Ottawa Senators’ 2011-12 Roster and Expectations

With the signing of Bobby Butler the Ottawa Senators now have 19 players on one-way deals and another 3 on two-ways expected to play.  For all intents and purposes their roster is set.  A lot could change between now and the end of training camp, but assuming no one is traded it’s worth taking a look at the lineup and consider how competitive a team they will be.

First, the basics (the players):
-Forwards signed to one-way deals: Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek, Chris Neil, Nick Foligno, Bobby Butler, Peter Regin, Colin Greening, Jesse Winchester, Zack Smith, Zenon Konopka, and Erik Condra.
-Forwards on two-way deals who are expected to be on the team: Nikita Filatov.
-Defencemen signed to one-way deals: Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips, Brian Lee, Matt Carkner.
-Defencemen on two-way deals who are expected to be on the team: Erik Karlsson and David Rundblad.
-Goalies (both on one-way deals): Craig Anderson and Alex Auld (this situation is so clearcut that I won’t go into it further).

This makes for a 22-man roster with a cap hit of 50,545,833 (using capgeek‘s calculator), which is just a little over the cap floor.  There’s a lot of speculation on who might play where, but there are a number of things I think can be taken for granted (some of these may seem obvious, but they’re worth mentioning):
1. Jason Spezza will center the first line
2. Erik Karlsson will be in the top pairing
3. Milan Michalek, Daniel Alfredsson, Bobby Butler and Nikita Filatov will play in the top six
4. Zenon Konopka and Jesse Winchester will play on the fourth line
5. Chris Neil will play in the bottom six
6. Peter Regin will play center
I don’t think there’s much room for argument here and it provides a framework to guess at the lineup we might see.

Forward Lines
First: Filatov-Spezza-Butler
This assumes Filatov makes the team (otherwise Foligno gets this spot); Butler played well with Spezza down the stretch while not showing much chemistry with any other center; neither winger makes much sense in the bottom-six
Second: Michalek-Regin-Alfredsson
For whatever reason Michalek has never meshed well with Spezza (bleacherreport.com/articles/507151-power-ranking-the-30-nhl-top-lines#/articles/ 507151-power-ranking-the-30-nhl-top-lines/page/19); Alfredsson could easily play on the top-line, but I believe Butler will be given that opportunity for the reasons outlined above
Third: Foligno-Smith-Condra
I don’t think Smith is a good fit on the third line, but the organisation is high on him so I think he’ll be given that chance (slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Hockey/NHL/Ottawa/2011/03/ 06/pf-17517966.html); Chris Neil could be here as well, but I think he’s more effective as a fourth-liner (and Condra as a third-liner)
Fourth: Greening-Konopka-Neil
The addition of Konopka means Winchester is no longer required in the lineup for his faceoff acumen and I believe Greening is a better fit on the wing

Defence Pairings
First: Karlsson-Phillips
There’s no question that Karlsson will lead the team in ice time (as he did last year) and will have a defensive stalwart on the other side, which I believe will be Philliips (Kuba could, potentially, be slotted here)
Second: Kuba-Rundblad
This assumes Rundblad is in the lineup (if it’s Brian Lee, then he takes the right side with Gonchar in this slot), and Rundblad needs someone responsible to play with
Third: Gonchar-Carkner
I suspect Gonchar‘s even strength play will be reduced from last year and Carkner is a decent partner for him–neither is fleet of foot, but Carkner is good defensively.  Brian Lee could be in this spot instead of Carkner, in which case I believe this would become the second unit (KubaRundblad being the third)

A few obvious questions present themselves:
1. Why David Rundblad over Jared Cowen?
There are a couple of reasons for this.  First and foremost, there are 3 NHL veterans ahead of Cowen on the left side (Phillips, Gonchar, Kuba) who also have the biggest salaries on the blueline.  The only way they aren’t playing is via injury or trade.  On the right side for the Sens after Erik Karlsson there’s only heavyweight Carkner and Brian Lee–both are useful spare parts, but more easily displaced.  Secondly, Rundblad has spent three full seasons playing against men in the Swedish Elite League.  As good as Cowen has been as a junior and playing for Binghamton in the playoffs, it’s not quite the same resume.  Admittedly, both Phillips and Gonchar can play their off side, but I’m guessing they won’t.
2. Peter Regin struggled last season, why is he the second line center?
The simplest answer is that he’s the best available player to have that role.  The other centers (and I’m excluding both Nick Foligno and Colin Greening, since the organisation clearly prefers them on the wing) are Zack Smith, Jesse Winchester, and Zenon Konopka.  These are not top-six players.  In theory Mika Zibanejad or Stephane Da Costa could be in the conversation, but I think that’s unlikely (for the latter I have to reference Muir’s comments here m.si.com/news/archive/archive/detail).
3. Why is Sergei Gonchar on the third pairing?
This is the biggest guess on my part and is based on Rundblad being in the lineup.  I think both Gonchar and Rundblad need defensively responsible partners, but at the same time I think Rundblad will play more than Carkner; given that they play the same side, I think Kuba will play with the latter.
4. Greening/Condra played higher in the lineup last year, so why won’t that continue?
They are tough to slot, since both are good enough defensively and offensively to play throughout the lineup.  However, on the right side there’s no question that Alfredsson and Butler are ahead of Condra while on the left side Michalek, Foligno, and (if he makes the team) Filatov are ahead of Greening.
5. What about the organisational claim about competition in camp?
I think they mean it, but to shake this lineup the prospect is going to need a fantastic camp.  I don’t believe anyone beyond Zibanejad or Silfverberg (if they can convince him to come to camp) has a realistic shot at making the roster for opening night.  However, I do expect changes to be made as the season progresses.

Naturally, how players perform as the season progresses will dictate changes in the lineup, but right now these look like the lines and pairings the team will use.

So the question is, how good is this team?  Not a playoff contender, I believe.  I fully expect the Ottawa Senators to be more entertaining to watch, but among the basement dwellers in the East.  They are a younger and more physical team.  There is more skill on the blueline, but the team lacks scoring depth.  They are depending on projections and players stepping up, but there are no guarantees.  If everything goes right, they might have a shot, but that rarely happens.

I’ll come back to this article and update it when the season begins.  I plan on doing the same exploration of Binghamton’s lineup in the near future.

[An update (July 19): Yahoo sports has an article on the Senators that, in part, takes a look at its lineup (http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/news?slug=teamreports-2011-nhl-ott).  The article makes an error (suggesting winger Erik Condra is in the running for the second-line center position, a position he’s never played).  They also include Nick Foligno in that discussion (those who saw him as a pivot this past season will be surprised at that) and Zack Smith.  The article also compares Condra to Chris Kelly.]