At their charity golf tournament yesterday, members of the Ottawa Senators made one thing very clear: much of the team has already been in town for the last two weeks – an uncommon practice in the sport – and are raring to go.
Informal skates, scrimmages, and workouts will start to become routine again as 56 players report to the Canadian Tire Centre this morning for the official start of training camp. Medicals and fitness testing are on the agenda for today, while formal on-ice practices begin on Thursday. The roster will be split into two groups for the first three days of on-ice practices before playing their first game on Sunday afternoon against Toronto.
If I'm trying to read the tea leaves, I'd imagine the team will probably look to pare down their camp roster to the NHL group before they leave on their Nova Scotia trip on Saturday, September 30th. That leaves around four games for prospects, AHL players, and those on the bubble to make their mark, and four games for the NHL squad to bond and get into a rhythm.
The full 56-player roster can be found here. Highlights include:
- All six goaltenders are signed to deals within the organization. Barring unforeseen circumstances, expect Korpisalo and Forsberg to start in Ottawa, Søgaard and Meriläinen to start in Belleville, and Mandolese and Sinclair to start with the Allen Americans in the ECHL. Mark Sinclair is likely the only name that most people aren't familiar with – the 27-year-old veteran was signed to an AHL/ECHL deal on July 7th.
- The 19 defencemen can be split into roughly three groups. The NHL group of Bernard-Docker, Brännström, Chabot, Chychrun, Hamonic, Sanderson, and Zub; the AHL group of Guénette, Heatherington, Kleven, Larsson, MacKinnon, Matinpalo, Sebrango, and Thomson; and the prospect group featuring Andonovski, Donovan, Hamara, and Touré. As it stands right now, we'd expect the players to be cut by group in reverse order; I lay them out this way so that you can assess that the longer a player survives in their group, the better camp they're having.
- Starting with the prospects, Djibril Touré is the successful candidate of the six defenders who received invites to the team's rookie camp last week. Touré was present in development camp as well, and is scheduled to play his final year of OHL eligibility with Sudbury this season.
- In the AHL group, you'd expect Guénette, Kleven, Matinpalo, and Thomson to try and hang as long as they can with the main group. Three of this group played NHL games last season, while Nikolas Matinpalo was one of the team's two European free agent signings in the offseason. Lassi Thomson is now waiver eligible, alongside veterans Dylan Heatherington and Jacob Larsson, so it'll be interesting to see how his camp shakes out. Finally, Ryan MacKinnon is the Mark Sinclair of this group (AHL/ECHL deal) and Donovan Sebrango is the newcomer looking to make a good impression.
- Of the NHL group, expect pre-season games to feature either Chabot - Chychrun or Sanderson - Zub as Ottawa's top pair, as both units have been identified early by the coaching staff as pairings they want to give reps to. On the flipside, it'll be fascinating to see how Brännström, Hamonic, and Bernard-Docker handle the competition underneath them.
- It's hard to try and split the 31 forwards into similar groups. There's the NHL squad consisting of Batherson, Giroux, Kubalik, Norris, Stützle, Tarasenko, and Tkachuk. Once you add the unsigned Shane Pinto to this group, you have a bulk of the team's top-nine forwards. There's a second group of players who have primarily played NHL minutes and are on one-way deals, but aren't locks for the roster, which include: Joseph, Kastelic, Kelly, and MacEwen. The latter three bounced between the NHL, AHL, and press box, and I'm including Mathieu Joseph in this group because he might be a candidate to send to Belleville if the team needs $1.15M in cap relief.
- The next group of forwards are the bubble players – those who would be the most disappointed if they weren't included on the team's Nova Scotia road trip. They include: Josh Bailey (PTO), Angus Crookshank, Ridly Greig, Matthew Highmore, Bokondji Imama, Jiri Smejkal, and the newly-signed Egor Sokolov. The stories here are diverse; 33-year-old Bailey, longtime Islander, is fighting to continue his career; Highmore and Imama are players on big AHL salaries looking to carve out a fourth-line role; Crookshank, Greig, and Sokolov are younger players ready to break in; and Smejkal is the team's second and final European free agent signing who has done everything overseas and was convinced by the coaching staff to sign in Ottawa.
