A bit like life in general, training camps usually begin slowly and gather speed before drawing to a sudden conclusion.
With Saturday’s road game in Montreal against the Canadiens, a 4-3 overtime loss, the Ottawa Senators wrapped up their pre-season schedule (3-2-1) and quickly turned the page toward preparations for Wednesday’s regular season opener at Toronto versus the Maple Leafs.
Here are five major takeaways from Ottawa’s camp, the Senators’ first experience under new head coach D.J. Smith.
Not only is it Smith’s time to shine with his first NHL head coaching gig, D. J. time takes on another meaning around the Senators. Smith runs an efficient, top-down operation, and punctuality is paramount. When he calls for a 10:30 a.m. practice, as he did Friday before Ottawa’s final pre-season game, it doesn’t actually start at 10:30. Most of the players were on the ice by 10:20 and the gate at the players bench was closed by 10:25.
Certain coaches operate this way. Being on time is actually late. Early is expected. Smith’s practices have similar urgency. There is precious little time between drills and he is constantly heard barking: "full speed! Full speed!"
"You want to practice the way you want play and you end up playing the way you practice, right?" says veteran defenceman Mark Borowiecki. "It’s cheesy, but it’s true. If we go out there and practice slow we’re going to play slow."
Wisely, the 30-year-old Borowiecki, named one of three alternate captains — there will be no captain this season – lost weight this summer while accentuating cardio workouts in order to keep up the pace this season. Around the Canadian Tire Centre, the pace has been up-tempo.
"I think we work much harder, we hound pucks way better," Borowiecki says. "We’re not giving up on pucks nearly as much. Do we make mistakes? Sure. But you can live with that if guys are working hard and leaving it all out there. And right now our guys are doing that."
Not surprisingly, the Senators are focusing on their defensive game after finishing at the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive category last season, including goals against (301) and shots against per game (35.7).
Veteran centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau, another alternate captain, says this camp has been especially intense as players strive to impress the new guy behind the bench. What sets Smith apart from previous coaches in Ottawa?
"All coaches have their strengths," Pageau says. "D.J.’s is – he’s really vocal and there’s no grey area with him. It’s black or white, and I really like that. He’s really enthusiastic around us and I think that brings up the energy level."
In the brutally tough Atlantic Division, the Senators will be challenged to maintain that energy and enthusiasm.
Ex-Leafs trump Ex-Sharks
When Guy Boucher was head coach of the Senators from 2016-19, the local rink rats had a nickname for Tom Pyatt. ‘Teacher’s pet.’ Though he was a useful role-player, a defensive winger who could kill penalties, Pyatt never scored more than 12 goals in an NHL season, and Boucher gave him every opportunity up and down the lineup. He loved the guy.
Bryan Murray was like that with Chris Kelly, in his prime a far superior player to Pyatt. Kelly, a centre, had good hockey sense and Murray said more than once he wished he had several Chris Kellys.
Which brings us to Smith, who has on his bench four ex-Leafs that Smith knew from his years as an assistant coach in Toronto – defencemen Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey plus forwards Connor Brown and Tyler Ennis.
Coaches like what they know. And who they know.
Instantly, Zaitsev was placed on the top pairing with Thomas Chabot while the ancient warrior, Hainsey, has been used in a top four role, alongside young Brannstrom (I can’t see this lasting). Brown, a third line player in Toronto, was immediately inserted on the top line in Ottawa with Colin White and Brady Tkachuk. Ennis seems likely to play third and fourth line minutes for the Senators, as he did with the Leafs.
A year ago at this time, the ex-San Jose Sharks, acquired in the trade for Erik Karlsson, were all the rage. Boucher loved the usefulness of centre Chris Tierney and steady defenceman Dylan DeMelo. Tierney, a 15-16 minutes per game player with the Sharks behind Logan Couture and Joe Thornton, was elevated to 17 minutes in his first season with the Senators. After Matt Duchene was traded, Tierney became the de facto No. 1 centre, finishing with a career-high 48 points.
DeMelo, meanwhile, jumped from 14 minutes average TOI to 19 with Ottawa, usually paired with the Senators’ young star, Chabot. How things have changed in 12 months. Tierney has been up and down the lineup (with Colin White and Artem Anisimov nicked up, he started on the second line against the Habs) and DeMelo was paired with journeyman Mark Borowiecki in practice pairings Friday. With Zaitsev sitting, DeMelo moved back up to the first pairing with Chabot against Montreal and did not look out of place.
