OTTAWA - It wasn't all that long ago the Ottawa Senators were
considered to be among the elite of the NHL's Eastern Conference, but
times have changed and so have their expectations.

 

The past
couple of training camps featured talk of the Senators taking another
crack at the Stanley Cup that eluded them when they lost the 2007
final. This year however, the players have a more modest achievement in
mind.

 

“We should be able to fight for a playoff spot and make
the playoffs, that's our goal,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said during
training camp.

 

Back-to-back dismal seasons have dialled back the
expectation levels around Canada's capital. Last season's tumultuous
ride, ending with a playoff-less spring in Ottawa for the first time
since 1996, was particularly disheartening for the team and its
followers.

 

But there's reason to think the Senators won't suffer
the same fate this time around. Even after a summer in which the black
cloud of disgruntled star Dany Heatley hung over the team, there's
cause for optimism, albeit conservative, in Ottawa.

“Our team
looks deeper than it's been in a long time,” centre Jason Spezza said.
“The morale around here is pretty good right now.”

“There's lots
of new faces. Sometimes change is needed and that's what we've gone
through here. We had a couple of years where we haven't been very good
and underachieved and we've probably needed this change. Now that we've
(got) it, we're pretty excited about the season ahead.”

During
the off-season, the Senators didn't offer contracts to Mike Comrie and
defenceman Brendan Bell, allowed veteran blue-liner Jason Smith to
retire and traded away goaltender Alex Auld.

General manager
Bryan Murray made a splash in the free-agent market by signing sniper
Alex Kovalev to a US$10-million, two-year deal.

And, of course, the biggest move - and most drawn-out saga - was the trade that saw Heatley dealt to the San Jose Sharks.

Despite
losing a two-time 50-goal scorer and the franchise record-holder for
most goals (50) and points (105) in a season, the Senators received
wingers Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo from the Sharks, players
who could help solve the Senators' long-standing problem of secondary
scoring.

Cheechoo scored 56 goals to win the Rocket Richard
Trophy as the NHL's top sniper in 2005-06, but his declining production
since - seasons of 37, 23 and just 12 goals last season - suggest that
was a one-time deal. However, expecting 20 goals from the 29-year-old,
who's finally healthy after battling injury problems, isn't that far of
a stretch.

Meanwhile, the 24-year-old Michalek appears to be the
key to the deal for the Senators. The six-foot-two, 225-pound Czech,
who has scored 26, 24 and 23 goals the past three seasons, gives them
an added element of size and speed.

Either Michalek or Nick
Foligno, who scored 17 goals last season, will fill Heatley's role at
left wing on the top line alongside Spezza and Alfredsson. Cheechoo is
expected to play right wing with Ryan Shannon at centre on the third
line.

“You're never going to replace Dany Heatley, but the parts
we've brought in have really given us a lot of depth,” Spezza said.
“Any night, any of our lines can hurt you and that's something that we
haven't had as much in the last couple of years, so I think we're a
stronger team than we were last year.”

Then there's the addition
of Kovalev, who is coming off an inconsistent season in Montreal. He
bristles at the notion that he's under any pressure to produce, but,
given his skills, he'll be heavily counted on to help carry the offence.

“I
don't have any pressure,” he said. “I don't have to prove anything. I'm
just excited to be with this team. For me, I'm just trying to rebuild
what I started with the previous team. I believe this team can go
pretty far.

“This team has a lot of talent. There's so many
possibilities, you can make the lines so many different kinds of ways
and the lines can still be successful.”

Danish centre Peter
Regin is expected to make the jump from Binghamton of the American
Hockey League to at least start the season with the big club. The
Senators were so impressed with the work of the 23-year-old, who had a
goal and an assist in 11 NHL games last season, that they moved Mike
Fisher to left wing with Kovalev joining them on the team's second line.

Defencemen Erik Karlsson and Matt Carkner may also be given a shot to make the roster.

The
Sens hope the 19-year-old Karlsson will eventually blossom into a top
offensive defenceman, while the six-foot-four, 229-pound Carkner gives
them a tough presence on the blue-line.

Another new face is
goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who was acquired in March from the Columbus
Blue Jackets along with a draft pick for centre Antoine Vermette.

He
has yet to play a regular-season game for Ottawa after having last
season cut short by ankle surgery. Now that he's fully recovered, the
Senators are counting on him to finally provide stability in another
position that's been a sore spot for years.

“I don't know what
happened (before),” said Leclaire, who, like Kovalev, shrugs off the
idea that there's any added pressure on him. “To me, the real pressure
is coming from gaining the confidence of my teammates and earning their
trust.”

Coach Cory Clouston says the 26-year-old native of Repentigny, Que., provides the Senators with a “calming presence.”

The
downside to Leclaire is that he's had a history of injury problems over
his first four full NHL seasons. When healthy, he's shown he's more
than capable of being a No. 1 goaltender. His best season was in
2007-08 when he posted a 24-17-6 record, 2.25 goals-against average and
.919 save percentage in 54 games.

“He's a good goalie, there's
no question,” Alfredsson said. “It's a step up in that area for us.
It's too early to critique his game, but he's a level-headed guy who
can handle ups and downs well.”

The Senators wrapped up their
pre-season Friday night with a 2-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, finishing
exhibition play with a 2-4 record. The first regular-season test comes
Oct. 3 at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers.

After
that, Ottawa plays 16 of its next 22 games at home, and a quick start
to the season will give the team and its fans even more reason to feel
good.

“I think we're a better team,” said Clouston, who led the
Senators to a 19-11-4 finish after taking over when Craig Hartsburg was
fired in February.

“What we've done is we've balanced out some
scoring, we have more options. I think we're more dangerous from top to
bottom. You can't just key on one line and I think that's very
important.”