By Stu Hackel
If it was listening, amid the clatter coming from the London Olympics and the anxiety from the CBA talks in New York, the entire hockey world heard a gigantic sigh of relief in Ottawa on Tuesday when the Senators announced that their captain Daniel Alfredsson will return for his 17th NHL season.
The reason for the sigh was two-fold. First, because even if he didn't come back for the second year of his existing contract, his $4.875 million cap hit would still count against Ottawa's total because he's over 35. The Sens are a budget team for whom every dollar counts. Second, putting aside crass business considerations, Alfredsson remains their top right-winger and undisputed leader in the room and on the ice. It's hard to believe this team would continue to progress without him.
The club created a very nice start page for its website featuring three photos of Alfie wearing three different sweaters accompanied by the words, "Ready For More!" -- which might be the rising team's marketing slogan as well as their captain's frame of mind.
There had been serious concern that Alfredsson would join countryman Nick Lidstrom in retirement this summer. He wasn't certain if he still had the inner drive to go through another grueling NHL campaign, one in which he'll turn 40 in December. When Sweden was eliminated at the World Championships in May, Alfie wondered aloud if he had played his last competitive game. "I do not know if the power is still there," he said. "If I feel I have the desire and the will to go through with the workouts, and to push myself, then it's a go and I'll play. If not, I'll say I don't have what it takes. I don't think it's fair for myself or anyone else to think that I just go through the summer so-so and then expect to play and be good."
So after a little rest, Alfredsson took to the gym to evaluate his readiness. His back problems of the past few years had limited his training, and surgery last summer to correct the malady made his offseason more about rehab. He wanted to push himself in June and July for the first time in a while and see how he'd react. He liked the results, especially the last week when he felt his strength was sufficient to indicate that he'd be able to contribute at the level he wants.
"I think I had the intention of playing from the beginning, but had to go through the process to really know for sure," he said during a conference call to discuss returning (audio). And now that he knows, he's intrigued by how good he can be this season, when he's once again fully healthy and better trained. "My goal is to improve," he said. "I think I can come into camp much better prepared than I was last year, which should help me to be more consistent. I'm not looking to be close to what I was last year, I would like to improve and be better."
Alfredsson would join a pretty select group of NHLers if his game did improve. All the NHL's 40-somethings showed signs that they still had it when it counted last season. Lidstrom was in the Norris Trophy discussion for most of the season. Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney and Marty Brodeur not only played like they belonged in this young man's game, they all had good campaigns.
Alfie is coming off a very good season of his own. His 27 goals were the most he's scored since 2007-08 when he hit the 40 plateau. Coach Paul MacLean wisely reduced his ice time last season (18:57 per game, his lowest average in 10 seasons) and that helped keep him fresh.
But the factor that may have really rejuvenated Alfredsson was how well the Senators played last season with one of the youngest rosters in the league. Although he admitted he hadn't focused on the team's success as a consideration in his decision to return, he believed it probably was a subconscious motivation. "We had a lot of fun as a group," he said, "and we were able to push each other as a group throughout the year. Obviously, this year will be a tougher challenge to do it again, but our coaching staff and management team around it is in a real good state which makes it fun to go to the rink. So, yeah, that's probably a big factor."
The Sens were sparked by one of their youngest members, Erik Karlsson, who emerged as the NHL's top defenseman. As Sens radio analyst Gord Wilson noted on Wednesday morning over the NHL's XM satellite radio channel (audio), Alfie is a mentor to Karlsson and the 22-year-old Norris Trophy-winner's youthful verve inspires the veteran captain. In fact, Alfredsson goes through his daily training regimen in Sweden with Karlsson and they are supervised by Peter Froberg, a track and field coach who trained Karlsson last summer, with obviously good results.
If there's another reason for the deep exhale in Ottawa, it's the esteem in which Senators fans hold Afredsson, whose contract drops to only $1 million this season, despite the sum charged against the cap. There may be no better bargain in hockey. He could have stayed home if he was only in it for the money. This franchise has been cursed with big name players who regularly disappointed in one way or another, starting with Alexander Daigle. Then there was Radek Bonk, Alexei Yashin, Marian Hossa and Dany Heatley. Not Alfie. Many think of him as the most popular athlete in this history of the nation's capital city, as TSN's James Duthie, himself an Ottawa native, mentioned in this profile from last February's All-Star Weekend.
I confess to always admiring Alfredsson as a player from the first time I saw him early in his career one night at Madison Square Garden. I don't recall how many points he registered, but I do remember that he was easily the best player on the ice, which was really saying something considering the Rangers had both Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky in their lineup. Alfredsson was, and still is, very quick and awfully slick with the puck, more reminiscent to me of a classic center-ice man than a right-winger. I've never seen him take a shift off. He's great without the puck, too, and he has the knack for making the big play when the Sens need it. My friend Mike Boone of The Montreal Gazette, who live blogs all the Canadiens' games for the paper's Hockey Inside/Out blog, angrily calls him "Daniel F. Alfredsson" -- the F as in "effing" because of his Habs-killing exploits and I'm sure Boone would have been happy to see him not return this season.
There are probably lots of opponents who would have preferred facing the Sens this season without having Number 11 in Ottawa's lineup. They may end up sighing, too. But for a different reason.
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