Senators 2008-09 rookie review

By Josh Chenoweth

During the Senators disappointing 2008-09 season, there were four rookies regularly on the roster. Cody Bass, however, had his season ended by a shoulder injury, resulting in him playing only 12 games.

Each rookie showed some good upside, and should help the team going forward, especially since their cheap salaries can allow the Senators to spend some more on the free agent market. That being said, there’s a good chance none of them will ever turn out to be offensive standouts, which the Senators desperately need beyond their top line.

Brian Lee, D
Acquired: 2005 entry draft, 9th overall

Lee’s season didn’t start out as was anticipated. He struggled to keep up in the NHL, especially in the physical aspects of the game. He didn’t show the poise that he had during his brief call-up to Ottawa at the tail end of 2007-08, where he was thought to have cemented himself.  Towards the end of October, Lee was sent down to Binghamton (AHL) to hone his skills.

Lee would be recalled to Ottawa four more times throughout the season, and ended up playing a total of 53 games with the Senators, scoring two goals and 11 assists. Lee’s physical game and defensive play showed considerable improvement after playing in the AHL, but he still makes the occasional rookie mistake in his own end. What was most disconcerting about Lee this season was the lack of development offensively. While he is a fantastic skater, and can make the first pass out of the zone that the Senators clearly lacked for most of the season, his offensive game never seemed to come together. This was apparent even in the AHL, where he only put up two goals and 10 assists in 27 games. For a player who was expected to bring some offense to the blue line, it was quite the letdown. There’s still potential there, but it’s unlikely that Lee will develop into a top-pairing rearguard capable of replacing the output of Wade Redden in his prime.

Regardless, Lee should stick in Ottawa for the upcoming season. He has enough talent, and is showing steady improvement in his all-around game. It’s reasonable to believe that Lee will develop into a solid top-four defenseman, who can play the point on the second power-play unit.

Jesse Winchester, F
Acquired: Signed as a free agent, 2008

After four respectable years at Colgate University, Winchester turned pro and signed with the Senators in March of 2008. After playing only a single game in the NHL that year, he was expected to have a spot on the roster for opening night in 2008 and he didn’t disappoint. He performed well in training camp, at times playing on a line with Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley.

Winchester earned his spot on the roster; it was just a question of where he would fit in on the team. Was he a top-six forward who could provide some secondary scoring, or a bottom-six grinder? He had shown some good offensive skills while at Colgate, but nothing spectacular. Ultimately, Winchester didn’t show any serious offensive upside, but his defensive play and physical game were solid. He showed an uncanny ability to maintain possession of the puck in the corners and great strength on his skates, similar to former Senator Peter Schaefer.

Winchester will never be mistaken for a scorer, but his defensive game and hockey IQ should allow him to carve out a niche for himself as a solid third or fourth liner. That’s good value for a player who was never drafted.

Cody Bass, C
Acquired: 2005 entry draft, 95th overall

Bass’ season was one to forget. It wasn’t that the feisty center from Owen Sound didn’t play well, it was a case of not getting the chance to play enough. Bass had a good shot at making the Ottawa roster out of camp: he was one of the few Ottawa players to perform well during the playoffs, he’s defensively sound, physical, skates like the wind, and he is willing to drop the gloves. He seemed perfect to fill the role of fourth-line center.

However, the numbers didn’t work out in Bass’ favor. Some free-agent signings by GM Bryan Murray in the offseason, coupled with Bass’ rookie contract that allowed him to be sent to the minors without having to clear waivers, resulted in him starting the year in Binghamton. There, Bass played his staple game: hitting hard, playing good defense, and fighting when needed. During his 18 games with Binghamton, he managed one goal and one assist to go with his 41 penalty minutes. Bass’ play earned him a chance in Ottawa, and he was recalled on two occasions. However, his second stint, in late December, ended his season. He sustained an injury to his left shoulder and was forced to undergo surgery to repair it.

Bass has all the tools to be a great checking line center, and with tough guy Chris Neil primed to leave Ottawa as an unrestricted free agent, Bass’ willingness to fight is quite attractive to the Senators. What Bass needs to do is stay healthy; this is the second major injury he’s had in as many seasons. That’s worrisome, and his style of play isn’t likely to change. Hopefully it has just been a case of bad luck.

Brian Elliott, G
Acquired: 2003 entry draft, 291st overall

During the summer of 2008, Bryan Murray said he wanted to give Elliott 30 games as a starter in the AHL and then see where he was at before making a decision on his immediate future. After compiling an 18-8-1 record with a .926 save percentagae and a GAA of 2.31, resulting in being named the starting goalie for Team Canada at the AHL All-Star game, Elliott was called up to Ottawa and never returned.

After getting off to a hot start in Ottawa and giving the Senators hope they could climb back into the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, Elliott did experience some bumps in the road. Some nights he seemed like an NHL veteran, while others made him look like the rookie he really was.
Some might question whether or not Martin Gerber should have been recalled from Binghamton to finish the season in Ottawa, thus allowing Elliott to hone his game in the minors and help Binghamton in their playoff push. Experiencing the pressure of a playoff game, even in the AHL, could have been a valuable experience for him. Ultimately, Binghamton failed to make the playoffs, so there is no point in thinking about what could have been.

Regardless of his inconsistency as a rookie, the mere fact that the second-last pick in 2003 has made it this far is admirable. With some work in the off-season, Elliott could force the Senators to deal Alex Auld in order to make room for him on the roster to back up expected No. 1 Pascal Leclaire. In a few years, he could challenge for the top job. Elliott has excelled at every level he’s played at, but can he make it as a starter in the NHL. He isn’t the most talented goalie, but his work ethic is superb. Stay tuned.

The Senators also had four players who played a limited number of games in the NHL, but not enough to disqualify them from being rookies again next season. Peter Regin and Ilya Zubov led the way with 11 and 10 games respectively. Regin managed to score his first NHL goal, while adding an assist. Zubov managed two assists during his stint in Ottawa. Zack Smith and Josh Hennessy each played a single game with Ottawa.

Regin, with his sound play at both ends of the ice, would seem to have the inside track to making the NHL Senators for the 2009-10 season, he simply needs to bulk up so that his body can handle the physical play in the NHL. Twice this year, Regin was sidelined with injuries, but his talent and instincts still shown through.

Zubov has made great strides since his rookie season in the AHL, but he seemed to fade in the latter half of the season. Conditioning could still be a bit of an issue. If he spends another summer training in Ottawa as he did last year, Zubov could find his way onto the top two lines in Ottawa. His offensive touch would be welcome.

Smith probably needs another season in the AHL, while Hennessy is bordering on being an NHL bust at this point.