There’s a strange mix of fear and optimism surrounding training camp in the nation’s capital this year.
On one hand, the team, who’s bar for success has been raised significantly following a late-third-round exit to the Stanley Cup Champions in the spring, is missing over $16 million on the ice during scrimmages with the absence of Erik Karlsson, Clarke MacArthur and Derick Brassard.
While Brassard’s status seems to improve with every practice, the 29-year-old’s spot in the opening night lineup is still likely to be given to one of his teammates. As for Karlsson and MacArthur, it’s nearly a guarantee the two will be in the press box or at home for the team’s first test against the Washington Capitals on October 5, and many games to follow.
As the Atlantic Division grows stronger, like it did dramatically this offseason, the demand for a running start out of the gate rises. For the Senators, that task is rather daunting when beginning the campaign without three of the team’s top contributors during their run to the Eastern Conference Finals only months ago.
But battling the immediate panic fans are dealing with is the surprise surge of anticipation the younger players have created through the rookie tournament and early days of camp.
If the lack of veterans - not to mention the departures of Marc Methot, Chris Neil and Chris Kelly - is showing us anything, it’s that the prospect pool has improved tenfold.
Top of mind of any Sens fan nowadays is Thomas Chabot and the substantial jump in overall play he has taken the previous 365 days. At no point, between the MVP award at the World Juniors and the pure domination of the QMJHL’s postseason, did the now 20-year-old show any signs of slowing down. Fast forward to today; he was the team’s best player on their road trip to Toronto, and he’s proving to be one of the top defensemen in intersquad games three days into training camp.
Heck, he might be the best healthy defenseman in the organization.
Right now, there’s not much standing in the way of Chabot making the NHL roster.
“It’s not ‘can he be on the ice with those guys?’ We know he can,” explained head coach Guy Boucher after Saturday’s succession of practice, scrimmage and conditioning. “It’s just (about) how much he can sustain against the NHL speed, bigger bodies. Can he defend against those guys?
“He’s ready in terms of with the puck. And now it’s without the puck. And is he better now than the other guys that have been with us like the Harpurs and the Claessons, and the guys that have been developed the last year and have got the experience of last year and the playoffs. He has to take somebody’s spot.”
In the first two ice times, Boucher and company have paired Chabot with what management believes are two capable defenders. On Day 1, he was thrown with Ben Harpur and on Day 2, Dion Phaneuf became his partner.
Chabot looked great on Day 1. He looked phenomenal on Day 2.
As if anyone needed more confirmation after Karlsson said Chabot was further developed than he was at this stage of his career.
Along with Chabot, making a strong bid for an NHL gig, is Colin White. The two have been clumped together in any Senators-related prospect chatter ever since they were drafted 18th and 21st in the 2015 draft.
Though Chabot may have a step on White on the youngster depth chart, White is a close second and might actually have a better chance to play more NHL games this season.
Because, as many of you are aware, the coach knows what he likes and he likes what he knows.
“What Colin has is obviously what coaches look (for) when they look at young guys,” said Boucher. “Are they reliable enough for us to put them on the ice without closing our eyes? He has that.”
This is also White’s first opportunity to attend Senators training camp. A preferable progression from intersquad scrimmages to preseason games before the 2017-18 campaign begins for real must feel a lot more comfortable compared to last season’s hasty introduction to professional hockey.
“I think it’s easier for him now, not being in a pressure situation like the playoffs at the end of the year when it’s crunch time and your season hangs in the balance,” said Boucher. “It’s sometimes not fair to put all that pressure on kids that haven’t lived it yet. So he starts the year now in a training camp where he knows he’s got a legitimate chance, like other guys.”
And just like Chabot, White has been placed with NHL-calibre linemates to start camp.
Yesterday was the second day in a row that he and 12-year veteran Alex Burrows made up two thirds of a trio.
“He’s a really good player,” said Burrows, standing half-dressed in hockey gear in the halls of the Canadian Tire Centre. “He’s got a lot of defensive upsides. It’s only been (two) scrimmages and it’s been a little bit scrambly, but he’s a good player and we’re going to keep working on our game and try to get some chemistry going, and hopefully it pays off for the start of the year.”
Some foreshadowing, possibly?
For too long, Chabot and White were seen as the only prospects with definite NHL futures within the Senators’ young guns. The organization’s hurried promotion of borderline players, combined with their inability to stock up on draft picks when the waters in the AHL and Junior were clearly drying up, led critics to believe Ottawa’s future was destined for mediocrity or worse.
Now, with three years of slightly above average decision-making at the draft table, and assertive, encouraging development of said selections, it’s obvious the bulk of the up-and-coming players have grown into a respectable crop.
Of the ones that needed a little push to reach that next level, Filip Chlapik has returned to Ottawa a completely different player. He’s quicker, bigger and just plain more fun to watch. The 20-year-old is more brave in the corners and more confident with the puck than ever. So far, his 91-point season in the QMJHL is being properly backed up.
Logan Brown is healthy and has had an impressive September. He is one of the slower skaters, but not many on the ice have shown such poise and skill with a little bit of room in the offensive end. Playing alongside a couple speedy teammates has done wonders for the Raleigh, North Carolina native thus far. With a lack of pace, but the hands and hockey IQ to compensate, Mark Stone at the same age is a strong comparable. With a bit of coaching and a hell of a lot of determination, Mark was able to acquire NHL-worthy footspeed. Logan can, too.
Speaking of quickness, being labelled “too fast” is a good problem to have for Alex Formenton. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman called him “the best skater in the draft” this summer, and it’s evident every time he steps foot on the ice. Early observations show he isn’t given enough credit for his overall talent. A full year as a go-to offensive threat with the OHL’s London Knights will do him a lot of good. But as of right now, he was a steal at 47th overall in late June.
Also taken in the 2017 draft was Drake Batherson. He should be returning to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the early round of cuts, but that will have to do with experience and not much else. There are few players that have stood out more than the 19-year-old. His arsenal of tenacity without the puck and imagination with the puck has been on display since development camp and hasn’t dropped off.
“Unbeatable” was the phrase used to describe Marcus Hogberg at the rookie tournament a week ago. Though he did allow two goals in two games, the towering six-foot-five netminder turned in a couple of outstanding performances against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. It’s apparent in practice that the 22-year-old has some issues with his technique, but that’s about it. If it’s possible for a goaltender to be seen as intimidating, Hogberg definitely possesses that characteristic. He is fearless in his approach of a scoring chance and more agile than today’s average giant in the crease. The Örebro, Sweden native may begin in the ECHL this season in order for him to garner the most playing time, but you can bet that he’ll be making his way up the organization’s goalie depth chart rapidly.
Of the unmentioned, Christian Jaros, Francis Perron and Maxime Lajoie are all off to terrific starts, as well.
As with youth in general, many things are uncertain. There’s a lot of hockey to be played from now until management writes up the final roster, and we could see considerable decline from a number of players.
But looking forward, a couple things are undeniable.
A 29th place finish is absolutely not in the cards for Belleville in the AHL this season. The likes of Jason Akeson and Phil Varone will not be leading the B Sens in scoring with a measly 51 points. And when the injury bug hits in the big leagues, as it always does, Ottawa will have a far superior group to choose from.
There might not be another Calder Cup parade right away, but the Senators’ prospect pool is not a joke anymore.