out for a modicum of his value, Spezza still as flaky as ever, and an ancient Alfredsson, that window has slammed shut.

    As far as this season goes, Kovalev is coming off knee surgery and is clearly not the playmaker he once was even when healthy. Michalek is another question mark and can’t reasonably be expected to play at a high level after a significant knee injury. Gonchar was a horrible signing, coming off 87 games played in 2 seasons and will be 37 before this season ends. The Penguins knew he had about reached the end, and I expect the Sens to get probably one season’s worth of value before his contract is an anchor. Volchenkov was smart and took off to a team with a much better chance of contending and much greater depth.

    You could’ve taken this exact paragraph on Leclaire and reprinted it before the 2009 or 2008 seasons and it would’ve had the same result: raise hopes and expectations for his performance, only to be disappointed by his injuries and inconsistency. There is no reasonable way to project anything but more of the same. The Leafs were saying the same thing about Toskala bouncing back last season and it cost them any hope of a decent season. Elliott came back to earth after a nice stretch in net, and is not the type of goalie a division winner can use. He is NOT the next Howard or Niemi, as the Wings and Hawks are far superior clubs to Ottawa.

    Mike Fisher is a legitimate number 2 center, although his Olympics inclusion campaign was farcical in nature. Let’s see…Jonathan Toews or Mike Fisher? Obviously Stevie Y made the right call. Peter Regin also looks like a decent young player, and Karlsson made strides on defense last year for sure. Kuba is a decent 3-4 defenseman, but Campoli and Carkner aren’t much of a 3rd pairing.

    Overall, best case scenario for Ottawa is fighting for the playoffs with the likes of the Leafs, Habs, Rangers and Lightning. What I see as more likely is a 10-12 finish, or injuries to Spezza or Fisher and more of the same from Leclaire could have this team thinking about a lottery pick. Horton and Seguin are probably better than every player on the Sens outside of Spezza and Fisher, Rask is arguably the best young netminder in the game, and Chara is a franchise D-man. They were one game away from the Conference Finals and should take back the Northeast relatively easily from Buffalo. Predicting a Sens playoff berth, let alone a division title, is complete foolishness IMO, as it will only be possible through everything breaking correctly and injuries not being a factor, while Boston already established themselves as a superior team and improved themselves in the offseason, plus boast FAR superior goaltending, which is what generally prevails in the playoffs anyway. Having watched the Leafs quite extensively, this sens club reminds me of the Leafs right before they completely bottomed out the last 2 years or so.

  • Andrew Rodger

    Sorry, to hear about your computer – I don’t think we cover replacements though :)

    The list of roster moves, was simply that, a list of moves for the folks that have been away for the summer, or on the moon… Except for Gonchar, all the names you mentioned are heading to Binghamton and the AHL….

    My projection is based on the fact that the team is basically the same as last year’s – a team that gave the Penguins a good fight in the first round (What round did the Leafs get too again? Although – call me even crazier, I predict a playoff spot for the Leafs this year too!). An improved PP will gain a few extra points in the standings, and while losing the A-Train is a huge loss, he hasn’t stayed healthy due to his style of play. One of the hungry rookies will block shots…

    Sports are there for our entertainment, so I am pleased I have brought smiles and a healthy debate here to THW :)

  • Jo4nny

    You owe me for a new computer monitor…sprayed my coffee all over it laughing at this projection. Sergei Gonchar, Corey Locke, Andre Benoit, David Hale, Francis Lessard, David Rundblad, and David Dziurzynski are definitely going to push this team over the hump…LOL

  • Parkie10

    Hmm when your best defenceman isn’t really one and with the Kovalev and Michalek both older and post knee surgery along with the Midas touch of bad-luck that is Leclaire… Its just as easy to picture in fourth spot in the Northeast. The Sens should have a nice looking PP but aside from that I would take a young and hungry Leafs team over the Ottawa house of cards.

  • SkinnyFish

    Last year, Ottawa was worst in the league in terms of goalie sv% with.896. Then in the off-season their best defensive defenseman in Volchenkov gets exchanged for Sergei “The Blue Line Liability” Gonchar. Just those two things alone would suggest a recipe for failure.

    • Andrew Rodger

      There is certainly a good chance that things go downhill in Ottawa and not up… IF Leclaire regains his form and Elliott stays on track, they can compete in the division. Volchenkov is a big loss, but he hasn’t been staying healthy in the last three seasons – will be looking at the D in the next article. I appreciate your comments though – they are very valid points!