After the Ottawa Senators unbeaten preseason came to a close with a 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals Sunday evening, Senators coach John Paddock whittled down the roster to a final 22 players, bringing to a close a training camp which saw the anticipation of new beginnings withered down to a hope of "maybe next season". Though Nick Foligno's impressive camp earned him a spot on the Senators roster - a formidable achievement for the 29th-overall pick straight out of junior - other hopefuls did not sway Paddock. Among the highly touted prospects making their way to the Senators' farm team at Binghamton on the last day of cuts were defenseman Brian Lee and forwards Ilya Zubov and Alexander Nikulin, in addition to forwards Danny Bois, Denis Hamel, and blueliner Lawrence Nycholat.
While the preseason is mostly about assessing the development of the younger players and experimenting with different line combinations among the veterans, every player enters with expectations from themselves, their coaches, the management, and the fans. I hope to give a outlay of my expectations for each player entering training camp, a brief summary of my impression of their play, and both a prediction of what role I expect them to play this season, as well as what role I think they should play. They will be grouped in three categories: exceeded, met, and fell below my expectations. I will not discuss the play of AHL-only players such as Tyler Donati and Denis Hamel.
Shean Donovan - While I was initially skeptical of the trade that brought Donovan to Ottawa in exchange for inconsistent forward Peter Schaefer, he seems likely to prove to be a valuable addition at a reasonable cost. Much like Senators every-men Dean McAmmond and Chris Kelly, while he may not have the offensive instincts of a star player, he can sub in on any line in any situation, and find instant chemistry with his linemates. His speed and grit will be an asset, to be sure, but I think it will be his versatility and flexibility which will prove most valuable to the team over the course of the season. With many comparing the acquistion of Donovan to the seemingly inconsequential signing of McAmmond summer, a move that paid out in spades, before the season has even started the move looks to have been a wise one on Murray's part. In ditching an inconsistent forward who expressed disinterest at being in Ottawa, for a forward to epitomises the playing style and character Murray has been preaching, it appears a no-loss situation for all involved parties.
Donovan should play on the fourth line. He will be a key penalty killing forward and played as a defensive conscience on a higher line when the situation calls for it.
Donovan will start on the third line in place of McAmmond; his play in McAmmond's absence will determine whether he will remain there or be demoted to the fourth line when McAmmond returns. He could see time on the first line right wing as part of the revolving door of wingers to play with Spezza and Heatley.
Projection: 82GP 7G 11A 18P
Patrick Eaves - Shrugged off by many as a one-trick pony, incapable of replicating his 20-goal rookie season let alone besting it, Eaves proved many doubters wrong this preseason. He looked equally strong playing with the best offensive players the team has to offer, as he did playing with AHL callups. Invariably, Eaves was a key part of the Senators' strongest line of the night - regardless of whether the other members of the line were Donati, Kelly or Heatley. While I did expect him to make a reasonable case for a permanent role in the Senators' top six, the manner in which he asserted himself was wholly unexpected. Eaves scored goals against all four teams the Senators faced in the preseason, including overtime powerplay winners against Ottawa's biggest rivals in Toronto and Montreal. While the players who assisted those winners had a lot to do with the results - Eaves had little to do but call for the puck or, in the case of the Toronto goal, keep his stick on the ice while Spezza deflected a shot off it - his unabated presence in front of the net was what really drew the attention of observers. I've long praised Eaves for the fearless manner in which is drives to the net, digs in the corners and buzzes around the offensive zone, with little regard for his own safety or health (as attested to, perhaps, by the concussion-inducing hit he suffered at the hands of Colby Armstrong in "death valley" during the 2007 playoffs). While his style of play may lead to many more injuries of a similar ilk, and perhaps a regrettably short career to follow if he continues in the reckless manner, the intensity and enthusiasm with which he plays cannot be belittled. While Eaves lacks the stature or bulk to be a threatening force in the offensive zone, he is, in a word, "buzzy", and provides an infectious forecheck and tireless dedication to creating traffic that we can only dream some of our more talented forwards would learn from.
