Losers of their last five and starving for offence, the Senators made a move on Wednesday afternoon, calling up Jean-Gabriel Pageau from Binghamton of the AHL, who is likely to make his NHL debut tonight facing the Philadelphia Flyers. It was not a debut anyone expected to see this season, and likely not one Pageau expected to make. As the 96th overall pick in the 2011 Entry Draft, Pageau was chosen after Matt Puempel, Stefan Noesen and Shane Prince. Mika Zibanejad is the only other pick from that draft to suit up for the Senators. There is no relieving the nerves of making one's NHL debut, but it might be for the best that the Senators are on the road, instead of debuting in front of an entire bowl of Scotiabank Place filled with Pageau's friends and family as he makes a start for his hometown team.
After being traded from the Gatineau Olympiques to play for Chicoutimi of the QMJHL, Pageau graduated from junior hockey and started this season in Binghamton. After three productive seasons in the Q, Pageau chipped in while playing a gradually expanding role for Luke Richardson's B-Sens, putting up 29 points through 69 games this year. Astoundingly, Pageau will become the fourteenth Senators rookie to play this season.
Still, in spite of his solid rookie campaign in the AHL, this call-up is a surprise. As a 5'9 fourth-round forward from a draft class just reaching 20 years of age, Pageau was considered somewhat of a project selection. Seemingly, conventional wisdom dictates that Pageau would need time to find an identity for his game at the professional level. Lighting up the scoreboard in the high-flying QMJHL often doesn't speak to a player's ability or readiness to play in the NHL. Mike Hoffman, MVP of the Q in his final season with Saint John, had to wait two years longer than Pageau before he even caught a glimpse of regular season play from an NHL bench. There are things a player can get away with in junior hockey that will quickly catch the ire of a professional coach.
Pageau has stepped into the AHL and, by all indications, been a very fast learner. Even from the preseason, his game was eye-catching. An overused phrase seems the best way to describe how Pageau plays: he's just fun to watch. His game is built on a blend of quick feet, quicker hands and a good forecheck. He has no problem fighting to win pucks along the boards and has the kind of slickness that only smooth players can manage: in a scramble of big bodies for a puck in the corner, he somehow escapes unscathed.
One knock on Pageau's game this season has been his ability to stay relevant and noticeable each and every night. On some nights, Pageau is one of the most captivating players on the ice. On others, he failed to have a significant impact. As the season has developed, Luke Richardson seems to have grown in his level of trust for Pageau, using him in every kind of situation, trusting in his defensive awareness. Very quickly, JGP has picked up a sense of how he can make himself useful in professional hockey, even when the offence isn't clicking.
Sens fans were itching for a move of some kind to help spark the offence. In truth, Pageau likely isn't the answer, yet. The organization expects Mike Hoffman to be a top-six forward for the team right about now, whereas Pageau has time. He will likely see limited minutes. Unless, of course, the team isn't generating much through the first period or two and Paul MacLean starts playing the Sparty Shuffle with his lineup.At the morning skate, Pageau was centering a line with Greening and Condra flanking hiim.
However long this call-up lasts, it seems to fit a trend the organization has started with this year. With Mark Stone, Stephane Da Costa, David Dziurzynski, Derek Grant and Mark Borowiecki all seeing time with the big club, the management and coaching staff are allowing themselves a good look to see what they have in all those players, sending them back to the farm team better knowing what the Senators want to see them work on. One can't help but wonder if Sens fans might also catch a glimpse of Corey Cowick and Shane Prince, though the organization may opt to keep them in Binghamton as the team battles for home ice in the playoffs.
If you care to read more of my flowing praise about Pageau's game, here is his Top 25 Under 25 entry from this year, including the interesting anecdote Pierre Dorion shared about seeing an Olympiques game with Bryan Murray. Pageau and some guy named Jonathan Huberdeau faced off head-to-head as the top centres on their respective teams. After the game, Murray told Dorion to "just take both number elevens." Indeed, Pierre. Take ALL THE ELEVENS.
Pageau will slot in wearing #44 tonight, perhaps trying to channel the best of Patrick Eaves' early days. I, for one, can't wait for Amelia's post on that number.