OTTAWA — After finishing at the bottom of the standings last season, the Ottawa Senators are optimistic they can surprise a few people this year.
With a new coaching staff led by former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant D.J. Smith along with a handful of other fresh faces, the Senators are eager to get started at training camp later this week.
"(A fresh start) might have been something we needed here after two years that didn’t go the way we wanted," veteran forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau said at the club’s annual pre-season golf tournament on Tuesday. "To have that fresh start and go in and know the guys, get to know the coaches and starting on a new page will be very good for us here."
Talk of a rebuild began earnestly last season after the Senators parted ways with Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel and culminated with the firing of coach Guy Boucher late in the year.
During the off-season, the Senators hired Smith as the new coach and signed veteran free agents Ron Hainsey and Tyler Ennis, both formerly with the Leafs. Ottawa acquired Connor Brown and Nikita Zaitsev from Toronto in exchange for Ben Harpur and Cody Ceci, while also landing Artem Anisimov in a trade with Chicago for veteran Zack Smith.
General manager Pierre Dorion is excited to see how the changes will play out on the ice.
"I think (this group) is ready for a new challenge," said Dorion. "D.J. has spoken to every one of the players that are fighting for spots and they know what’s expected of them and they know we have to be much better than we’ve been the last two years."
Asked if this team could be a playoff contender this season, Dorion was cautiously optimistic.
"I definitely think if the players step up to the plate, we can surprise some people," Dorion said. "I think the worst is behind us, I’ve said that many times, and at the same time we’re going to put the onus on them and this coaching staff to see where this team can be at the end of the year."
A key contributor will be defenceman Thomas Chabot, who had a breakout season last season with 14 goals and 41 assists.
It appears Zaitsev will start the season on Chabot’s right side, but Smith said Dylan DeMelo and Ron Hainsey could also see time there.
Chabot is entering the final year of his entry-level contract and Dorion said talks are ongoing in trying to get him to sign an extension.
Once again, the Senators will play without a captain as they will select three players to act as alternates.
This year’s camp will feature 62 players — a larger number than in many previous years — as Smith looks to create a competitive environment.
In addition, the Senators were impressed by the performance of a number of prospects at a rookie tournament in Belleville, Ont., and wanted to give them the opportunity to showcase themselves at the main camp. Players will be broken into three teams.
"I want to see us work, push each other to be better every day," said Smith. "Certainly skill will take care of itself over time, but one thing we can’t let our guard down with is our work ethic. It has to be every night and I’m going to be holding them accountable for that and they should hold themselves accountable … but we have to show up play 100 per cent every night."
It looks like three spots up front are available, while there could be two on the blueline, although Dorion hinted Christian Jaros could have the inside track on one of those openings.
That being said, the Senators aren’t ruling out anyone.
"We finished in 30th and 31st place (the last two years) so there could be more spots available," said Dorion. "I think both D.J. and myself are on the same page as far as if they don’t perform through camp, they will not be here."
The Senators will have medicals and testing Thursday and take to the ice for the first time Friday.