Eaves should be given an opportunity to start with Heatley and Spezza. After a 10-15 game tryout, if things have not progressed as expected, he should be dropped to the second line - note, I did not say the fourth line to play six minutes a night. And, regardless of who he plays with at even strength, Eaves should feature on the power play as our body in front of the net. Heatley and Spezza (and Alfredsson) have obvious chemistry with Eaves, let them play it out.
Eaves will start on the second line with Vermette and Fisher. While he will probably be given an opportunity to play on the top line (read: two shifts on October 14th), it is probably more likely we will see him (undeservedly) on the fourth line sharing duties with Schubert and McGrattan than it is we will see him score 25+ goals playing with Spezza.
Projection: 77GP 23G 23A 46P
Brian Elliott - the list of NCAA achievements reads like a lifetime of accomplishments rather than the result of a remarkable four-year career at one of the most reputed hockey programmes in the US, at the University of Wisconsin (alma mater of Dany Heatley and Mike Eaves, father to Patrick). After four years of college hockey, the 22-year old Canadian finds himself the most promising goaltending prospect the Senators have had in the history of their system (not shabby, for a 9th round pick in a system that includes current Senators starter Ray Emery). Elliott is a remarkable technical goaltender who also possesses tremendous athletic ability. Though he was not called upon much this preseason, with Martin Gerber shouldering much of the load, Elliott's lone start was an impressive 2-1 victory over the Washington Capitals Sunday evening, where Elliott undoubtedly stole the game for an undeserving Senators club and earned first star honours for his work. In his only other action this preseason, near two weeks ago against the same Capitals in Ottawa, Elliott let in only one goal and made 14 saves in just a period of action to preserve a 5-4 victory for the Senators. While I had expected Elliott to be solid, his game-stealing performance on Sunday far exceeded any expectations.
Elliott will start the season in Binghamton, and should be their starting goaltender. While the development of Jeff Glass might take priority over Elliott shouldering the majority of the load in Binghamton, there should be no doubt as to who is the starter.
Projection: I don't want to be cruel.
Nick Foligno - Before the preseason began, some of the more optimistic observers were penciling in Foligno for a starting role on the Senators. While I considered him a promising mid-season injury call-up, I thought it far more likely that Hennessy would grab the lone open forward spot without incident. While it seemed my conservative prediction could prove right early in training camp, when Paddock announced himself unimpressed with Foligno's play, the former Sudbury Wolves' star responded in such a fashion that left little doubt as to his desire to make Ottawa's opening day roster. Foligno began the preseason with a bang and ended it likewise; he finished second on the Senators roster with 3 goals and 8 points, including a three point performance in the opening game of the preseason at Philadelphia, and a two point game two nights later against Washington. While his offensive game tailed in the middle of the preseason, Foligno was instead practicing the gritty, grinding playing style that Paddock emphasised Foligno would need to embody should he wish to make the club. There has been some reluctance to praise Foligno's play in the preseason, citing Brandon Bochenski as a case of counting your eggs before they hatch. Still, Foligno had a strong preseason as both an offensive force and a gritty forechecker; he'll need to bring both games night in and night out if he wants to stick with the Senators.
Foligno should start on the third line. His play in the preseason has merited such a position. If he is going to be on the fourth line, I believe he would be better served getting top line minutes in every situation in Binghamton, even if only for a month or two until he really adjusts to the pro level. Still, he could stick to the roster all year and I wouldn't be surprised.
Foligno will start on the second line on Wednesday, but will likely drop to the fourth soon enough. While it may appear at times that he is on a short leash based on comments Paddock will make in the media, it seems instead that Paddock is simply ensuring Foligno is pushed to succeed - he is clearly a player who has a future in Ottawa, and the coach wants to ensure he stays motivated.
