I made the trek out to Oshawa to check out the Ottawa-Chicago game yesterday afternoon, and walked away suitably impressed with a number of the Senators prospects who had previously been little more than stats lines and scouting reports to me. Considering the general interest around these parts in the future of the franchise, I thought I'd initiate a thread on the rookie tournament for those of you who've been watching the games either in person or on TV. I'll get the ball rolling.
I went into the game anticipating great things from the players who are reportedly closest to making the big club: Rundblad, Cowen, Da Costa, Zibanejad, and Lehner. Lehner didn't play, alas, and as a result of Matej Machovsky's less-than-stellar performance in net, the crowd was treated to a wild 6-5 affair that likely wouldn't have been so close had King Robin been between the pipes. In fact, the biggest thing that separated the game from a legitimate NHL contest was the low-caliber goaltending at both ends of the ice. There was plenty of skill on display, to be sure, but only a handful of the goals were pro-quality.
Da Costa, with a natural hat trick in the second period, looked very, very good. Besides showing off a better shot than I thought he possessed, he made several slick passes and demonstrated the great vision that drew rave reviews while he was still in the NCAA. Mika Zibanejad also impressed, as did both his line-mates (Petersson and Prince). They seemed to generate chances at will, and played with tempo and tenacity. Petersson will be an impact player for Bingo this year, and I wouldn't be surprised if he gets called up for a look at the NHL level at some point; he's got a tremendous first stride, and his puck skills are impressive. In the first period, I thought Prince seemed like the weak link on the line, but he really turned it up in the second and third. If anything, he reminded me of a young Antoine Vermette on the left wing; he's a very strong skater with a knack for turning broken plays into scoring chances. Derek Grant and Corey Cowick were also very good, but it may have been a case of men vs. boys for them, as both have a few years and significant pro/college experience over some of the younger Blackhawks prospects. They simply looked stronger and more determined than their opponents on virtually every puck battle. The good news is that their line-mate, Stefan Noeson, was every bit as feisty. He definitely demonstrated why the Sens went off the board to draft him late in the first round this year. He's got tons of jam, and showed plenty of willingness to go into high-traffic areas and fight for loose pucks. The other forward who really surprised me was Mark Stone. I know the knock on him is his skating, and he was hardly graceful out there, but he seemed to make something happen every time he got the puck in the offensive zone. His vision is excellent, and he's more of a playmaker than I realized, using his size and reach to protect the puck along the boards and showing great patience with his passes. For such a big guy, however, he lacked a little physicality, particularity inside the Sens' blueline.
On defence, Cowen was a cut above. There were plenty of big players on the Chicago side, but none as imposing as Cowen, who played a great physical game and didn't give an inch along the boards or behind the net. He's not exactly Chris Pronger on the offensive blueline, and he bobbled a few more pucks than I would have liked, but he was surprisingly good with the puck, making great outlet passes and leading a couple of rushes as well. Rundblad came as advertised, demonstrating elite skating skills and fantastic stick-handling. He is so ridiculously calm with the puck on his stick that it's occasionally nerve-wracking, and he was guilty of underestimating the opposition a couple of times when he tried to get too cheeky dangling the puck at the blueline. For better or for worse, there's something almost Spezza-esque about his high risk/high reward offensive play: fun to watch, but sometimes ulcer-inducing. Defensively, he wasn't quite as assured, and I thought Cowen bailed him out a few times. He's not overly physical, though his positioning was generally strong and he made several well-timed poke checks to shut down dangerous rushes. He didn't seem as engaged as most of the other players out there, and it's hard to tell if that's a product of the low-stakes tournament atmosphere, or simply his usual demeanor. My hunch is that it's a little of both.
The only players who really left me wanting more (other than Machovsky) were Patrick Wiercioch and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Wiercioch is a smooth skater, and a deft passer/stickhandler, but I thought he was pretty terrible defensively. He's not at all physical despite his size, but unlike someone like Rundblad, he didn't demonstrate the ability to use positioning and stickwork to break up plays. He frankly didn't look very competitive at all, and he was routinely outmuscled behind the net and along the boards. I wasn't keeping close tabs, but he seemed to be on the ice for more than his share of Chicago's goals. I really don't see him as being NHL-ready yet, and he could definitely learn a thing or two from the likes of Borowiecki and Gryba, who both played much better in their own end. Even Jordan Fransoo, who I had essentially no expectations of, outplayed Wiercioch at his own game. As for Pageau, he wasn't bad, he just didn't show the kind of hustle I was expecting based on the reports of his performance in last year's QMJHL playoffs (though he did miss Saturday's game with an injury, so that could have been a factor). His line with Culek and Caporusso was the least impressive of the afternoon, but they also probably had the least ice-time. Either way, they spent too much time running around in their own end and seemed a little overmatched at times. Based on what I saw, another year in the Q will definitely benefit both Pageau and Culek. Caporusso looked to be the strongest of the three, and could prove to be a gamer for the Baby Sens.