The first thing that jumps out at you is the mass of the young man’s shoulders.
Drake Batherson looks like he’s been bench pressing Nathan MacKinnon all summer.
Instead, he’s been skating and training with MacKinnon, Sidney Crosby and Brad Marchand for the better part of two months. It’s the Halifax hockey hot house, with three of the game’s elite forwards and others watching, or participating, in awe.
Batherson, still just 21, used to wonder what he was doing in such an exclusive club, even for off-season skates. Not anymore. This was his fourth summer with Crosby et al. If he’s comfortable with the stars, he’s ready for this weekend’s NHL rookie tournament in Belleville and the main camp to follow in Ottawa.
"It’s huge," Batherson said after the Senators’ rookies skated at the Sensplex Thursday, before driving to Belleville. "I remember my first (NHL) camp and being so intimidated by the older guys. All the great players. Coming here now, I don’t feel as intimidated because I’ve been skating with Crosby and them, and feel way more comfortable."
Batherson had a long summer of training, as neither the senior Senators nor B-Sens made the playoffs, and he made the most of it in the gym and the kitchen, paying more attention to nutrition than ever before.
The result is he gained nine pounds, to 206, and also happened to grow a half-inch, to six-foot-three.
"I don’t know when I’m going to stop growing, but I’ll take what I can get," Batherson says.
This bigger, more mature right winger out of the QMJHL is ready to seek a full-time spot on the Senators roster after a 20-game NHL stint last season, and 62 points in 59 games with AHL Belleville. Batherson was so hot in his first weeks as a professional he was called up to Ottawa ahead of schedule, started strong but then faded and went back down. A year later, he hopes to smooth out those rough spots.
"I matured a lot last season," Batherson says. "It’s a tough league, the AHL. I think I know better what to expect as a second-year pro."
Over the summer, if he had any questions, he knew where to turn. His superstar skating pals in Halifax.
Though he was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., where his father, Norm, was playing for the IHL Fort Wayne Komets, Batherson grew up mostly in New Minas, N.S., about 14 minutes from Wolfville. It’s about an hour drive to the BMO Centre in Halifax, the four-pad rink where Crosby, Marchand, MacKinnon and assorted visitors (Taylor Hall and first-overall pick Jack Hughes were among this year’s guests) skate.
Last summer was Batherson’s third with the group. He started as a temporary fill-in a couple of years earlier. Then, former Senators centre and coach Chris Kelly, a good pal of Marchand’s, asked about Batherson getting to skate with Crosby’s group full-time. They usually skate two-to-three times a week. Marchand, whose Boston Bruins were in the Stanley Cup Final, joined later this year, in July. But Crosby, whose Pittsburgh Penguins were knocked out in the first playoff round, and Batherson started in late June, getting in a full two months.
"Brad, Nate and Sid, they all set the pace very high," Batherson says. "And they work so hard, even though they’re the best players in the world. It’s a fun environment to be around and you learn a lot, for sure."
Especially helpful to a young player like Batherson is the fact Crosby, MacKinnon and Marchand don’t just work on skills, as many NHL players do in the summer. They engage in battle drills, gruelling one-on-one sessions to fight for pucks. A kid like Batherson has to learn a ton, even by osmosis.
"Guys like Taylor Hall come down and can’t believe how hard (Sid and friends) are working," Batherson says. "That’s why they’re so good, because they work so hard."
A productive summer, following a productive first pro season, has Batherson in position to lock down a spot in Ottawa.
"I got a taste of what it’s like to play here," he says. "That’s what I’m striving for at this camp. I think I’m ready, I’ve just to prove it in my games, starting in Belleville. Throughout camp, just be consistent."
Rookie tournament schedule
Batherson’s task begins with on Friday at 7 p.m. ET against the Winnipeg Jets rookies.
Batherson will join his familiar B-Sens centre Logan Brown and speedy left winger Alex Formenton on the Senators’ top line.
The Senators meet the Montreal Canadiens rookies on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET and play Winnipeg again on Monday in the tournament finale. All games are at the CAA Arena in Belleville.
Other rookies to monitor
Defenceman Erik Brannstrom and forwards Josh Norris, Jonathan Davidsson, Formenton and Brown are among those looking to make a strong impression in front of D.J. Smith’s coaching staff and general manager Pierre Dorion. Ottawa has a strong forward group in the tournament, with Max Verroneau also participating.
Brannstrom, Norris and Davidsson bring intrigue because of how they arrived – all were key pieces in trades last season involving elite Ottawa players. Brannstrom, a 15th-overall pick of the Las Vegas Knights in 2017, came here in the trade for Mark Stone. Norris, rebounding from shoulder surgery in January, was a San Jose Sharks’ first-round pick who was part of the Erik Karlsson trade. Davidsson, a small, skilled winger, came to the Senators along with another prospect, Vitaly Abramov, in the trade for Matt Duchene.