Jean-Gabriel Pageau has had quite the ascent in the hearts and minds of Senators fans. Having been drafted in 2011, he was ranked 21st in our winter 2012 addition while in the middle of an injury plagued season in which he totalled 65 points in 46 QMJHL games. He spent the majority of 2012-2013 in the AHL and we ranked him 17th this January. Now here we are just a few months later where 19 NHL games and one playoff hat trick has vaulted him to #7.
Normally when rookies get called up to the NHL midway through the season, they either get easy sheltered minutes like Mika Zibanejad or they play tough minutes and struggle mightily like Eric Gryba. Pageau played against well above average competition (Corsi Rel QoC of +0.452) and managed to more than hold his own, posting a relative Corsi of +9.3, good for first among the team's forwards, albeit in nine games. He had two goals and two assists in nine regular season games, playing 11:29 per game. His last regular season goal was the one in Boston that secured a match-up with the Canadiens.
Pageau continued his strong play in the playoffs, scoring five points in the five games against the Canadiens, inspiring the birth of assertive Senators fans with this chant on his way to a hat trick in game three. Against the Penguins, he had only one goal in five games. However, the forward he was matched up the most against was none other Sidney Crosby. In just under 17 minutes of Pageau against Crosby 5-on-5, Ottawa came out even 1-1 on goals, ahead 13-11 on shots and ahead 23-15 on attempted shots. Of course the sample is incredibly small, but to be able to go up against Crosby and hold his own as a rookie is no small feat.
Everyone remembers the hat trick, but it is worth mentioning that Pageau had a very impressive start to his career given the situation he was in and the responsibilities he was given. He played 1:20 per game on the penalty kill in the playoffs and his emergence bumped Zack Smith to the wing on a line with Mika Zibanejad. Smith by contrast was completely bumped off the penalty kill and has only 7 goals in his last 102 games including the playoffs. But there is always politics to consider. Smith has a one-way contract for four more seasons paying him $7.55 million. Pageau on the other hand is on a two-way deal as well as being waiver exempt.
With the Senators having 11 forwards on one-way contracts, Cory Conacher and Mike Hoffman both no longer being exempt from waivers and Mika Zibanejad guaranteed a spot, Pageau could be squeezed out to the AHL in a numbers game until injuries give him an opportunity. Given his already excellent defensive play, Pageau definitely has the makings of a very good third line centre and maybe even a second line centre. With the Senators current depth on centre, he could be given a shot on the wing. There is definitely a case to be made that he is a better option than Smith right now, but another season developing in the AHL and playing top line minutes wouldn't be that bad either.