OTTAWA — Last season the Ottawa Senators surprised much of the NHL with a deep playoff run to the Eastern Conference final that ended with a double overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The sting of the loss lingered and served as motivation this summer, but the Senators know they'll likely need to be even better this season to find themselves in the playoff picture again.
At one time the Senators advancing to the post-season was almost a guarantee, with 11 straight appearances from 1997-2008.
But things have been very different lately. Ottawa hasn't had back-to-back playoff appearances since 2012-13.
And the Senators could start the season without captain and star defenceman Erik Karlsson. The Norris trophy candidate underwent foot surgery during the off-season and recently admitted "they took half of my ankle bone out and the part that is still there should be as normal as possible."
Not exactly the most reassuring news for Ottawa fans.
Karlsson has resumed skating, but remains questionable for the Senators season opener Oct. 5. The prognosis is much more encouraging than just a few weeks ago, when there was speculation Karlsson might not return until November.
Part of the surgery included replacing a torn tendon, and Karlsson said there's definitely an adjustment.
The new tendon won't be the only adjustment for Karlsson as he'll find himself with a new defence partner after Marc Methot was lost in the expansion draft.
Karlsson will most likely be paired with the newly acquired veteran Johnny Oduya, who has earned coach Guy Boucher's admiration quickly with his solid, steady play.
"What an unbelievable acquisition," said Boucher. "He's the ultimate pro in the room. It's unbelievable what we got there."
Outside of Karlsson, the Senators will need to make some tough decisions regarding its blue line. Seven defencemen are on one-way contracts and Ben Harpur and Thomas Chabot, who can both be assigned to AHL Belleville, are pushing for a spot.
Up front the Senators need Bobby Ryan to maintain his playoff scoring touch. After scoring just 13 goals through 62 games last season, Ryan led all Ottawa forwards in the playoffs with six goals and 15 points through 19 games.
"To get back to playing well and contributing and playing some of the bigger minutes meant a lot to me," Ryan said earlier this month. "I think it taught me that I'm still capable of it, because you doubt yourself when you're going through a year like that.
"I'm going to try to identify with the player I was (during the playoffs), rather than the guy in the middle of the season."
While the Senators have a wealth of depth on defence, the same can't be said up front.
Already without winger Clarke MacArthur, who failed his medical and isn't expected back any time soon, the Senators also lost highly touted rookie Colin White, who broke his wrist in the first pre-season game, for six to eight weeks.
That puts ample pressure on a group that struggled to score goals last season, when the Senators finished 22nd averaging 2.51 goals-per-game.
The Senators can only hope that Kyle Turris, who is entering the final year of his contract, won't be distracted by the ongoing questions regarding negotiations and that Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone can contribute regularly.
Last season the Senators were able to circumvent offensive deficiencies thanks to Boucher's defence-first system. It took players a while to adjust, but in the end proved successful and the team bought in.
"The fact that you're not learning and just re-tooling it will go a long way," said Ryan. "We had a learning curve about five to six weeks last year where we let games get away because we were second guessing the system and we won't have that this year because we’ve proven that it works."
With Craig Anderson and Mike Condon in net the Senators have a solid tandem. Last season Condon proved he's more than capable of handling a heavy workload as he carried the team while Anderson supported his wife through cancer treatment.
The Senators recently signed the 36-year-old Anderson to a two-year contract extension worth an average annual value of US$4.75 million.
The one area that absolutely needs to improve is special teams. With the power play and penalty kill finishing 23rd and 22nd respectively, there is plenty of room for growth.
Boucher wasn't able to devote as much time to the power play last season as he focused on implementing his system. He said it has to be a focus this season, and the team started working on it early in training camp.
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press