Senators welcome drama-free camp, but already dealt injury blow

Pierre Dorion spoke to the media about what his expectations for the Ottawa Senators are this season.

As inspirational sport slogans go, this one is not in the same league as "Do it for the Gipper" or "Make each day your masterpiece."

And yet, when Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion says on the eve of training camp, "The worst is behind us," hockey fans here will take it.

Just a year ago on this day, you needed a shovel to sort out the bad news around the Senators. Dysfunction and chaos were rampant. Veteran defenceman Mark Borowiecki and owner Eugene Melnyk made a little video to promote the coming season and the vid went viral – with mocking takes.

The weeks and months prior to Thursday’s camp opening, with physical testing and promotional photos, could not be more different than a year ago. Gone was the hangover from the online bullying case involving Mike Hoffman, Erik Karlsson and their partners. Of course, gone, too, are Hoffman and Karlsson. So is a former assistant GM charged in a harassment case.

Karlsson, then the Senators captain, was traded on the first day of camp last year, and that trade, combined with the pending departures of Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, cast a pall on most of last season.

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This year marks a fresh start with several aspiring young players and FOUR ex-Maple Leafs, plus former Toronto assistant coach D.J. Smith as the new head coach.

The only thing remotely reminiscent of last September is the news of a terrible injury marking the first day of testing. A year ago, beloved veteran centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau went down with a torn Achilles suffered during the physical sessions.

This year, though it wasn’t a testing issue, defenceman Christian Wolanin showed up with his arm in a sling, having torn the labrum in his left shoulder during an informal skate with teammates earlier this week. Wolanin, 24, fell awkwardly and is expected to be out for at least four months.

It is a terrible blow to a player being pencilled in for a starting job this season.

"He’s an offensive guy who did a nice job on the power play," said Smith. "He would have fit in with (Thomas) Chabot (on the power play).

"It’s unfortunate. You feel bad for the kid."

Smith said the injury did not mean the organization would be more inclined to have promising rookie Erik Brannstrom remain with the big club. Not unless it’s clear the 20-year-old is ready for the jump.

"You can’t rush him just because a guy is injured," Smith said.

Brannstrom said he felt badly for Wolanin, but wouldn’t change his expectations based on a player injury.

"I’m just going to try to play my game and make the team," said the play-making Swede.

‘A’ Letter Day
As expected, the Senators did not name a team captain but will have three veteran players serve as alternate captains: defencemen Mark Borowiecki, Ron Hainsey and Pageau, a two-way centre.

"It’s always an honour for me, first and foremost," said Borowiecki, who grew up down the street in Kanata. "It’s my childhood team. Being recognized as a leader on this team, whether wearing a letter or not, is always special to me."

Borowiecki said he relishes the role of mentor to younger defencemen, and spoke of building a close relationship with rookie Christian Jaros last season.

"I find I tend to play better, because I’m more aware of my game, when I’m talking to young guys and tell them things," Borowiecki said. "I think it actually rubs off on me, and makes me a little more conscientious of what I’m trying to do."

Entering his seventh season with the Senators, Borowiecki says he understands why Smith chose three ‘A’s rather than one ‘C’ plus helpers.

"I’m not sure we have a captain," he said, before anointing Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot as possible captains of the future.

"I think Thomas and Brady are going to be there," Borowiecki said. "Those guys are already stars in this league, but they’re going to be leaders too. But at this stage of their career, with the path we’re going down with this organization right now, why thrust them into that role? With all that pressure.

"It’s not fair to them as a young player. Let them get their house in order, continue to grow, and then saddle them with the responsibility when the time is right."

There will be nights when the rebuilding Senators get blown out this season. Having to answer to those games, as a young player, "really sucks," according to Borowiecki.

In the off-season, the 30-year-old dropped three or four pounds to a svelte 203.

"I feel a lot more spry in my old age," he says. "I focused a lot on my conditioning this year, my cardio, and I think it’s going to pay off."

Taking stock of where the league is going – faster, smaller players, "weighed" into Borowiecki’s thinking.

"I think it’s a personal decision, too," Borowiecki said. "You have to be honest with yourself and what you need to do to stay at the top of your game and competitive – chasing all these little guys around the ice, you don’t want to be wearing a weight vest out there."

New camp, new team, but some dynamics don’t change. The crusty old vets have seen and heard it all. Hainsey, the 38-year-old ex-Leaf (and ex-a lot of teams) asked what it was like to be a veteran coming in to work with all these young players, playfully snapped back at a TV reporter: "Can you use the answer I just gave him (pointing to radio colour man Gord Wilson)? Do you have it on tape?

"It would be the exact same answer. I can repeat it."

Should be an interesting year in Ottawa.

Hainsey echoed coach Smith about the merits of teaching young players a strong work ethic.

"The expectation will be that we come in and roll the sleeves up and get to work each day," Hainsey said. "Regardless of what happened the previous night."

Smith was asked what was lacking in the team’s culture in the past.

"I wasn’t here so it’s hard for me to say, but when you finish in 30th and 31st place, something has to change," said the incoming coach. "When I mean culture, I mean guys who have won. Guys like Hainsey have won Stanley Cups."

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