It’s no wonder Senators general manager Pierre Dorion had a difficult time wiping the smile off his face during Thursday’s Zoom call.
A mere ten months and four days since his team’s most recent game, Dorion will finally see his much-altered roster in action in a regular season NHL matchup.
It’s no ordinary game. And no soft touch.
In their home opener, at an empty Canadian Tire Centre due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Senators will face a Toronto Maple Leafs team expected by many to finish atop the new all-Canadian division. Ottawa, coming off a 30th place finish in the league last season, is hoping to wind up better than seventh in a seven-team loop.
Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith have assembled a 23-man roster and six-player taxi squad that includes a patchwork of veterans like Braydon Coburn, Erik Gudbranson, Austin Watson, Alex Galchenyuk and Cedric Paquette, plus a sprinkling of what the future has to offer for the rebuilding Senators.
This is especially true of the starting two lines against Toronto, which include rookie centre Josh Norris and world junior sensation Tim Stützle.
While the bottom six forwards and bottom two defence pairings remain a work in progress — Smith won’t have his final lineup set until Friday’s morning skate — the top two lines appear set, at least for game one:
Brady Tkachuk – Josh Norris – Drake Batherson
Tim Stützle – Derek Stepan – Evgenii Dadonov
Stützle, drafted third overall in October, turns 19 on Friday. Tkachuk and Norris are both 21, and Batherson is 22.
Dorion himself is intrigued by what the kids can bring.
“Four of our top six forwards are 22 and under,” Dorion says. “It’s still a man’s league, the NHL. There will be tough nights, we’re not going to deny that, but there will also be some really good highs with this young group of talent.”
Smith is enthusiastic about his youthful top line, even as he acknowledges they will make mistakes. Tkachuk already plays like a hardened veteran. Norris can fly and Batherson, who has been in 43 NHL games over the past two years, is a shooter and a passer.
“They all can make plays. They work hard,” Smith says.
“Not that they’ll play together all year, but I think they’re a line that is going to show you the future of this team. You’ve got Brady that’s an end-front guy, Drake and Norris can make plays. At this point, Norris is probably the one centre on our team that can really get up and down the ice.”
As for Stützle, Smith says he is the kind of skilled player who will “bring fans out of their seats.”
That is, once fans can get in those seats in the first place.
The long-suffering Senators faithful will have to wait to see their team live, just as they must wait on some of the Senators’ top prospects, including a handful still in the NCAA.
Forwards Logan Brown and Alex Formenton, as well as defenceman Erik Brannstrom, are just three of the young players who thrived in AHL Belleville last season and will start there again. None of the three cracked the 23-man roster and won’t be on the taxi squad, at least to start the season. Defenceman Artem Zub, in from the KHL, has impressed in camp and will get a place on the taxi squad. Ditto for forward Filip Chlapik and goaltender Joey Daccord. Christian Wolanin, 25, brought some offensive flair and earned a spot among the top seven defencemen.
In his fifth Sens camp, Logan Brown essentially lost the battle to Norris.
“First and foremost, he’s 22 years old,” Dorion said of Brown. “He’s got a long NHL career ahead of him. Both D.J. and I feel that Logan is one of our most talented players here. He was close.”
Deciding on the taxi squad and Belleville, Dorion said the feeling was Brown would benefit more by playing 20-25 minutes per game in the AHL, once that league starts on Feb. 5.
The coaching staff liked Brown’s work on the power play but felt he needed more work on his five-on-five game. Like other young players, Brown was handicapped by having no exhibition games in which to showcase himself. He did take part in Monday’s Black-and-White scrimmage.
“If you play exhibition games and you’re plus-six and clicking on the power play, we’re maybe looking at something different,” Smith said. “Unfortunately, we were only looking at one intra-squad scrimmage. That’s the hard part of this experience this year.”
Brannstrom set back by two quarantines
Dorion said his heart goes out to Brannstrom, 21, who had to go through two separate quarantines in Ottawa and missed almost the entire camp.
