While hockey fans can hardly wait for the NHL season to begin, imagine how Ottawa Senators’ players feel? The team last played a regular season game a little over nine months ago, a 3-2 loss at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The club’s five-game road swing was cut short on March 12 after playing only three of them. A few days after returning to Ottawa it was learned one Senator tested positive for COVID-19. A subsequent announcement stated five more players caught the coronavirus and had since recovered.
So when Senators General Manager Pierre Dorion took to the airwaves on TSN1200 Thursday afternoon, telling listeners 37 players were in Ottawa, some of whom are in the midst of quarantine – Senators’ fans were hanging on every word.
The GM didn’t disappoint in dropping a few nuggets. However, none of what Dorion intimated in the interview was earth-shattering. Possibly, for the first time in recent memory, this may have been a good thing for the team’s fanbase.
With the off-season trades for netminder Matt Murray, d-men Josh Brown, Erik Gudbranson, forward Austin Watson adding the free agent signing of a legit NHL scorer in former Florida Panther Evgeni Dadonov – not to mention the club is hopeful to ink third-overall Draft selection Tim Stuetzle prior to the start of the season (whenever this will be), the Senators are setting a course for the near future.
Here’s what Dorion did say:
It’s unlikely there’ll be any more additions prior to main camp. “At this point in time, if anyone was a betting man, I think the team we have right now is the team that we’re going to see in training camp.”
“We’re really excited about the group we have. I think here, we’re on the same page, whether it’s ownership, the business side led by Anthony Leblanc (President of Business Operations), management, the coaching staff, we feel we’ve done our work to prepare the hockey team. We feel we’re going to perform well when this season comes around. We’re looking forward to this group of players.”
The organization’s prospect pool has never been greater than the present. Competition for roster spots this season brings a level of excitement not witnessed in recent years.
“What I think is going to be the most excited part about this year is, which young guy will make our team? Obviously, we don’t know what the rosters are going to look like. Are they going to be expanded rosters? What young guys will have the biggest impact on our team? Is it a Logan Brown? Is it a Josh Norris who’ll battle it out at centre? Is it going to be one of our young defenseman? Is it going to be Drake Batherson? Is it going to be (Vitali) Abramov who had a great time in Europe? So I think that’s what we’re really looking forward to. We had one of the youngest and one of the best teams in Belleville (AHL), and I think it’s time for some of those players to step up and become NHL regulars, Dorion explained in his radio hit.
A pair of players in particular will be the focus once camp gets underway. D-man Erik Brannstrom and lanky centre Logan Brown have plenty to prove.
Having turned 21 in September and only 33 total games of NHL experience, it appears Brannstrom is beginning to develop into the player the club thought he’d become when he was acquired from the Vegas Golden Knight’s in the 2019 Mark Stone swap.
The young Swede with a flair for offence, compiled 23 points (3G, 20A) in 27 games with Belleville last season. And while on loan with the SCL Tigers in the Swiss League, garnered eight points (2G, 6A) in 10 games.
Dorion praised Brannstrom for his efforts. “He’s part of that group that was in Belleville that was one of the best teams in the American League. We know that Erik is a blue-chip prospect. I don’t want to get into specifics about players just because they have to put in the time to show they can be a part of our team. We know Erik is going to be a big part. He’s one of those foundation pieces for us to achieve a Cup in the next years. We’re very happy with how he played in Europe – very happy with his development, very happy with his progress. So we’re looking forward to seeing him at camp and in the Ottawa Senators’ lineup very soon.
Selected 11th overall in the 2016 Entry Draft, Brown is yet to make his mark as a consistent NHLer over two pro seasons. While the St.Louis resident has certainly proven that he’s capable of being a point-producer at the junior and American League level, injuries have always been a concern. Including four OHL seasons, the 22-year old hasn’t appeared in more than 59 games in any campaign.
“Obviously with Logan, we think he’s our most-talented prospect, especially with our group up front. And it’s up to him to see how much work he’s put in, in the off-season, to see if he’s ready to handle the NHL pace, the NHL execution. There’s no denying or questioning his talent. Whatever happens with Logan Brown, whether he makes the team or doesn’t make the team, he’s still 22-years old. He’s a bigger body, (six-foot-six, 220 pounds). We all know bigger bodies take a bit more time. We feel he’s on the right track to be someone that’s going to give us some good hockey in the years to come. I think we just wait for it and see what he gives us. It would’ve been a great experience for him to go through the AHL playoffs last year as a frontline guy down there in Belleville. And we’re excited to see him in camp and how the battles go,” noted the GM.
Like all of us, Dorion is looking forward to the World Junior Hockey Championship in Edmonton, starting Christmas Day. He shares his disappointment in not attending but is ecstatic four of five players selected to preliminary camps will play in the tournament.
