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.