Few teams develop young players better than the Ottawa Senators. Every year there seems to be at least one Senators rookie who shows significant promise in their first full season in the NHL. Last year, Anton Volchenkov, a Russian tank known as the A-Train for his thunderous open ice hits, was the rookie sensation that everybody grew to love. Phenom Jason Spezza also played a fair bit with Ottawa in 2002-03, and only further solidified his status as a core player this past season. In the 2003-04 season, it was 21-year-old Antoine Vermette who really arrived on the scene as a rookie in Ottawa.
Vermette’s career once looked like it was over because of a misdiagnosed injury, but a great rookie season in the AHL last year helped him immensely. The speedy natural center was not expected to make the team out of training camp, but because of injuries to several returning players up front and the hold-out of Martin Havlat, he made the opening night roster. Blessed with some of the very best wheels in the league, Vermette played most of the season at left wing on the fourth line with an average ice time of 11:59 per game. Known for his offensive abilities, Vermette quickly became a fixture on the penalty kill, playing 2:26 when the team was a man down, which ranked second among Senators forwards. Although he only put up seven goals and 14 points, it seemed as though every time Vermette was put on a scoring line, often with Marian Hossa on the other wing, he was a force offensively.
This was evident in the playoffs when then Head Coach Jacques Martin opted to dress Vermette over super youngster Jason Spezza. After the first two games, Martin scratched Vermette for Spezza, but within a couple games, he was back in the line-up. In Game 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he set up Mike Fisher for an overtime winning goal. For Vermette, this was the first of many seasons in Ottawa, after starting out as a top prospect who looked to be headed back to the AHL for a second minor professional season. The St-Agapit, Quebec, native is now an established penalty killing specialist with speed to burn and offensive upside to boot.
The only other rookie who made a significant impact in Ottawa was 26-year-old Josh Langfeld. In his third professional season after a successful career at the University of Michigan, the hulking winger got off to a hot start with the Senators minor league affiliate in Binghamton. After a number of short call-ups the last couple of years, Langfeld started putting up some points in Ottawa in January. For a while, he seemed to be scoring every game. At 6’3” and 216 pounds, he was often used on a scoring line by Coach Jacques Martin to crash the net and score garbage goals. In 38 games in the NHL, Langfeld put up seven goals and 17 points, while averaging 10:53 of ice time per game. Despite some regular season success, Langfeld didn’t play a minute in the playoffs with the big club. Langfeld is no longer prospect, but he has now proven he can play at the NHL level, so he could have a job in the big league next year, although not necessarily in Ottawa.
Goaltender Ray Emery, the top prospect in the Senators organization at this point, had another cup of tea with the big club this year, playing in three games. Most notably, Emery started against the Chicago Blackhawks on December 18th, and stopped 27 of the 28 shots fired his way in a blow out victory for Ottawa. The second year pro got another win on March 31st, playing 33 minutes in relief against Florida. His only other appearance was in relief in the final game of the season in a blow-out loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Emery struggled at times in his second season with Binghamton, so he may not be ready for a regular back-up job next year in Ottawa.
Chris Kelly and Julien Vauclair also suited up for the Senators in separate emergency call-ups. Kelly was called up because of injury and illness, and played over 13 minutes against Toronto in the infamous February game where Senators players were dropping out of the game left and right because of the flu. His ice-time dropped in each of the next three games he played, although he was used on the penalty kill regularly by Martin. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, Kelly suffered a serious knee injury in his fourth game, which may have ended his stint with Ottawa, but did give him an NHL salary for the duration of his injury. The 24-year-old Vauclair, who had a fantastic year as an AHL all-star, played his first and thus far only game in Ottawa very early this past season. On October 25th, the Senators were short a defenseman, and Vauclair stepped up and played 12:48 in his NHL debut. Although he showed he could still use more bulk to handle the bigger, tougher NHL game, the Swiss rearguard also was poised and calm on the blue line. Next year, it is likely Vauclair will play somewhere in the NHL, if not with Ottawa, then somewhere else because of his waiver eligibility.