Unfortunately for Brandon Wheat Kings forward Ridly Greig, it wasn’t meant to be. The Senators third first-round pick battled COVID-19 prior to Canada’s Selection Camp. He never had an opportunity to skate with the team and is still reportedly suffering lingering effects at the present time.
“I feel bad for our scouting staff. Because even though it’s the big tournament of the year where we can all gather, and I think the fact four out of our picks have made the World Junior except for Ridly Grieg says something about the work Trent Mann and his staff have done. We all know these tournaments are 19-year old tournaments, and to have these four guys as 18-year olds, I think says a lot about them. I think it says a lot about where they are in their development, when they’ll be able to come to the NHL. But we’re very happy, a lot of us have watched (Jake) Sanderson play for UND, his impact there, we feel he’s just an all-round, complete defenseman that’s going to log a lot of minutes and help us win. I think we all like the fact that (Tyler) Kleven is a big body, physical presence. He can also make the first pass. He can really shoot the puck. He’s got that presence you need when you want to win.”
Dorion may be most happy with Ilves sniper Roby Jarventie. A projected third-rounder, Jarventie’s early scoring exploits as a youngster playing in the Finnish professional SM-Liiga caught the eye of Senators’ European Scout Mikko Ruutu.
“The biggest surprise of every one is Roby Jarventie. I don’t read what goes on, but I’ve been told a lot of people questioned this pick, but I can tell you our scouting staff loved the pick at the time. He was someone we were able to see because the European season started, and he just rocketed up our list. And it’s a credit to these people, our scouting staff for taking someone with that much talent, I think he was close to top 10 in the Finnish Elite League in Men’s scoring. If I’m off on that I know that one point in time he was up there. For an 18-year old to do that there, I think that says a lot about his talent. When you can get a player like that in the second round, that’s almost like stealing a player in the first round.”
For the record, Jarventie has notched 14 points (7G, 7A) in 19 games.
And of course, all Senators’ fans are anticipating the North American debut of third-overall selection Tim Stueztle. While the GM isn’t saying openly, it’s likely the young German will sign an entry-level contract with the team, providing him with a decent shot of cracking the team’s roster this season.
Stueztle is fully healed from his hand injury and is ready to step on the Rogers Place ice.
“When the player can gain valuable experience in the top tournament in the world, it might be a different situation as a 19-year old. We can’t take away the fact putting young players in the highest pressure situation will only help their development. Playing against the best of their age group will only be beneficial for him and for us at the end of the day.”
One more youngster who’s been turning heads is UND’s Shane Pinto. A 2019 second-round selection, Pinto is quickly becoming one of the club’s most valuable prospects. The 20-year old has already posted 12 points (4G, 8A) in eight NCHC games in the Omaha, NE bubble.
“Shane has been one of our best prospects in our organization – sky-rocketing. We’ve really been impressed about how he plays the game.”
Citing one story at the Senators 2019 Development Camp, Dorion noted, “Everyone had left around three o’clock and he poked his head around my office around, I think it was around 5:30, “I said what are you doing here?” He said “I went and shot pucks for two hours and I can’t get in to go change because every door is locked.”
“It just shows his dedication to be the best player he can be. And anyone who goes 18 and 0 on faceoffs, it triggers something in our head coach and our head coach in the minors because every one knows the importance of faceoffs, whether you’re on the power play or penalty-killing, getting that puck first for obvious reasons. The way he plays the game with his sense, how he shoots. I think he’s just scratching the surface, and I think we’ve got a really good one in Shane Pinto. It says a lot about his character and his drive to win. When he’s done his college career, he’s going to be knocking on the door of the Ottawa Senators. You can’t say that about a lot of prospects.”
As mentioned above, 37 players are already in the Ottawa area. One player not in the city is goalie Anders Nilsson. Unfortunately, the GM was unable to provide an update on Nilsson’s health. The netminder hasn’t played since suffering a concussion one year ago.
One thing is for certain everyone in the Senators’ organization is ready for whatever the league throws at them.
Late Thursday afternoon, a Sportsnet report mentioned Canadian teams may have to retreat to the United States at least to open the season. The provinces of the seven clubs have yet to make a determination if they’ll be able to travel between boundaries without quarantining.
“We’ll be ready for any possible scenario that comes about. There’s no point speculating what the roster will be, what the cap will be. We feel we’re in a position where we’re going to have a very competitive team. We feel we’re going to compete every night. We want our fans to be proud of this team. We feel that’s what we’ve done so far. Once we get all the details of what can happen, trust me, we’ll be ready. We go through it every day.”