Ottawa Senators new head coach Craig Hartsburg smiles as he answers media questions during a press conference at the Scotiabank Place in Ottawa on Friday, June 13, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators arrived for the opening of training camp Tuesday and were greeted by new faces and a new philosophy - the product of their longest off-season in 12 years.
On paper, the Senators expected to have one of the NHL's top teams in 2007-08. Instead, after a campaign filled with off-ice distractions, they stumbled badly and suffered a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Officially in charge Tuesday for the first time since taking over the coaching reins in June, Craig Hartsburg laid out his No. 1 priority for a team that finished as runner-up for the Stanley Cup just 15 months ago.
"What's on paper is great, but we have to build an identity and that starts today," said Hartsburg, who gave up his job with the Ontario Hockey League's Soo Greyhounds in favour of a return to the NHL ranks.
"We like the pieces that are here, the depth that we have, but like I said, on paper, it doesn't really matter. It's the identity we build and how quickly we build."
Hartsburg, 49, played 10 seasons with the Minnesota North Stars and later coached with the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks.
In Ottawa, he inherits a group that was often knocked last year for not working hard enough and not being willing to pay the price to win.
It's an image the Senators want to change.
"We've kind of gone from a skill team three years ago, to more of a hard-working, disciplined team two years ago, to kind of losing our way last year and I'd like to find our way again," said general manager Bryan Murray, who had to take over behind the bench to finish last season after John Paddock was fired in February.
"I think Craig, like me, just wants guys that show up every day, work hard, pursue the puck, make it so it's just very difficult for teams to play against."
The off-season saw the departures of defencemen Wade Redden, Andrej Meszaros, Mike Commodore and Lawrence Nycholat, while forwards Cory Stillman, Randy Robitaille, Martin Lapointe and Brian McGrattan also left.
Goaltender Ray Emery, often blamed for many of the distractions, was sent packing, too.
In their place came Jason Smith, Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and Brendan Bell on the back end and Jarkko Ruutu, Ryan Shannon and Brad Isbister up front, with Alex Auld in goal.
Hartsburg's task is now to build that identity he spoke of, and he has his idea of what he's looking for.
"We've got skill, we've got some guys that can play a hard game and we want to combine them," Hartsburg said while the players underwent medicals and fitness testing at Scotiabank Place, where they open the pre-season Saturday against the New York Rangers.
"We want to be a team that plays with character, discipline and a relentless work ethic that plays together. Really try to build a mentally that we're on the attack, whether it's offensively or defensively."
The Senators shied away from making any high-priced signings in the off-season, preferring instead to spend their money on keeping players such as forwards Chris Kelly and Antoine Vermette after stars like Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza were last fall locked up to long-term extensions that kick in this season.
And if expectations were high in Ottawa a year ago, last season's letdown sees them scaled back considerably heading into the new campaign, which should make it easier on those who are back to concentrate on the task assigned to them by Hartsburg.
"We're going to have a plan and an identity for the year," Heatley said. "I think everyone's going to know what's expected of them and you've got to do your job, whatever that job may be.
"We're excited about kind of a big change."
Last season came to an end on April 16, two days earlier than at any time since the Senators first made the playoffs in 1997. Since then, they've had to listen to an awful lot of analysis on what went wrong. So Tuesday's opening day was a welcome chance to start fresh.
"It's been a long wait for us, that's for sure," said defenceman Chris Phillips who, with the departure of Redden to the Rangers through free agency, becomes the second-longest serving member of the team after captain Daniel Alfredsson.
"There's new faces and guys they brought in with a positive feeling to make this team better," said Phillips, who's entering his 11th season in Ottawa.
"I didn't see it as a huge distraction last year, but they guys they brought in are certainly solid hockey players, but everyone they have brought in, they talk about their character as well. That's definitely going to help."