General manager Pierre Gauthier has an aversion to high numbers,
so how's this: For the first time in its six-year history,
Ottawa isn't projected to finish No. 26 in the 26-team NHL. Of
course, the Senators were so bad that they often looked as if
they would finish 30th in a 26-team league. That was until last
year's stunning march to the playoffs, the result of a new
professionalism instilled by Gauthier and coach Jacques Martin
and the maturation of high draft choices. Ottawa has some good
players, although you might need a scorecard to identify them
Gauthier banned uniform numbers above 35, ridding the Senators
of those gauche numbers that look great on Wayne Gretzky but
self-promoting on everyone else. So right wing Alexandre Daigle
is dropping from number 91 to number 9 and center Radek Bonk
from number 76 to number 14, and a handful of others also have
been numerically cut down to size. Now if Daigle can only get
his grim -130 plus-minus career stat into double digits, the
Senators might have something.
Daigle, though, always has been the No. 2 Alex in Ottawa. Alexei
Yashin, who, like Daigle, joined the Senators in their second
season, is ready to explode into a 100-point center. Assuming
Gauthier's passion for small numbers doesn't prevent him from
coming to terms with outstanding two-way rightwinger Daniel
Alfredsson, a restricted free agent who was unsigned at week's
end, the Senators will have one of the few explosive offenses in
the tight-checking Eastern Conference.
Until last season Ottawa had been horrid on defense. In training
camp, however, they had nine defensemen they could count on;
plus 1996 No. 1 draft choice Chris Phillips seems ready to
contribute. The Senators' biggest concern could be goaltending.
Damian Rhodes hopes to regain the top job from Ron Tugnutt, a
career backup who was outstanding down the stretch and in the
playoffs after Rhodes went down last February with an ankle
injury. Rhodes had a lot of rehabilitation to do, not only to
his ankle (he underwent minor surgery in the off-season) but
also to his reputation. There were whispers that he wouldn't
play hurt, one of the NHL's cardinal sins.
But in Ottawa, cardinal sins are out and low cardinal numbers
are in. If you are what you wear, the Senators could be headed
toward No. 1 by the end of the century.