Projection: 53GP 9G 8A 17P
Jeff Glass - Despite a decorated junior campaign, which included winning CHL goaltender of the year and backstopping Team Canada to a junior gold medal, Glass was thrown to the wolves in 2006-07, platooning behind an absymal Binghamton Senators team with Kelly Guard (since released from the organisation). Still, Glass did nothing to garner sympathy, playing as equally poorly as his last-place team on most nights. While some would figure Glass' reputation as all but shot, and his future as a NHLer perhaps finished with the thrashing his confidence received throughout the 06-07 campaign, expectations were low for Glass coming into camp. Any thought of a look at the Senators rosters was shot, of course. Still, Glass was playing for the starting position in Binghamton, or perhaps just an extension on his contract when his entry level deal expires next summer. Though he saw limited action, Glass held on to a 2-1 lead against Montreal early in the preseason, making 12 saves and letting in no goals in one period of action against a desperate Habs team. While the twenty minutes were hardly enough to evaluate him fully, he did look poised and large in the net, giving a circling Canadiens team no hopes of a comeback, despite their best efforts. If nothing else, Glass demonstrated that the Binghamton reigns will not be handed to Elliott without a fight.
Glass should be given a fair shot at starting in Binghamton.
Glass will be the backup to Elliott, and must impress in his few starts to have any hope of remaining in the Senators organisation past this season. At this point, he has two high-potential young goaltenders standing in his way, and no amount of junior credentials are going to bump him up the depth chart.
Brian Lee - While Lee will definitey not be ready for the NHL level on a team like the Senators in two day's time, he was more solid than I was expecting. There had been a lot of talk of his regression this year, talk which seemed mostly unfounded when I did some digging (mostly, people just recoil at the sight of non-spectacular offensive numbers). While he exhibited some of the nerves you would expect from a kid playing his first professional games, for the most part he was poised, showed good decision-making, never got caught in a bad position or with a bad pinch (though he did have a couple of whiffs that led to turnovers, it is hardly a matter of concern five exhibition games into his professional career). He was often the steadier of his pair, and when he had the confidence to carry the puck up, he looked poised and not at all uncomfortable or panicky the way an offensive player like Joe Corvo can tend to. He was solid and steady, didn't make mistakes but didn't take chances either, is the best way to describe it. I have really high hopes for him, in that he can be an eventual top 4 two-way defenseman. But I don't think he should be rushed. I think he will be ready for a top 4 role in 09-10, but he might be capable of handling bottom pairing duties next year.
Brian Lee should/will start the season in Binghamton, playing on the top pair and earning ice time in all situations. The experience and exposure will do him far more good than sheltered minutes on Ottawa's bottom pairing could ever do. Because the Senators could lose Nycholat to re-entry waivers, Lee will probably be the Senators' first call-up in case of injuries. Expect him to get between 1 and 5 games at the NHL level.
Projection AHL: 75GP 2G 22A 24P
Projection NHL: 3GP 0G 0A 0P
Brian McGrattan - McGrattan simply looked like a player who has dedicated himself to improvement. He looks quicker, lighter, and more mobile. While I still don't believe he will be an impact player at this level, his commitment to improvement shows good signs, and he no longer seemed a liability out there (though, we'll see the real story come preseason). I wasn't blown away by his game, I simply had very low expectations and was happy with what I saw.
McGrattan should/will play all or most games prior to the all-star break before slowly being phased out the lineup. He is evidently hoping to be considered a regular player (aka, one trusted enough to appear in the playoffs) - I'm not convinced he's there yet. Even if he is, there are better choices available within the organisation, nevermind by trade.
Projection: 48GP 0G 3A 3P
Alexander Nikulin - Nikulin became something of a fan favourite thanks to his blogs (shoutout to thirtyfive and his tireless translating work), but the bigger surprise than an unheralded Russian gaining an unprecedented fanbase before he even set foot on the ice, was the fact that he earned all the attention and consideration he received once the games were on. While it took Nikulin a few games to get used to the pace and style of the North American game, by the end of the preseason his adaptation to the transition had been noticeable. However, it still wouldn't be advisable to give Nikulin a starting roster position at the point, with assignment to Binghamton to further acclimatise to the North American game being the best course of action. Still, he proved himself as being a team player who did not take unnecessary chances or endanger the team defensive; he also showed unexpected drive and battle, and great puck control on the power play. While he did not adequately assert himself at even-strength, he never looked out of place whether playing with superstars or pluggers. A near-full season in Binghamton will do wonders for his game; if he has the patience, he could play a key role in the Senators roster by next season if the contract situations prove dire enough.