“He put in the work, he’s never been in this kind of shape,” Dorion said. “He played in Switzerland, he was great in Switzerland. Once he got here, he had a 14-day quarantine, then he came in close contact with someone (who tested positive for COVID-19) and had another 14-day quarantine. Then there were bumps and bruises (that kept him out).”
Brannstrom was unable to take part in Monday’s scrimmage.
“He only had one practice with our team,” Dorion said.
“He’s going to be a big part of our team moving forward,” Dorion added. “I don’t think he’s very happy about being assigned to Belleville right now because it was not circumstances he could control. But what we saw of him in Switzerland, and even the one practice (here) I think he’s hit another gear. He’s going to play some games in Belleville and in due time he will come back.”
Colin White question
After receiving rave reviews early in camp, centre Colin White was not on one of the top four lines in Thursday’s practice. Smith said no decision has been yet on whether White plays against Toronto.
If he doesn’t, it will be a blow to the first of the young players in this rebuild to be signed to a long-term contract. In August of 2019, White signed a six-year, $28.5-million deal. Last season, White admitted he struggled trying to live up to the contract, while also suffering a serious groin injury.
Don’t look for any rift between the coach and GM on this one. Dorion might have signed White to that deal, but he says Smith has absolute control over the lineup from game to game.
“He’s got my 100 per cent support,” Dorion said. “Whoever he sits out I know it’s for the betterment of the group.”
On a Zoom call, White put on a brave face.
“I felt I had a pretty good camp,” the 23-year-old said. “Lines change every day. For me it’s just — day in, day out, come to the rink and have a good attitude and be a pro.
“It’s pretty easy with this team because of the guys we have, it’s a pretty close team and they are fun guys to be around. Whether I’m in the lineup or not it’s not going to change how I play (in practice).”
Gudbranson comes home . . . to empty rink
One of the opening night highlights is the return of Gloucester’s Erik Gudbranson to his hometown team, after nine NHL seasons in Florida, Vancouver, Pittsburgh and Anaheim. The rugged 28-year-old defenceman will start on Ottawa’s top pair on Friday, with Thomas Chabot, although friends and family won’t be there to see it. A Battle of Ontario matchup on opening night would have assured a strong gate. Any other year.
“It’s sad,” Gudbranson said, speaking of the whole group, not just himself. “We’re so excited to play hockey but it’s never going to be the same without fans. It’s one thing playing in the NHL, but there is nothing like playing in front of 21,000 people.
We’re going to miss them dearly. We know they’re back at home, they’re watching and cheering for us. We’re going to put a good product on the ice for that reason. The guys have been off the ice for so long, and this is our first crack at the can. We’re ready for it.”
As for facing the Leafs, who played a spirited game against the Canadiens on Wednesday, Gudbranson says his new Senators team will have to band together or perish.
“They’re a high-octane offence and they lean that way, they always have,” Gudbranson says. “They’re incredibly skilled and if you make a mistake, if you cheat, they’ll make you pay every time.
“We’re going to have to defend by committee and stay out of the penalty box. It will take all five guys and a goaltender to frustrate them for 60 minutes.”
Only competitors need apply
Asked again for his aspirations for this team, Dorion said he expects “a huge step forward” from the past three seasons of last- and second-last place finishes.
“We want to be one of the most competitive teams in the NHL,” Dorion said. “We want to be hard to play against. We want you to earn two points against us and we want our young guys to develop in the proper manner.
“The most unfortunate part about all this is that our fans won’t get a chance to see us live.”
Asked to define his team’s style of play, Dorion said the Senators will be fast, structured and aggressive.
“And if you take liberties, we’ve got the manpower to punch you back,” Dorion said.
For Smith, the key word is competitiveness. Players who don’t compete for him this year, simply won’t play.
“I always talk of Boston (and the Bruins’ mantra): You either get in line or you don’t last,” Smith said. “To have success down the road, you need big, strong teams and the most competitive team wins.”
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