Previewing The Montreal Canadiens Division; Who Will Finish 4th?

With the Montreal Canadiens rookie camp underway, and main training camp only 5 days away, the 2013-14 regular season will begin before you know it. So, to get you primed for another long 82 game schedule, we continue to count down the predicted finish of the Atlantic Division.

In case you missed it, we are halfway through, and the current standings are:

8th: Florida Panthers

7th: Buffalo Sabres

6th: Toronto Maple Leafs

5th: Tampa Bay Lightning

The top four will be four playoff teams from a year ago, and will battle tooth and nail to the finish for top seeding. It is going to be an exciting year, in the upper half of the Atlantic, but unfortunately someone has to fall to fourth, and this season, that will be the Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa battled adversity throughout the 2013 campaign, scratching their way into the postseason with top scorers Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson out of the lineup most of the year. Ottawa then knocked off the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs in just five games, before being ousted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, in five second round contests.

May 24, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson (65) looks to clear the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period in game five of the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Pittsburgh Penguins won 6-2 to close out the series. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The question for Ottawa is, are they the team that easily defeated Montreal, scoring 20 times in just five games, or the team that was similarly defeated by Pittsburgh. The answer is, they will fall somewhere in the middle.

Ottawa struggled offensively last season, their 116 goals in 48 games being the least by any playoff team by a wide margin. In fact, they finished 28th in the league in goal scoring. Spezza and Karlsson combining to play just 22 games really hurt the Sens offense. Kyle Turris led the team with 29 points, the only team leader with less points was Shea Weber, who led Nashville with 28.

To make offensive matters worse for the Sens, trades and free agency have taken away three of the top five scorers on Ottawa’s roster last season. Sergei Gonchar was sent to the Dallas Stars, Daniel Afredsson signed with the new division rival Detroit Red Wings, and Jakob Silfverberg was sent to the Anaheim Ducks.

Ottawa will miss Alfredsson the most, as he was a leader on and off the ice since he entered the league in 1995. He was the team’s captain, and though his offense has been slowing with age, he still finished fourth on the Sens in points last season. His signing with Detroit, after 17 seasons with Ottawa, was the surprise of the offseason.

It is time for the Senators to move forward without the former face of their franchise, and they wasted no time in doing so, by trading for Bobby Ryan the same day Alfredsson left town.

The Ryan trade sent Silfverberg to Anaheim, but Ryan’s goal scoring ability will be a huge addition to the Senators lineup. Ryan dipped slightly to 11 goals in 46 games last season, but scored over 30 goals in each of his four full NHL seasons. He will start the season with Spezza and Milan Michalek, and if his two linemates can stay healthy, they will be a dangerous offensive trio.

May 22, 2013; Ottawa, ON, CAN; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Douglas Murray (3) clears the puck as Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza (19) moves in during the second period in game four of the second round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs at Scotiabank Place. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The problem is, both Spezza and Michalek have had difficulty staying healthy. The two have combined for only three seasons of 80 games played, with Spezza only playing five last season, and Michalek playing 23.

Beyond the top line, Turris, Cory Conacher, Clarke MacArthur, Mika Zibanejad and Colin Greening lead a solid, yet unspectacular supporting cast. If Michalek and Spezza can’t stay healthy, the supporting cast may prove too young and inexperienced to carry the load offensively.

A healthy season from Erik Karlsson will help jump start the offense from the back end. Erik scored 14 points in 17 games last season, following up a Norris Trophy winning 78 point performance in 2011-12. If Karlsson can stay healthy, he will be the NHl’s top scoring defenseman once again. Gonchar stepped up and contributed 27 points last season, but with him gone to Dallas, the rest of Ottawa’s blue line offense will be left to Patrick Wiercioch and newly signed Joe Corvo.

Defensively, the Sens have a great balance of offensive and defensive types. Marc Methot is an excellent shutdown defender, and can play enough minutes to be Karlsson’s sidekick. Wiercioch and Corvo will play on separate pairings, and will both be given a defensive specialist as a partner. Veteran Chris Phillips and youngster Jared Cowen are both known for their shot blocking and safe defensive zone coverage and provide a great pairing with the puck movers.

The Senators real strength is in goal. No team in the league had a better tandem than the Sens duo of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. Anderson posted the best numbers of any goaltender in the league, but, like most of Ottawa’s important players, he was felled by injury, and played in only 24 games. Anderson’s 1.69 goals against average, and especially his .941 save percentage, are numbers rarely seen in the National Hockey League. His backup, Lehner, was excellent when called upon as well. Lehner played 12 games, posted a 2.20 GAA and .936 SA%.

The Senators goaltenders will have a difficult time living up to those lofty expectations once again this season. It is one thing to post astounding numbers in 12 or 24 games, but over an 82 game schedule, it is a difficult pace to maintain. Goaltending will still be the biggest strength of the Sens team, they just will not be able to able to combine for a .940 SV% over 82 games.

Ottawa’s current depth chart is:

Michalek     Spezza         Ryan

May 6, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Anaheim Ducks right wing Bobby Ryan (9) skates with the puck against the Detroit Red Wings in game four of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs at Joe Louis Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Conacher     Turris          Zibanejad

MacArthur  Smith           Neil

Greening     Pageau         Condra

Methot       Karlsson

Phillips      Wiercioch

Cowen        Corvo

Anderson

Lehner

The Senators goaltending makes them a difficult team to beat on any given night. However, their lack of scoring will catch up to them any time that Anderon or Lehner are not excellent.

An injury history to many prominent players, and a lack of top end scoring (only one player on the roster scored 30 points last season) will keep them from climbing any higher than fourth in the Atlantic Division this season.

Topics: Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators

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