It's the moment of truth.
There seems to be little doubt that the team's plan was always to build from within, and that the 2013-14 season would be the one where they allowed their young players to graduate into roles with more responsibility. The number of one-year contracts general manager Bryan Murray handed out heading into last season combined with the number of contracts expiring at the end of last season seem to emphasize that hypothesis.
Especially on defense, where the team watched Sergei Gonchar, Andre Benoit, and Mike Lundin depart. The plan is probably not even finished--both Chris Phillips and Joe Corvo have contracts that expire at the end of this season. It's likely I'll be writing this same column about the third pairing next year about players like Eric Gryba and Cody Ceci.
This year, however, will see Patrick Weircioch and Jared Cowen (eventually) play the bulk of minutes behind the top pairing of Marc Methot and Erik Karlsson. Both men have quality pedigrees, as Cowen was a top-10 pick in 2009, and Wiercioch was the team's second-rounder in 2008. Wiercioch is listed at 6'5" and 205lbs, while Cowen clocks in at 6'5" and 230lbs. Wiercioch impressively recovered from a career-threatening throat injury, famously working out with best friend Kyle Turris over the summer to build the strength needed to play at the NHL level. It paid off, as Wiercioch had a very strong rookie season, displaying strong offensive instincts.
Cowen, meanwhile, returned ahead of schedule from a torn hip labrum--a serious injury--to play a few games after originally being told he was out for the year. Cowen started his return out well:
But he struggled in the final playoff series against players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. That's unsurprising, as injuries have limited Cowen's experience to just 90 regular-season games and 17 playoff games in three years.
Regardless, Cowen has the size and tools to be an imposing force for players who want to cross Ottawa's blue line:
Both players have untapped wells of potential waiting within them. However, the question mark here comes from both players' relative inexperience. Both were sheltered whenever possible last season, with Wiercioch not even being used in the playoffs--save for one game, where he was injured on his first shift.
Head coach Paul MacLean won't have that luxury this season. Someone is going to have to make defensive zone starts. It can't be Marc Methot every shift. The burden will fall towards Cowen and Wiercioch, who form a similar tandem--defensive defenseman and puck-mover--as Methot and Karlsson do. This season will see both players called upon to play significant minutes in all situations. That they have the talent to do so is not in question. Whether they can do it consistently is.
The truth is that neither player needs to excel to succeed. Ottawa's forward group is talented enough to carry the play as long as they can get the puck, and the goaltending tandem is good enough to bail out most mistakes. The threshold of success for the youngsters is merely to be average and consistent. If they can manage that, their teammates will handle the rest. If they can't, opposing coaches will look to get top lines matched up against them all year long. Again, consistent play is the key here. Steady play will carry the day. The upside for both players is forming a large and formidable pairing. The downside is a gaping liability for opponents to feast on, resulting in a complete reshuffling of the defensive corps.
That simply cannot happen. Phillips and Corvo are not viable replacements for second-pairing minutes. It's Cowen and Wiercioch or bust. Literally.