Forget the Battle of Ontario. As far as the Ottawa Senators are concerned it's now a full-blown curse.
A year after winning their first Presidents' Trophy and coming within a goal of advancing to their first-ever Stanley Cup final (and quite likely their first-ever Stanley Cup championship), the Ottawa Senators took a significant step backward as they failed to advance beyond the first round, dropping their fourth playoff series in the last five years to their hated cross-province rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Once again, the loss sparked much soul-searching in Canada's capital about the nature of the team's heart or rather the seeming lack of it in clutch situations. As they did in losing a seven-game set against Toronto two years ago, the more talented Senators could not deliver a decisive performance when the series appeared to be theirs for the taking. After dominating the Leafs in Game 4, they seemed lifeless in Game 5 and likewise in Game 7. A potent offense that led the league with 262 goals in the regular season delivered just three in the last three games of the series.
The seven-game series loss cost coach Jacques Martin his job and saw the departure of underachieving talent Radek Bonk to Montreal via Los Angeles on draft day. The biggest change saw goalie-of-the-future Patrick Lalime, who suffered through a dreadful Game 7 against Toronto letting in two soft, long-range goals, dealt to the St. Louis Blues to make room for enigmatic Dominik Hasek. Hasek is now reunited with former coach and general manager John Muckler as the Senators attempt to find that elusive championship chemistry under new coach Bryan Murray.
Muckler spoke to ESPN.com about the disappointments of last season and what he sees in the coming months for a team many prognosticators picked last fall to be Stanley Cup champions.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season?
Muckler: I don't think we ever got on track, to tell you the truth, based on our last season. I think we underestimated what it would take. I think we thought things would just continue (from the previous season), which it didn't. We had more problems than our players anticipated. We'd show signs that we were turning the corner and then we'd drop off again.
The year before we seemed to win every one-goal game, but last year we lost (17) one-goal games. When we had opportunities to close in on first place we never seemed to win those games. I think our approach, on some levels, wasn't the same, as far as preparation goes. I think that will change this year with a new coaching staff. I think they will respond and I think that will give us a better start.
In the playoffs, we tied the series 2-2 and then came to Toronto for another crucial game and we were flat. We tied the series 3-3, just dominated the game. And then we didn't win the seventh game.
It's preparation. That all starts from the season before. You have to be prepared from Day 1 to make it happen.
As he was in avoiding specific praise of Norris Trophy finalist Zdeno Chara or leading scorer Marian Hossa, who continues blossom, Muckler is reluctant to be specific about players whose performance has been more spotty. He avoided discussion of junior phenom Jason Spezza, who never seemed to click with the departed Martin, despite finishing fourth in team scoring, but who is expected to get more opportunity under Murray; and defenseman Wade Redden, who has seen an uneven pattern to his development in spite of a superior set of tools. Instead Muckler stressed the team's quirky chemistry, the one area that seems to stand between a talented team and success.
ESPN.com: Which player made the biggest strides in your estimation or had the biggest impact on your team?
Muckler: I don't want to bring that up. I've got to sign a few of those guys. I can't really say. I think everybody on our team can play better.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this fall?
Muckler: All 20 players. We didn't take the step forward and that was the problem. We didn't know how to handle the situation. The results showed that.
On a deep and talented team, opportunities for rookies will be at a premium. Instead, the established younger players will be battling for ice time and place on the depth chart under new coach Murray. Among the names to watch are Antoine Vermette, a forward who at one point displaced Spezza in the Senators' playoff lineup, and young defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who will continue to try and earn more playing time.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
Muckler: I think there's going to be a battle for the No. 2 spot in goal. Ray Emery (the Senators' starting AHL netminder) will certainly join Martin Prusek in that battle. I don't know if we'll be adding players (from the minors). We've pretty well got everybody up above. They're going to have to earn their ice time. That will be entertaining at training camp.
Had Muckler not made the bold move of trading Lalime, a man who set a franchise record for wins (39) and shutouts (8) in 2002-03, to open up a spot for Hasek, goaltending might have been the obvious answer to the next question. But he did and again Muckler turns to the intangible elements of his team in terms of upgrading.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Muckler: I know that our work ethic can be better. A new coaching staff should see to that.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite memory of last season?
Muckler: I don't have one. Not really. It was pretty much an up and down year.
ESPN.com: Least favorite?
Muckler: Game 5 against Toronto is the biggest disappointment I had, personally.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Muckler: We have a place in Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico. So I'm going to go down and look at the blue water. I'm not a fisherman. We have a condo down there and we're going to do some work on it, some renovations.
ESPN.com: Will you be playing handyman?
Muckler: No. I'm going to hire someone to do it.
Scott Burn side is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.