There’s was no time to celebrate and usher in 2021 for Ottawa Senators’ players, as they were out on the ice on New Year’s Day morning for the second day of training camp.
While there are no set lines or defensive pairs due to the early absences of newly-acquired Braydon Coburn, Cedric Paquette, Derek Stepan who are undergoing quarantine protocol – combined with the arrival of third-overall pick Tim Stuetzle in the upcoming days ahead – head coach D.J. Smith is putting players through the paces with a heavy focus on condition.
“I think one of our strengths that we’re going to have to have is; we have to be able to skate with these teams. When you look at the Canadian Division and the amount of talent, especially the high-end talent of these teams, if you’re can’t skate with them, you’re going to be in trouble. So one of the things we have to do is make sure our conditioning is at the level where we can skate all night.,” Smith told media on a Zoom call Friday.
The head coach has been impressed in the early-going how well-conditioned his players are, considering most haven’t played a game for over nine months.
“From the guys we brought in, veterans, not shockingly, but just good to see – for the young guys to see what it takes to be in the National Hockey League to continue to be competitive. These guys that have been away a long time, have put the work in. These guys have come ready and are some of the best-conditioned guys at camp, at this point.”
With little time to prepare for games – Senators’ opener being January 15 – and no preseason, conditioning is paramount. However, there are other facets of the game that have been worked on in minimal time.
“You can’t touch everything, and you have so many new bodies. With no exhibition games, you really have to use these practices to get your systems, get your faceoffs – so many little things that go into it. That’s probably the advantage of having a coach that’s been with his group for awhile, like a Paul Maurice (Winnipeg Jets), and guys like this. They know what to expect from him. They know what he does. And they can just hit the ground running,” explained Smith.
“We have so many new pieces. But as we continue this journey here as our group continues to get better, you have to plug pieces in. Everyone knows I always talk about the Boston Bruins. They were always good for a long time. No matter who they plugged in, they just kept chugging along. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Smith added the team will hold scrimmages Sunday/Monday, work on special teams, before trimming the main group to a more workable number mid-week.
One thing is for certain, the original plan was for the club to phase in as many young players as possible. However, this may not occur fully in a condensed 56-game schedule.
Vitali Abramov, Rudolfs Balcers, Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Filip Chlapik, Alex Formenton, and Josh Norris are fighting for few available spots up front. While Erik Brannstrom, fresh off a successful stint with Langnau in the Swiss League may have to bide his time until later this season to make his presence known.
“A lot of it has to go on with what they did in the American Hockey League, what they did this summer. But I think when you make a young guy earn his spot, it gives a better chance that, that kid is not going to be a guy that goes up and down, up and down. You put him on the team because you think that it’s his time. And then all of a sudden the league eats him up,” the Senators’ coach noted.
“If a young player outplays an older player and takes his job. the likelihood is; that he’s ready. I think sometimes when I see a young guy given a job, the guy gets here and all of a sudden it’s overwhelming. Fifteen-20 games in, you’re bringing in a veteran to do that job, and the kid goes back to the American Hockey League. I think Pierre has done a really nice job of bringing in older players that have been in the league, that know the league. If younger players come in and take their job, they’re going to run with it and play every day. Regardless of what happens, we’re going to have the most rookies in the Canadian Division by far, maybe more rookies on our team than in the whole Division combined. Younger players are going to play. That’s not the issue, it’s just when they’re going to play and how much they’re going to play.”
With the addition of Coburn to the left side of the Senators’ defense of which already includes Thomas Chabot, Mike Reilly, Christian Wolanin, Full Press NHL asked the Senators’ coach if he’s contemplating shifting Brannstrom to the right side.
“We do have a lot of depth right now. I don’t want to move him. We have very strong depth on the right side at this point. He’s going to be a better left defenseman in my opinion. He’s going to make more plays on that side. It’s one of those things. It’s an unfortunate year, possibly with a shortened American League season. Whatever happens, a lot of young kids aren’t going to get the minutes that they would’ve had. But if you play the American League or NHL, you’re always playing. But he’s going to be a very good player when his chance comes, whether it’s right away or middle of the year, or whenever that is. He’s going to be a very good player.”
One player who will play who won’t have an issue earning a roster spot is Tim Stuetzle, the German junior who has posted five goals, five assists in only four World Junior tournament games.
“He’s a special player. When you see a special player play, that’s why you drafted him first, second, third overall – their franchise-changers. When you watch that kid out there playing against his peers, what he can do – it’s incredible. It’s just a matter of strength and confidence. We know the National Hockey League is full of first, second, third overall picks, and people watch that and expect them to come in and do that right away. You don’t realize that they’re playing against the best defenders in the world. You’re going to be playing against Auston Matthews, Bo Horvat, and all these players on a nightly basis through this grind. He’s still going to have some growing pains. But as a finished product, Tim Stuetzle will be a heck of a good hockey player.”
A nagging question throughout camp will be who will centre the Senators’ top line containing Brady Tkachuk?
“That’s up in the air. We’ve got Stepan coming in. We’ve got Paquette coming in. We’ve got a much deeper battle at centre right now. A lot of it is going to depend on whether we’re at home or on the road. The reason Pierre brought a guy like Stepan is certainly for his leadership, but he’s a kind of guy that can protect young centres, whether it’s Logan Brown, Josh Norris. He can play the hard minutes. He can play against the league’s best. And I think when you look back at my time in Toronto, when Auston Matthews first came in, he played behind (Tyler) Bozak and Nazim Kadri. Bo Horvat (Canucks) played behind (Henrik) Sedin. For me, bringing a guy like Stepan in is really going to help with the development of a guy like Norris or Logan Brown, and these guys down the middle.”
There’s no question Smith will utilize every player possible with an expanded roster. The club’s taxi squad and the Belleville shuttle will be in full use.
“I think that’s what has to happen. We have to be a next-man-up mentality. To have a stab and have success this year, we’re going to have to do it with depth. We may have one line, maybe our most important line will be our fourth line. We might have 2B and C. We’re just going to have to skate all night, be above you, and work. There’s going to be fresh bodies. There’s going to be back-to-backs. There are going to be guys and young players that are sitting out that are able to come in and help. So I see a lot of bodies coming in and out. I don’t rock guys confidence making them nervous every night, but there are some guys that are going to come in and out. That’s going to make us more competitive.”