Success of Prospects Means Tough Decisions Ahead for Sens

By Scott Petersen

Minor injuries and some major lineup tinkering have defined the first month of the season for the Ottawa Senators.

With 12 games in the rearview mirror and another 70 directly ahead, a slate of injuries to key players and the imprudent holdout of Karel Rachunek opened the door for several Senator prospects to test the National Hockey League waters.

Those prospects have experienced varying degrees of success, creating new problems for coach Jacques Martin’s revolving door of a lineup. As healthy bodies return and Rachunek gets in shape, Martin will have some decisions to make involving the immediate future of some of his young fill-ins.

The most important of which would be the future of second overall draft pick Jason Spezza. After a training camp and preseason that showcased his commitment to off-season training but failed to produce much on the scoreboard, Spezza found himself on the wrong end of a number crunch among the forwards and on a bus to Binghamton.
Spezza took the disappointing demotion and ran with it, potting three goals and three assists during his six game stint in the American Hockey League. When an injury to Radek Bonk opened up a spot on the big club, Spezza earned the first call-up.

After failing to find a niche on a lower line, a move to partner him with Marian Hossa has sparked both of their games. The pair found instant offensive chemistry and have created numerous scoring opportunities for each other.

Spezza has just four points and is a minus-five in his eight games, but much of that is due to a low rate of finish, not a lack of opportunity. All of Spezza’s points have also come on the power play this season and he and his linemates have missed several glorious opportunities to score as they adjust to each other.

In the defensive zone, he’s been prone to the odd communication or decision error that comes with rookies, and that will be something Martin will likely take into account when he makes his decision on whether Spezza stays or not.

His presence has helped sell tickets, balance the offensive attack and spur the power play for the Senators. Now Martin has to decide whether his positives outwigh his defensive growing pains.

Anton Volchenkov is another rookie who could be on the bubble for the Senators when the lineup returns to full health. Rachunek’s holdout helped open a spot for Volchenkov, which he took full advantage of in the preseason by leading the team in scoring with seven points in six games.

That torrid pace hasn’t held up in the regular season, but Volchenkov has been solid on the blueline and is learning to pick his spots offensively. His 12 games have showed his willingness to join the rush or throw a big hit on an opponent, a combination the Senators love.

However, Rachunek’s impending return means someone could take an AHL demotion. Though it’s unlikely to be Volchenkov based on performance, his salary could unfortunately make the decision for the Senators.

Petr Schastlivy has arguably had the most successful season of any rookie Senator to date, though an injury has currently put a hold on his season. Handed a job out of training camp, Schastlivy has impressed to the tune of seven points in nine games. That number is still enough to tie him for third in scoring on the Sens, despite missing three games. His roster spot is secure in light of the offensive struggles of several other players on the team and he should rejoin one of the top two lines upon his return.

Brad Smyth is the other player to be granted some ice time in light of injuries to Schastlivy, Bonk and Martin Havlat. The Ottawa native’s production has been minimal and he’ll likely be sent back to Binghamton upon the return of Havlat or Schastlivy.

Though the Sens have struggled somewhat out of the gate, the adequate fill-ins by some of their young prospects should only benefit the team in the end, no matter what Martin decides to do with them. Now with NHL experience under their belt and experimentation to see who works well with each other, the Sens’ depth and understanding of their organization have only improved.