The defending President’s Trophy Champion Ottawa Senators entered training camp regarded in many circles as the Stanley Cup favorites for this coming season. That moniker is not the only thing unique about this 11th training camp. With more depth than ever before, there are now very few positions up for grabs. Here is a look at what training camp battles and depth chart jockeying will ensue during the final few week of preseason, focusing on prospects who might see time with the team.
While the ideal configuration of the Sens’ top three lines is debatable, the reality is that with a healthy and complete line-up (including the unsigned Martin Havlat), the team simply has no spots available at forward for the taking. There are 13 returning NHL regulars at forward, plus Jason Spezza. Of the 14 forwards, Jody Hull signed a two-way player/coach deal that will see him in Binghamton, apprenticing under coach John Paddock. That leaves 13 forwards assured NHL jobs. While Shaun Van Allen is arguably the most likely scratch when all hands are on deck, any one of Peter Schaefer, Chris Neil, Peter Schastlivy or Spezza could see a few games from the press box if their play is not up to par.
But three factors have combined to create an opportunity for a few of the Sens forward prospects. First, Havlat is increasingly looking like a no-show for at least a portion of the regular season. Second, Mike Fisher re-injured his elbow and will be missing the first few games of the regular season. And finally, off-season free agent signing Denis Hamel was selected in the waiver draft, and Hamel was likely first on the call-up list from Bingo.
Here is a look at a few of the Sens prospects fighting for a regular season spot with the team.
Twenty-year-old Spezza is tied with Marian Hossa for the lead in preseason scoring and has been used with a variety of different linemates thus far. To say he has been impressive is an understatement. Spezza played 32 games in the NHL last season. He’s a lock for a spot with the Sens and while he has shown chemistry with Hossa in preseason and Havlat last season, it looks like he will center a line between Daniel Alfredsson and Todd White to start the year. A 50-point season looked possible before Havlat’s absence, but his point potential jumps a bit with Havlat not around, as he may take Havlat’s spot on the first power-play unit. Probability of NHL action: 100%.
Vermette’s gaudy speed and potential have been apparent throughout training camp, and in addition to center, he also plays the left side – the Sens weakest position up front. His chemistry with Marian Hossa during one scrimmage was palpable. The 21-year-old Vermette spent all of last season in Binghamton of the AHL. He could play in several situations with Ottawa, and while Sens brass would rather have Vermette playing in the AHL than watching from the Corel Centre press box, they probably wouldn’t mind seeing him get at least a few NHL games under his belt this season. Probability for NHL action: 75%.
Giroux has been a surprise in camp and preseason thus far, scoring goals and getting in a scrap with the veteran Jamie Pushor. The 22-year-old left wing plays a solid two-way game. Giroux is a former Hull Olympique and had a solid season in Bingo last year with 19 goals, 35 points and more than 100 PIMs. Probability for NHL action: 40%.
After suffering a broken finger in camp Langfield
missed out on the opportunity to impress Sens’ management, although he
did score a goal in the Sens pre-season finale. Langfield has played
some solid games for the big club in past, and if he can continue to
develop his game in Bingo, Muckler won’t hesitate to call on him again.
Probability of NHL action: 50%.
McGrattan is being groomed for a future enforcer role with the Sens and has good size and speed. If there are injuries to Chris Neil and Dennis Bonvie, the Senators may turn to McGrattan for a brief stint with the big club, however the team expects the 22-year-old McGrattan to spend his second full year in Binghamton refining his game. Probability for NHL action: 10%.
Laich has already been sent to Bingo for his first professional season, but if he can quickly adapt to AHL speed and assert himself by posting scorers’ numbers, he could get a look later in the season if there is a need for skill. That said, he is firmly behind Vermette and Corso on the skills depth chart at this point. He also looked overmatched at times during the training camp. Probability for NHL action: 5%.
Daniel Corso has skill, speed and NHL experience, so he would be an easy fit on a few different lines if called upon. No longer a prospect, the Sens would be much more likely to let Corso watch from the sidelines as the extra man than Vermette, so this gives him a slight advantage for at least a brief recall a la Steve Martins of last year.
The top four defensemen, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara, Karel Rachunek and Chris Phillips, are set in stone. Anton Volchenkov seems to have a firm grip on the number five spot, and will begin his challenge of entering the top four this season. This leaves one full-time spot open for the taking, with Curtis Leschyshyn, Bryan Pothier and Shane Hnidy the three candidates and all set to stay with the big club.
With the loss of Wade Brookbank in the waiver draft, four defensemen are left to vie for a call-up in the event at least two of Sens top eight blue-liners are injured simultaneously at some point this year. While it’s quite possible none of these prospects will see any NHL action this season, here is a look at the potential call-ups:
Vauclair has elite level skating, adequate puck handling abilities and is the likely first call-up at this point. He had a solid year in Bingo last year and while he lacks the physical strength to be an elite prospect, he could have a NHL future as a fifth or sixth defenseman. Vauclair is 24.
At 6’3″ and 201 pounds, Schubert is the opposite of Vauclair in that his forte is the physical side of the game. He is a stay at home defenseman with superior strength and the ability to win the one-on-one battles. Schubert plays a simple game and is a stay at home defenseman likely to crack an NHL line-up someday. Only 21, he has a few years to develop. Like Vauclair, last season was his first year in North America in Binghamton after several years playing professionally and internationally for the German national team.
Another physical defenseman, the 24-year-old Smrek has been somewhat of a journeyman over the last few years, but he has considerable professional experience including NHL games with the Rangers and Blues. If Vauclair and Schubert struggle, Smrek is likely next in line.
The feisty Czech rearguard has the highest upside of the blue-line prospects and while he made some noise in camp and preseason, he is slated to spend the entire year in Binghamton after three years of impressive play with Barrie in the OHL. Platil has good size and skills, complimented by a style that would make Darcy Tucker proud. Sens management will be watching his development closely this year and the 20-year-old is most likely at least two years away from the NHL.
The Sens brass can say all they want about the battle for the back-up spot in Ottawa behind Patrick Lalime, but there really is none. Martin Prusek is slated to be the back-up this season for the simple reason he cannot clear waivers and Ray Emery can.
That said, there is a possible scenario for change and it is actually if Prusek begins the season magnificently, and Emery can build upon his AHL All-Star form from last year. If this is the case, Prusek may become a very hot commodity in trade circles — perhaps even before Christmas — and if the Sens have enough faith in Emery, they may consider moving Prusek at the right price. It should be noted, Prusek posted similar numbers to Lalime last season, and the year before in his first exposure to North American hockey posted some of the most impressive numbers in AHL history as the league’s top goaltender.
Youngster Billy Thompson will play full time in Binghamton this year and this may be the first of many years for Thompson toiling the in the minors.