There were two major surprises in the NHL's Eastern Conference last season.
The Florida Panthers rode some smart offseason maneuvering to the Southeast Division title, beating out the likes of perennial power Washington and 2010 Eastern Conference finalist Tampa Bay. The Panthers then took eventual Cup finalist New Jersey to seven games in the first round before losing in double overtime.
But the bigger surprise may have been the Ottawa Senators. Despite a roster full of young, unproven players, and some preseason question marks in goal, the Senators earned the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, then pushed the top-seeded Rangers to seven games in the first round.
Yeah, the Rangers won, but no one -- myself included -- thought the Senators had any business taking that series the distance.
The Senators weren't all about the youth last season. It just seemed that way. 22-year-old defenseman Erik Karlsson won the Norris Trophy, posting 78 points in 81 games. Zack Smith had a solid season, as did Colin Greening. Milan Michalek, only 27, posted a career-best 35 goals.
Meanwhile, Jason Spezza led the way with 34 goals -- tying a career high -- and 84 points. Captain Daniel Alfredsson had 27 goals and 59 points, and he will return for at least another season in Ottawa.
Craig Anderson was solid and durable in goal, posting unspectacular numbers, but also playing well enough to keep his low-scoring team alive against the Rangers, right up to the bitter end.
Offseason changes / New additions
The Senators didn't do much in the offseason. The only major changes to the NHL roster involve one trade and one free-agent signing.
Forward Guillaume Latendresse was brought in on a one-year deal after Minnesota declined to extend a qualifying offer. That the Wild would let Latendresse go was not surprising. Latendresse impressed with Minnesota during the 2009-2010 season after a trade from Montreal, scoring 25 goals in 55 games. Given a two-year deal by the Wild, Latendresse celebrated by reportedly showing up out of shape in 2010, then missing all but 11 games, during which he scored three goals. Last season, Latendresse missed all but 16 games with injuries, including a concussion. He scored five goals and totaled nine points.
Ottawa swung a trade with Columbus for defenseman Marc Methot. They had to give up promising forward Nick Foligno to make the deal, but the Senators feel Methot solidifies a defense that lost Filip Kuba to Florida in free agency. Methot doesn't do much offensively, but he's a steady blue-liner who can help Karlsson do his thing five-on-five.
Moving forward, the Senators figure to dip into a deep pool of prospects, especially at forward. 2011 first-rounder Mika Zibanejad isn't far from being ready for regular NHL ice time. Jakob Silfverberg impressed in a playoff callup last season, and he might be ready, too. Goalie Robin Lehner continues to develop nicely, and there will come a point where he supplants Anderson as the No. 1 goalie, in all likelihood.
The Senators have the best of both worlds right now. Reliable, respected veteran players, and a nice-looking line of youth ready to make a splash in the NHL. If the Senators continue to get solid goaltending, there's no reason they can't keep building a contender in the East.
For more on the Senators, check in with Silver Seven.