Given the Ottawa Senators’ current preseason revelations, it’s easy to imagine what it might have been like if the team had had this preamble a year ago.
Would a regular training camp, with preseason games, have changed the course of Ottawa’s 2020-21 pandemic-adjusted season?
Think about it for a second. Loaded with newly added veteran role players like Cedric Paquette, Braydon Coburn and Erik Gudbranson, in addition to newly acquired goalie Matt Murray, the Senators kicked off their season by favoring deep veterans over prospects across their lineup.
We know what happened. Murray, with no time to familiarize himself with his new defense, was terrible. Some of the veterans faltered and were eventually replaced by younger players in the organization. By the time the trade deadline rolled around, the Senators were one of the NHL’s hottest teams; even Murray rediscovered his game in the last month when Ottawa finished 10-3-1.
Forward to this fall. In his first speech to reporters, head coach DJ Smith made a startling admission about his “mistake” in evaluating Artem Zub, with nothing else to practice.
Like an undiscovered gem, Zub sat down as senators staggered through the month of January. On January 31, Zub played a modest 13 minutes in a loss to Edmonton, his NHL debut. By February, Zub was averaging more than 16 minutes per game. In March and April, his total time on the ice was close to 19 minutes as he established himself as Ottawa’s best pure defender.
On Friday night, Zub, now a first-pair defender with Thomas Chabot, received a hero’s welcome when he scored a shootout goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Oh, how things have changed in nine months, and not just when it comes to Zub’s condition. Rather than defaulting on players based on their league experience, the Senators get a chance to get a good look at the prospects on the cusp of preparation.
Without a preseason, Shane Pinto and Alex Formenton would almost certainly have started the season at AHL Belleville. But after watching them perform at camp and preseason games, how could the Senators demote them now?
In many cases, the future is now for the prospects of Ottawa.
Smith has been running out of superlatives for Pinto, who continues to play as a No. 2 center and finally gets his chance in Monday’s game against the visiting Maple Leafs. On the other hand, veteran Chris Tierney has missed a chance to cross Tim Stützle and Connor Brown, after a couple of gruesome games as a trio.
“Pinto has been as good as anyone in camp,” Smith said. “He just keeps making plays, and plays center really well – strong stick, good matchups. You can play the power game and kill penalties. So we think we have a good player there. “
Meanwhile, Formenton has risen to the tail of the top line alongside Josh Norris and Drake Batherson because he has done a reasonable job as a replacement for Brady Tkachuk, who has yet to sign a new contract. When Tkachuk arrives, Formenton will slide down the depth chart, but it is unlikely that he will slide all the way to Belleville.
“He wants to be in the NHL,” Smith said of the guy his teammates call ‘Forms.’ “He spent two years in the minors and he doesn’t want to go back.”
It’s not just kids who benefit from preseason games. Murray looks much more comfortable with the benefit of a more normal camp to get ready for the season. He earned the victory in a 7-2 breakout over the Habs on Friday and is expected to play in two of Ottawa’s last three exhibition games, including Monday against Toronto.
This preseason has been pivotal for a team like Ottawa that needed time to properly assess its growing pool of talents.
“The more exhibition games you play, to me, the more you see who the NHL players are and who the guys are that can do it night to night,” Smith says. “And to me, it seems clear at this point who that group is.”
Lassi Thomson impresses
It’s a sad truth of training camps that some bright young prospects can look great, right before they are released. Defender Lassi Thomson is one example. Thomson has surprised many observers with his game this fall. Last season, his first in professional hockey, Thomson had some difficulty adjusting in 35 games with Belleville. But their Ottawa camp was capped by an outstanding game in Montreal on Saturday, where Thomson played 20 minutes and had a pair of major blocks in a 2-1 loss to Sens. Thomson tied for the team lead with three shots on goal.
For now, though, Thomson is destined to start the season at Belleville, with no actual openings on Ottawa’s blue line at this time. Thomson was one of 13 players released Sunday.
“He’s going to be a really good player,” Smith said of Thomson. “It’s tough to play defense in the NHL. Look at a guy like (Jeff) Petry tonight, how many years it has taken him to be an everyday D, the best pairing that provides opening. There were many ups and downs in his career. Lassi is a young boy who just had his first experience last year. We think he’s going to be a really good player. “
Up to five lines, 8D, 3G
The Senators sent 11 players to their AHL camp on Sunday (three waivers required) while two others, Ridly Greig and Zack Ostapchuk, were released to their WHL teams. The biggest names among the cuts were Thomson, teammate D-man Jacob Bernard-Docker, plus forwards Mark Kastelic and Egor Sokolov. There were no real surprises here, although Sokolov and Kastelic, with their size and guts, had an outside opportunity to make a team that lacks the grain of Tkachuk. Belleville should have a strong group and all of these cuts will benefit from increased professional experience under B-Sens head coach Troy Mann.
List of senses after cuts
With ten days to go until opening night, the list of senses is taking shape. Eliminate the “fifth” line and a defense post and the list is pretty well established. At least until Tkachuk arrives. Seek out goalie Gustavsson to have time in Belleville until they need him in Ottawa.
Formenton – Norris – Batherson
Support – Pinto – C. Brown
Paul – White – Sanford
Ennis – Tierney – Watson
Kelly – Agozzino – Shaw
Chabot – acc
Del Zotto – Zaitsev
Mete – Holden
Brannstrom – J. Brown
Murray – Forsberg – Gustavsson