No wonder there are a lot of happy faces at Ottawa’s training camp this week.
On the ice, the Senators picked up a couple of exhibition wins against the rival Maple Leafs, or at least a faint imprint of their real lineup.
Meaningless games, yes, but the Senators learned this much in their back-to-back games with Toronto, in St. John’s and Ottawa: they will need max effort, scoring by committee and great goaltending to win their share of games this season.
“It’s not always going to be pretty for us, let’s face it,” said defenceman Mark Borowiecki, a tough guy who chipped in offensively for the Senators in Wednesday’s 4-3 victory at the Canadian Tire Centre. “A team like that, they’ve got some firepower. They’re going to start coming in waves when they really turn it on.”
Connor Brown, who had a goal and an assist against his former Leafs pals, made his pre-season debut as a top-line player, alongside White and Tkachuk. Brown provided an astute review.
“We made some some nice offensive plays and some boneheaded ones,” Brown said, a reference to getting victimized on an Auston Matthews goal in the third period, one of his two on the night.
Not surprisingly after getting blitzed by the Leafs on a few shifts, the Senators have been working on defensive coverage in practice this week.
A couple of takeaways from the games: new head coach D.J. Smith is animated. Secondly, that up-tempo style at camp is spilling over into the games.
“He’s got a commanding presence back there behind the bench,” Borowiecki said. “It’s never in doubt who’s in charge and I think that’s a good thing.
“He’s got us playing a little more up-tempo. It’s more fun, more engaging for the players. I think you’ll see guys rally behind a style of play like that. It’s definitely more enjoyable for us.”
Picture on defence getting clearer
NHL training camps are just a week old and final roster decisions won’t be declared until the end of next week.
But on the Senators blue line, the picture is getting clearer.
Erik Brannstrom, the key piece coming to Ottawa in the Mark Stone trade with the Vegas Golden Knights, remains an outstanding prospect for the Senators but may need more time to develop in the AHL.
Smith was asked about his defencemen, and the concept that the youngest of them could need more time to mature.
“I want young players, but only if they’re going to play,” Smith said. “We’re not keeping a seventh defenceman that’s a 20-year-old kid to sit around. It’s better for him to go to Belleville and play all the time.”
Guess who qualifies in the 20-year-old kid department?
That’s right, Brannstrom.
Though Smith’s NHL career was limited to 45 games due to injury, he recalls the 2002-03 season with the Avalanche when his age and experience made a difference.
“I was that guy in Colorado,” Smith says. “At 26, I was the seventh defenceman and they sent the young kids down. That’s kind of what it is. If you’re going to sit out, it’s got to be someone who knows that role or knows how to do it.”
Brannstrom, small, skilled and smooth, is nobody’s idea of a seventh defenceman. With only 52 professional games on North American ice, the product of Jonkoping in the Swedish league could almost certainly use more time in the AHL to work on his defence, run the power play, and continue to fine tune small details in his game. Even Erik Karlsson, great as he was, needed some time in the minors to figure things out.
One detail that Brannstrom has been working on in camp is sneaking shots through from the point via wristers, rather than taking time for slap shots.
Lajoie, 21, (he turns 22 in November) scored on a quick wrist shot against the Maple Leafs Tuesday night in St. John’s, N.L. The Senators went on to win the game 3-1, with the kind of group effort and tight defensive game they will need this season.
Lajoie, who also played a surprisingly physical game against the Leafs, is off to the kind of fast start that earned him a spot on Ottawa’s roster last fall, under then-head-coach Guy Boucher.
With all new coaches, it’s time to impress again, and Lajoie looks up for it. Unlike Brannstrom, who is being groomed to be a top-four D-man, if not top-two, Lajoie can probably slot in at any of the three defence pairings.
As it stands, the Senators have their top defenceman, Chabot, likely paired with Nikita Zaitsev — although Zaitsev, the former Leaf, was oddly kept out of the first two pre-season games against Toronto. Wasn’t ready to face his old team? He will have to on Oct. 2 when it counts. Fellow ex-Leaf Ron Hainsey, Dylan DeMelo, Christian Jaros and Borowiecki round out the group. Andreas Englund, who has been solid for Belleville, will also get a good look.
Somewhere in there, for now, pencil in Lajoie, who is showing strong form.
“It’s nice to have experience in the league already,” Lajoie said, earlier this week. “Coming into camp this year I have more confidence, I know what to expect and I know what I have to do to stick around, so that’s big for me.”
Smith says the exhibition games will sort out the decisions. They usually do, along with the prescribed wisdom of coaches and management.
The Senators continued to run two practice groups Thursday and Friday, ahead of Saturday’s home game against the Montreal Canadiens. There will be more player cuts this weekend before the final road trip of camp. The reduced roster of 28-to-30 players will make the trip to Vancouver on Sunday for pre-season games against the Canucks Monday and Wednesday.
Give me a home
While the Senators no longer boast household names like Karlsson, Stone and Matt Duchene, Smith wasn’t buying into a suggestion that his team should find a way to be “entertaining” at home.
“Not so much entertaining but what matters is how hard we play,” Smith said. “We can’t be easy to play against. You can’t just come in here and take points.
“It has to be hard to get in our zone, hard to get to our net. We’ve got to make it so when you come in here, you had to work to leave here with points.
“Everything I’ve seen so far is everyone is committed to playing hard.”