The NHL 30-in-30 series examined the Ottawa Senators Tuesday, August 18. There may not be a team with more reason to be optimistic about both the future and the present.
While picked fourth in the Atlantic Division in this column last month, the Senators have plenty of success to build on. A searing 21-3-3 finish to the 2014-15 NHL season put them back in the Stanley Cup playoffs and they fought hard in a series against the top team in the division during the regular season.
Andrew Hammond and Craig Anderson are about as good a goalie tandem as there is in the NHL. That keeps teams in games, and an elite defenceman (Canadian spelling for a Canadian team) like Erik Karlsson give Ottawa someone capable of turning any play around on the ice over 25 minutes per game. There is not much blue-line scoring beyond the captain, but the unit is solid in its own end.
The talent around those two key spots is not yet impressive, but it will get tougher to handle at a faster rate than almost any other team. Everyone is 30 and under but Anderson, Chris Phillips and Chris Neil. Both the forward and blue-line units are more than half filled with players 25 and under. Hammond is 27 but should grow faster than many younger since he has just 26 career games, with 24 in the 2014-15 NHL season and two more in the Stanley Cup playoffs that followed.
Meanwhile, the top two lines are already able to compete with others that have longer histories of success. A fast unit with good depth rounds out a complete team with a bright future.
The main reason the Senators were picked to finish fourth is the strength of the Atlantic Division. It could take over the top overall record from the Central Division during the 2015-16 NHL season depending on how far the Stanley Cup champions fall during another one-year reload.
The Montreal Canadiens might be stronger than they were in the 2014-15 NHL season. They fell to the Stanley Cup runner-up Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic Division finals. Both those teams are further ahead in their development than Ottawa.
Moreover, the experienced Detroit Red Wings have reloaded for one more push with the still-elite tandem of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. A rebound from Jimmy Howard in net and not needing a M*A*S*H unit to handle excessive injuries again during the 2015-16 NHL season could make this a dangerous team.
On the other hand, the Red Wings could miss the Stanley Cup playoffs altogether if Howard struggles again or their aging core means continuing injuries and decline that outweighs the growth of some good young talent on the roster. If so, expect them to be overtaken by the Senators—along with the Canadiens or Lightning if they falter, perhaps passing them all with or without a falter by the 2016-17 NHL season.