After spending most of this season overcoming the odds, the Ottawa Senators luck finally ran out in the Conference Semifinals, falling in five games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And yet, this was a season of genuine progress for a team which, only two years ago, had the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference and had begun a significant rebuilding process.
The Senators surprised many observers by making the playoffs last season and throwing a scare into the New York Rangers before bowing out in the opening round of the 2012 postseason.
This year, they surprised them more by using their depth in budding young talent to overcome serious injuries to their best goaltender, top forward and superstar defenseman during the regular season, clinching a playoff berth and then upsetting the favoured Montreal Canadiens to advance to the second round against the talent-deep Penguins.
It was a character-building performance for the Senators, which bodes well for the club’s ongoing development.
The immediate question facing the Senators regards the future of long-time captain Daniel Alfredsson. The 40-year-old “Alfie” was their leading scorer in the playoffs, and finished the regular season with 26 points in 47 games, good for third overall in team scoring. If Alfredsson wants to return for one more kick at the cat, the Senators will welcome him back with open arms.
Even if Alfredsson calls it a career, he’ll leave a team loaded with young talent which has only better days ahead of it.
They’re set in goal with Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, one of the better tandems in the league.
Their defense is anchored by young superstar Erik Karlsson, who will be fully recovered next season from the sliced Achilles tendon which sidelined him for most of this season and obviously hampered him in the playoffs.
They’ll also have physical blueliner Jared Cowen, who missed most of the season recovering from hip surgery, healthy for a full season. Patrick Wiercioch proved a pleasant surprise this season and should continue to improve. Veteran Marc Methot and Chris Phillips will provide reliable experience and leadership.
It remains to be seen if they’ll re-sign UFA Sergei Gonchar, but if he departs they could shop for an affordable replacement so Karlsson doesn’t carry the offensive burden alone.
Top center Jason Spezza missed most of this season to back surgery and really wasn’t fully recovered in the series against the Penguins. He’ll be healthy for the start of next season and his presence will make a significant improvement for the Senators offense.
He’ll be joined by young Senators, like Kyle Turris, Colin Greening, Mika Zibanejad, Jakob Silfverberg, Cory Conacher and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who’ll be a year older and hopefully better.
Factor in the coaching of Paul MacLean, who did a tremendous job guiding his young, injury-hampered team into a playoff berth this season, and the future continues to look bright for the Senators.
Cap-wise the Senators have in good position, with just over $43.5 million invested in 19 players. Alfredsson and Gonchar are their notable UFAs, while Wiercioch and Erik Condra are the notable RFAs. They’ll have more than enough money to re-sign or replace them, and perhaps add another experienced scorer.
The Senators were not yet ready to down a star-studded team like the Penguins, but if their youngsters continue to improve, it’s only a matter of time until they’re among the class of the league again.