Tierney could slot in anywhere from No. 2 C on down depending on how White-Anisimov-Tierney-Pageau are deployed.
Players tend to find their level in the their lineup.
It’s almost certain that Tierney and DeMelo will soon again be considered vital parts of the Senators’ game-to-game components, but for now they will have to prove themselves, along with many others.
Smith knows and trusts the players he has had a history with.
For the time being, they have the inside track.
Surprising Sabourin sticks landing from PTO
Smith also had first-hand knowledge of winger Scott Sabourin, in camp on a PTO. Sabourin has played well in his role as a pest, including drawing the ire of Toronto’s Auston Matthews who pointedly looked around at the name on Sabourin’s back in an inference of who-are-you? Saturday, Sabourin gave Max Domi a faceful of left-handed punches during a feisty pre-season affair.
Just the day before, Sabourin, a local kid from Orleans, was rewarded with a one-year, two-way contract ($100,000 in the minors, $700,000 in the NHL). Not coincidentally, Sabourin, 27, enjoyed his most productive season under Smith, scoring 30 goals and adding 20 assists for the 2012-13 OHL Oshawa Generals. A career AHL and ECHL player, Sabourin is about to make his NHL debut.
"He has a little more skill than people give him credit for," Smith said.
"And he can get in on the forecheck and create some havoc, create some energy for us."
"It’s only the beginning, it’s step one, but I’m excited," Sabourin said, before heading off to his first game at the Bell Centre. "The (local) support has been overwhelming."
Meanwhile, Brown goes down, Brannstrom stays
On Sunday, the Senators cut down to 24 players: eight defencemen, 14 forwards and two goalies.
Smith said he would carry seven defencemen and 13 forwards, but with forward Rudolf Balcers and defenceman Christian Wolanin injured long term, the roster is set.
Sent down to Belleville Sunday were forwards Vitaly Abramov and Logan Brown and defenceman Christian Jaros. Jaros, 23, who played 61 games for Ottawa last season, is the biggest surprise. Brannstrom stays, for now, but don’t be surprised to see him go down to the AHL to gain experience. And Jaros will get back here. Abramov, 21, had a good camp. Brown, 21, was OK but needs more time to develop into a top-six, two-way centre.
I did mention in an earlier file that there weren’t a lot of spots for kids, despite all the hype about Ottawa’s youth. Right now Brannstrom and Drake Batherson are the only two true rookies on the roster. Filip Chlapik, 22, has played 25 NHL games over the past two seasons.
Goaltending position one to watch
Craig Anderson became a mainstay in Ottawa’s net from the moment Bryan Murray acquired him via trade from Colorado in 2011. For the first time, Anderson’s status as No. 1 is in question, with his "backup" Anders Nilsson, 29, looming as more of a co-starter with the 38-year-old Anderson.
The Senators are deep in prospects at the position. In the minors are Marcus Hogberg (a stalwart for AHL Belleville last season), Filip Gustavsson and Joey Daccord, a first-year pro out of Arizona State. In June, the Senators drafted an interesting goalie, massive Mads Sogaard, 6-7, in the second round (37th overall). Sogaard is off to a strong start with Medicine Hat of the WHL.
It will be interesting to see if Anderson gets moved to a contender during the season or follows through with this 1-1A situation throughout. Nilsson has looked sharp in the pre-season, although he took the loss in Montreal.
• Nothing is worse than seeing a prospect have a great camp, earn a spot on the roster, only to get injured. That was the case with Balcers, the 22-year-old winger who suffered a knee injury in a pre-season game against the Vancouver Canucks. On Friday, general manager Pierre Dorion told us that Balcers would be "out for some time" with a lower-body injury. I saw Balcers wearing a brace on his left knee while his teammates skated on Friday. An MRI will shed further light on the injury.
• It was said before camp that a right wing position was Batherson’s to lose. The big rookie did just enough, getting better as the pre-season wore on, after a sluggish start for the 21-year-old.
• Smith likes one aspect of his young depth: "Not a lot of guys need to clear waivers. They can move up and down."