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MacGregor: Healed Sens ready to hit ground running

"Harbinger."

Such a strange word for an NHL head coach to use, especially when they usually fall back on such handy clichés as "puck support" and "process" and the ridiculous image of "200-foot players."

But there was Paul MacLean, named NHL coach of the year less than three months ago, suggesting a successful Ottawa Senators charity golf event could turn out to be "a harbinger of a great season."

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Anyone searching for any meaningful foreshadowing of the upcoming hockey season at the splendid Rideau View Country Club on Tuesday morning might have shivered slightly, and not just from the unseasonable cold.

The skies were dark, rain had briefly stopped, but thunderstorms, which had passed through the nation's capital earlier in the morning, were predicted to return.

The Senators' best player, 2012 James Norris Memorial Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson, was there to play, but also to caution that the Achilles tendon so mangled by the skate stomp of then-Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke last winter was not 100 per cent. "It's not what it used to be," he told the gathered media, "but it's still better than I thought it would be."

The Senators' beloved captain, Daniel Alfredsson (a superb golfer), was nowhere to be seen, of course, having embarked for the Detroit Red Wings – and no player has yet to be named to wear the "C" for 2013-14. After "due diligence," MacLean promised, one will be tagged – with Karlsson, Chris Phillips and early favourite Jason Spezza in the running. "Whoever gets it will be the right person," a diplomatic Spezza said.

The Senators' best purely defensive prospect on the blueline, Jared Cowen, is a contract holdout, seemingly convinced his mere 90 NHL games have turned him into a $3.5-million (U.S.) commodity – something he might well be with another team not under the severe cap restrictions of the Senators. According to the website capgeek.com, which tracks and tallies such salary matters, the Senators stand at $58.835-million for the upcoming season – and owner Eugene Melnyk is not keen to reach much more beyond the $50-million target he set for the team.

All that aside, NHL hockey in Canada has become what farming in the West used to be – "Next Year Country" – with all seven teams eager to be first to claim the country's first Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.

The Senators, after all, went farther than any of them last spring when they knocked off the Canadiens and made it to the second round of the playoffs, eventually losing to the Penguins.

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Karlsson, the heart of Ottawa's attack, said "only time will tell" how well his heel responds, but "I'm not concerned that it's going to affect my game."

It most assuredly did affect his game when he attempted to return for the playoffs, but if the injury has healed well enough for him to sparkle as he did in 2011-12, this is good news indeed. Having lost veteran blueliner Sergei Gonchar to free agency, Ottawa will need Karlsson more than ever.

Injuries were the central theme of Ottawa's lockout-shortened 2013 season, with Karlsson, Spezza, goaltender Craig Anderson and top forward Milan Michalek all lost for various stretches. All claim they are healthy and back and ready, as Spezza put it, to "hit the ground running."

Spezza cautioned, however, there will be one critical factor this season that will affect all middling teams in the Eastern Conference: the addition of the Detroit Red Wings (who move into the East, while the Winnipeg Jets transfer to the Western Conference).

The Red Wings don't tend to miss the postseason.

"The biggest challenge," Spezza said, "especially with realignment, is just to make the playoffs."

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Less than a month into the new season, Oct. 23, the Senators will travel to Detroit to play the Red Wings. The measure that night will not be which of the two teams seems likeliest to make the playoffs, but how new arrival Bobby Ryan stacks up against departed captain Alfredsson.

Had Alfredsson not flown, Ryan would never have landed. The day the Sens traded two fine young prospects to the Anaheim Ducks for Ryan, the 26-year-old American tweeted: "Ottawa I'm coming in hot."

The hope is he will be, having had four 30-plus goal seasons in Anaheim and already pegged to play with the slick-passing Spezza and speedy Michalek.

There will be, however, some serious adjustments to be made in his personal life. Playing hockey in a Canadian city, he said, is like "night and day" compared with playing in California.

He also has a love of Starbucks coffee.

"I don't drink Tim Hortons, yet," he said before teeing off.

"I'm gonna learn."

@RoyMacG

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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