Nikulin should/will start the season on Binghamton's first line, with plenty of PP time. He should be the first or second call-up in case of injury, depending on how Zubov and Hennessy shake out. Presuming he plays in NA the full season:
Projection in AHL: 76GP 14G 38A 52P
Projection in NHL: 3GP 0G 1A 1P
Christoph Schubert - to emphasise - he exceeded expectations as a defenseman. While it was only one game in particular where he really impressed, Monday night against Toronto, it's near impossible to impress any more than he did on that particular night. With two goals, had it not been for heroics from Spezza and Alfredsson in other games, Schubert's performance that night might have been the highlight of the preseason. I trust the judgement of Paddock and Murray, but this is one issue on which I can't help but disagree. The facts, in my eyes, are simple. Schubert, while versatile and selfless, is not a very good forward. He is capable yes, doesn't look lost, yes, won't lose you a game playing forward, sure. I'm sure Volchenkov wouldn't lose us a game playing forward either. But does it make it the correct move? Schubert is, on the depth chart, our 5th our 6th best defenseman. Paddock himself seemed to indicate that he was pleased enough with Schubert's preseason performance to put him in the top four, quite a compliment. He is considered at best our #3 penalty killer and at worst our #5. He is our #4 power play defenseman. All this indicates that he should be in our top six, on a nightly basis. And yet.
No one can deny the value of having Schubert dressed as, essentially, our 7th defenseman (only having him play on the 4th line instead of sitting on the bench or messing up the defense pairings). The fact remains, Schubert is more valuable than a 7th defenseman or 4th line forward. It's like having Chris Phillips in 2007-08, playing on the fourth line because of the value he brings in case a defenseman gets injured. Well yes, that's a great value and all, but he is more valuable as our #1 defenseman, is he not? While the leap from Schubert to Phillips is something of a stretch, the logic remains the same. And that logic astounds me.
Schubert should be dressed as the 5th-6th defenseman, paired with Corvo.
Schubert will alternate between 4th line forward and bottom pairing defenseman, some time on the same night. He will see time on the penalty kill, and possibly on the power play. He will again remark that he has trouble making the mental transition between forward and defense. He will continue to contribute greatly to the team as a defenseman and not so much as a forward. I will continue to be annoyed.
Projection: 82GP 9G 17A 26P
Jason Spezza - Without a doubt, the MVP of the Senators preseason. I have remarked before, how truly amazing his preseason has been. Over the past two seasons, Spezza has established himself as one of the absolute premier players in the game, a playmaking centre of the highest order and one of the bright lights of the league who makes this game fascinating to watch night in and night out. He is considered by many to be a top 5 (if not top 3) centre in the league, and among the top 20-25 players. Objectively, he has placed within the top 15 in scoring each of the last two seasons, and tied the playoffs for the lead in scoring. He showed a heretofore unseen goalscoring prowess last season, and he would have hit 40 goals were it not for injury. I could go on for hours. The point is, as much as Spezza had established himself prior to this preseason, he came in this year looking on a whole other level to the superstar who was already among the league's elite. As stellar as he was before, he's stunningly better now. He is no longer deceptively quick - he is fast, shifty, and mobile. His movements are fluid and he seemed to have been playing the game at a different pace to every other player on the ice, including his own linemates. As many have remarked, he is already in midseason form while others are just waking up. There are many things to be excited about as a new season dawns. But most of all, I find myself imagining what Spezza will dream up night after night. Challenge for the Art Ross? The bugger might just win the thing.
Spezza should start in Binghamton.
Spezza will put on some regular season fireworks. But he should know by now that matters for little, besides the entertainment factor. His job this year is not to prove he can put up points, score goals, or light the league afire. His job is to show he can hack in when the going gets tough, for as long as it takes, not just the first three rounds. Regardless, we'll enjoy the journey still.
Projection: 77GP 41G 73A 114P