The Ottawa Senators’ season ended with elimination from the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, but it's an ending few foresaw last fall.
Entering this season, the rebuilding Senators, who finished 13th in the Eastern Conference and 26th overall in 2010-11, were expected to once again be among the bottom feeders in the standings.
Under the guidance of first-year coach Paul MacLean, however, the Senators were among this season's most surprising stories, finishing eighth overall in the East.
They went on to push the New York Rangers, a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, to the limit in their opening round series before falling in an entertaining, hard-fought seven games.
A key factor in the Senators’ stunning turnaround was their improved offense. In 2010-11, they were second-worst in goals per game, while their power play was 15th overall. This season, they were fourth-best in goals per game and climbed to 11th overall with the man advantage.
Veteran forwards Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek and Nick Foligno saw their offensive numbers significantly improve over last season, as did defensemen Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba.
Promising players such as Colin Greening, Zack Smith, Erik Condra and mid-season addition Kyle Turris also contributed to the increase in scoring.
The Senators have a promising future, but there are still issues GM Bryan Murray must resolve this summer if they're to build upon this season's improvement.
The most important, of course, is re-signing 21-year-old blueline superstar Karlsson, who is coming off his entry level contract having led all defensemen in points (78), finishing second to Spezza in team scoring and earning a Norris Trophy nomination.
In February, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk praised Karlsson's performance, saying he could go on to become one of the greatest defensemen in NHL history.
Karlsson's agent will be only too happy to use Melnyk's comments as ammunition to score a rich deal for his client in their upcoming contract talks.
The Sens owner, however, recently said Karlsson would have to be reasonable with his salary demands, sparking speculation he’s setting the stage for tough negotiations with the young star.
It's been suggested Karlsson will get between $6.5- and $7.5-million per season. If he wins the Norris, his agent could seek the upper limit of that range.
Regardless of how long or potentially difficult Karlsson's negotiations become, it's considered a certainty he'll be re-signed.
It's possible a rival club will swoop in with a heavily front-loaded deal, but that threat has rarely played out in recent years.
Given the uncertainty over what will be contained in the next collective bargaining agreement, it's unlikely Karlsson will get an offer sheet if he's still unsigned in early July.
The Senators currently have more than $36.5 million invested in 14 players, so finding the cap space to re-sign Karlsson won't be a problem.
In the recent past, Melnyk was willing to spend toward the cap ceiling, but since last season he and Murray have been devoted to rebuilding with a lower payroll.
If Murray maintains a tighter budget, what Karlsson receives could affect how much fellow RFA teammates Foligno and Peter Regin get, as well as determine if his defense partner Kuba, an unrestricted free agent, is re-signed or allowed to walk via free agency.
Other UFAs include rugged center Zenon Kenopka and defenseman Matt Carkner, whose toughness made them fan favorites. They would be affordable re-signings, but there's no guarantee they'll return.
The Senators goaltending was solid, with Craig Anderson carrying the bulk of the workload and promising Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop ably filling in when Anderson suffered a late-season hand injury.
Despite their improved offense and steady goaltending, the Senators’ defensive game still needs work, ranking 24th overall in goals-against per game and 20th overall on the penalty kill.
The development of promising blueliner Jared Cowen should help and smooth-skating veteran Sergei Gonchar should return for another season.
If Murray decides against re-signing Kuba, he'll have to find a suitable replacement and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to add another affordable veteran defenseman to mentor the young blueliners.
Murray hasn't ruled out venturing into the free agent market for veteran depth, but he's not expected to join the bidding for the few top players who could be available, such as New Jersey's Zach Parise and Nashville's Ryan Suter.
Finally, there's the question of team captain Alfredsson's future.
Although everyone in the organization, and the overwhelming majority of Senators fans, would prefer ‘Alfie’ return for the final season of his current contract, he's yet to make any decision on his future plans, though it's expected he'll reach one some point in June.
If the 39-year-old Alfredsson, who suffered two concussions this season, decides to retire, it'll leave a void in leadership, experience and offense, which will be difficult-to-impossible to fill.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.