With only one week prior to the Ottawa Senators’ season-opener versus the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 15, the club’s final roster is still far from completion. There are as many as 18 forwards capable of filling the 12 gameday slots, and 10 defenseman who are legitimately capable of nailing down roster spots.
This group includes centre Derek Stepan, left wing Tim Stuetzle and d-man Erik Brannstrom who’ve yet to participate in training camp. After completing their mandated seven-day quarantine protocol, it’s anticipated Stepan and Stuetzle will hit the ice for the first time as Senators Sunday, While Brannstrom is also slated to make his first skate with the group this weekend after coming into close contact with someone who had COVID-19.
Stepan and Stuetzle are locks to be in next Friday’s lineup. Barring any moves on the Senators’ blue line, Brannstrom will likely be a member of the to-be-announced taxi squad or toil with the American League Belleville group when the season debuts.
The past few days, head coach D.J. Smith has been conducting scrimmages to see which player can rise to the occasion and grab hold of a roster spot.
“There’s guys fighting for spots right now. We have a scrimmage (Friday) that will help or hurt some guys, and that will help us get to where we need to be,” Smith said in his daily Zoom call availability Thursday.
The centre position is one that’s clearly undecided on who slots one through four. There are currently as many as 11 forwards in camp that have played or currently play in the middle – Filip Chlapik, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Paul lined up on the wing in the early going – though all can fill a centre role if required.
Versatile newcomer Cedric Paquette has flip-flopped between left wing and the pivot position this week – something the 27-year old did in Tampa Bay throughout his six full campaigns with the Lightning.
Artem Anisimov and Colin White have reportedly been standouts at centre during camp. Stepan as mentioned joins the squad Sunday. While Chris Tierney fresh off inking a two-year, $7 million contract during the offseason only skated Thursday for the first time since camp opened December 31 due to suffering a minor injury.
Youngsters, Logan Brown and Josh Norris are also vying to grasp hold of one or two available openings on the team’s main roster.
The pair are being given ample opportunity by Smith to display their wares. Brown and Norris have taken turns skating on the Senators’ top line between Brady Tkachuk and Evgenii Dadonov all week.
“If those guys are deserving of a spot, I’ll find room for them, whether it’s on the wing, whether I move a veteran to the wing. They’re trying out for the team as much as anyone else, just like the older guys are trying out,” explained the Senators’ coach. ” We know we brought in Stepan for a reason. He can play centre and show these guys how to do it. He’ll definitely be at centre. If they’re good enough, we’ll find a way to get them in.”
Brown is heading into his fifth pro season after being selected 11th overall in the 2016 Entry Draft – granted he was returned to junior after playing four games with the Senators in 2017. Despite compiling 70 points (21 goals, 49 assists) in 81 games with Belleville, the 22-year old hasn’t been able to crack the big club’s lineup full time.
The six-foot-six, 220-pound, Brown, has been hampered with a litany of injuries throughout his playing career dating back to his time with Windsor and Kitchener in the Ontario League. And has only 29 NHL games under his belt, 23 coming last season, where he potted his one and only career goal November 22 versus the Rangers.
General Manager Pierre Dorion made his thoughts clear on Brown just prior to the opening of camp.
“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.”
Pundits of Brown have been critical that he lacks pace in his game. He plays well in confined areas, but doesn’t possess enough foot speed on his overall game.
However, judging by Brown’s demeanor and message Thursday, he’s come to camp ready to take the next step.
“I think coming into camp every year, it’s trying to make the NHL, this year especially. I’ve had a lot of time over the last nine months to get ready to be prepared to take a job here. That’s my plan. That’s my goal,” Brown noted. “I worked on a whole bunch of stuff. Nine months was a long time to be off. I got healthy. I worked on things I thought were lacking to play in the NHL. I feel confident, I excelled in those area, and grew as a player and as a person.”
“I like everything on life, you live and you learn. You learn from your mistakes. I’ve been growing as person my whole life, and I’ll continue to grow as person and a player. I think mentally I’m in a good spot to be here. I hope it’s up. It was the most dedicated summer I’ve had. My mindset has changed a lot – just a lot of things. I’m living it day by day. All I can do right now is be hungry every day – try and push myself.”
Having earned AHL Rookie of the Year honours last season, Norris may have the inside edge on claiming a roster spot. The Michigan native led all rookies in goals (31) and points (61) and was third league-wide in those categories.
A key piece in the Erik Karlsson swap with the Sharks, Norris can also play a 200-foot game, a facet Smith wants from his centres.
“He’s been really good. He skates. Obviously, there’s little parts of the game he needs to learn. He had a very good year in the American Hockey League. We’re trying to give him every opportunity here to show he can do it at this level. His training camp is very good,” the Senators’ coach added.
Norris seems unperturbed by Dorion’s newest acquisitions and is ready to soak in whatever he can learn from them, which helps him in the long run.
The 21-year old said, “Not really, I can’t control that they’re making acquisitions to make the team better. I think from my perspective, those guys have been in the league for a long time. I think if anything, I can just learn from them. They are very smart players, really good players. I just take it as a positive. Cedric (Paquette) is already here. Stepan gets here in a few days, so I’ll get to learn from those guys.”