- We move onto the AHL group, which features Boucher, Chartier, Currie, Daoust, Järventie, McPhee, Ostapchuk, Pilon, Reinhardt, and Saulnier. There are certainly players here who can suit up for NHL games this season, like Chartier and Reinhardt did last year, but for the most part, these are the folks who are expected to be leaders in Belleville. In particular, I'm interested to see how long prospects Daoust and Järventie can stay with the bigger group, and how much the two injured forwards – Boucher and Ostapchuk – are able to participate.
- The team has no junior-eligible forwards in camp, which is reflective of their drafting strategy focusing on the U.S. and Europe in recent years. Hence, the final group of forwards are made up of the surviving invitees from rookie camp who are looking for AHL deals: Connor Clattenburg, Tarun Fizer, and Jackson Stewart. Last week's favourite and ECHL top scorer, Fizer should be pushing for a standard-player contract instead of an AHL deal and the Senators have space for a player of his calibre.
While both D.J. Smith and Pierre Dorion will speak to the media more formally today, both of them – alongside many of the team's leaders in the locker room [Tkachuk, Stützle, Giroux, Chychrun, Forsberg, Hamonic] – spoke to TSN1200 yesterday at the charity golf tournament. Click the person's name for their respective audio, but here are my highlights:
- Everyone spoke to already being in Ottawa for the last couple of weeks, but it was striking to hear it from 1000-game veteran, Claude Giroux. He shared how it's been uncommon among the teams he's played for and shows how everyone is ready to give more this year to reach their goals.
- Tkachuk, Giroux, and Stützle talked about how being detailed and consistent will be key this year. I think we all saw glimpses during the season when the team was dictating play, and other periods where they were overwhelmed. All of the players didn't want to set the external goal of making the playoffs this year, citing it as a distraction. Instead, they talked about wanting to be at their best game-by-game and holding each other to a new standard.
- Individually, Tkachuk noted how he stayed away from heavy lifting this year and focused on maintenance and mobility. He shared he wants to play every game this season and be more explosive as a skater.
- Stützle talked about wanting to improve his two-way game and continue to play in all situations.
- Chychrun talked about changing up his training regimen, spending a lot of his summer in Toronto instead of at his cottage in Ottawa. He spoke about loving the opportunity to play with Thomas Chabot, a "likeminded player who wants to jump into the attack." He thinks they can read off of each other well, and noted that the two have been skating together over the past few weeks.
- Forsberg spoke about how he and Joonas Korpisalo have been good friends since the first day of development camp in Columbus. He shared how they play a similar style in net, so they should be able to learn from each other in practice and compete for starts.
- Hamonic spoke about how open he was about his desire to remain in Ottawa, and called the city a "special place and special group" for him and his family. He shared how he's ready to embrace a more flexible role – whether it's 14 minutes a night or 20 minutes a night – and how he knows what's expected of him on the penalty kill.
- In response to a question about how he's going to coach differently this season, D.J. Smith talked about being more focused when holding players accountable day-to-day. He shared how his philosophy can't be about living and learning anymore, and that the team has the NHL depth now whereby players can take minutes from those who aren't performing well that night. He spoke with pride about how his young players are ready to stand on their own two feet and how he won't be using labels like "young" or "the kids" anymore – they're ready to dictate play against any team.
- Smith gave some insight into Ben Sexton's hiring, sharing that Bob Jones won't be able to do as much this year while receiving treatment for ALS so Sexton's relationship and history with the players was important to him. He noted how different the coach and player relationships are compared to when he first started his career, and how important it was for him to have a younger member of the staff who played recently to ease the transition of messages from the coaches down to the players.
- Outside of updating us on the injuries to Boucher and Ostapchuk, Pierre Dorion made two eyebrow raising comments to me. First, he mentioned how the team can now put players in the minors now if they don't perform, which "wasn't always the case in the past." Second, he shared how he was able to spend more this year at the AHL level to have more NHL depth if needed. Dorion noted that he's ready to talk more practically with Michael Andlauer about spending decisions and managing the salary cap situation the team is in once the new ownership group is officially in place at the end of this week.
It's time to take some contact, find our legs, and get into game shape. Let us know what you're excited for about the upcoming season in the comments below!