Lookey-here, the summer's over and the pre-season starts in just over a week. If you're like me, you're starting to get the itch to talk hockey and after getting together tonight with my fellow Ottawa Citizen prediction panelists, I'm scratching like a hound dog! (Pictured left to right: fellow social media types Peter and Graeme, Ian Mendes of Sportsnet, James Gordon of the Ottawa Citizen and myself.)
Of course, the big topic tonight was the up-coming Sens' season. As the conversation went on, it seemed that my cohorts considered me somewhat delusional for my optimism regarding the upcoming season. Rightly so, I guess, but after three long years of negativity surrounding this team, I've decided that I will blindly believe in the possibilities until I'm proven wrong. I figure I deserve a little silver lining after all the clouds of the past few seasons.
It seems few believe the Sens can accomplish much this season and at first glance, that would be the smart bet. However, the way I see it, this team has a chance to surprise a lot of people, if a whole whack of things go their way. And there is a long list of ifs.
If- Paul McLean has any people skills at all (and it seems he does), he'll automatically have a more enthusiastic team than the one that had no interest in playing for Clouston. That's a good start right there.
If- Craig Anderson plays all season like he did in the late part of last season, how can you not expect a few more points in the win column? Repeatedly falling behind early last year on bad goals crushed this team's hopes on so many nights. Strong goaltending could be like a miracle drug for a team that has so rarely had it.
If- The stars stay healthy. A team that will be going through a rebuild, using so many young, inexperienced players like the Sens will be, cannot survive long if their go-to guys are out of the line up as much as they were last season. The likes of Spezza, Michalek, Alfie and Karlsson will have to be around and produce for the team to have any chance at all. (With Spezza being the big dog now, the team should be able to back off Alfie's minutes and not rely on him as much as they used to, thus helping him stay healthy and in the line-up. Plus, there won't be the pressure to over-use the captain, as they have in the past, with less on the line.)
If- The vets on D, Philips and Gonchar, can bounce back from abysmal seasons. I'm hoping that much of what caused these two guys to have the worst seasons of their careers can be attributed to the disconnect with the past coaching staff. If they can rebound to somewhat of their former selves under the new regime, things will be a lot less scary in our own zone this year. (Note: I'm not holding out the same hope for Kuba.) This will be critical with the expected addition of two rookies on the blue line.
If- These rookies, Cowen and Rundblad, can step in and play solidly in their first years. I don't expect the moon from these guys (remember that Karlsson also struggled out of the gate) but if they can just hold their own, that should be enough to improve upon last year's debacle that was the defense.
If- We find even one diamond in the rough. With so many new faces vying for positions with the club, surely there must be at least one of them that will exceed our expectations, right? Right? Anyone? Hello? You're not buying that one? Well, it could happen. Maybe Filatov finds a fit here. Maybe Butler is Spezza's new trigger man. Maybe Condra, Greening or Smith thrive in a pressure-free atmosphere. Maybe one of the many new draftees bursts onto the scene and catches everyone by surprise. Sure, not all of these things will happen but maybe one or two will.
If- Some of the teams, that so many of the pundits are saying will be better than the Sens, struggle. Who knows better than Sens fans that a team on paper doesn't always live up to the hype? This one I'm confident about. Some other team, or maybe several teams, will suck that we didn't expect to. This could help Ottawa finish higher than expected.
I know, that's a LOT of ifs, and I know they won't all come to pass. But I'm thinking this franchise is due for a break or two. So much has gone against them lately that the tide is bound to turn, sooner or later. There should also be some residual karma left over from the Calder Cup run with the youngens, making them much more confident. And with so many bodies ready to jump into the line up and take their shot, this team is likely to play hungry many more nights than not. I'd imagine there will be a very short leash on anyone not getting it done this season and that has to be a strong motivator to bust your ass every game.
Maybe I'm dreaming in techni-colour but what the hell. I'm not saying the Sens are a play-off team but if enough of these things fall their way, they could be in the discussion late in the season. I'd prefer to hope for the best and see where the cards fall than to dread every game like we did last year. If nothing else, I expect them to be entertaining and competitive, which no one can argue would be an improvement.
Hockey makes me...hopelessly optimistic. At least in September.