Three biggest questions facing Senators entering training camp

Ottawa Senators new head coach D.J. Smith spoke with media about his expectations for the team as well as who could be the teams #1 center.

The Ottawa Senators enter training camp enjoying life off the radar screens of other teams in the NHL.

“Everywhere I look, we’re pegged for dead last,” new head coach D.J. Smith told Sportsnet.ca. “And that’s fine with me.”

Far removed from the expectations that will accompany Atlantic Division rivals like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, the Senators hope to quietly surprise a few teams along the way.

Improving, even slightly, shouldn’t be that difficult considering Ottawa has held down the 30th and 31st place in the NHL standings the last couple of seasons.

Today we’ll look at three of the biggest questions surrounding the Senators at the start of training camp on Friday.

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Cap space: $10,890,000
GM: Pierre Dorion
Head coach: D.J. Smith
Assistants: Jack Capuano, Davis Payne, Bob Jones, Pierre Groulx, Mike King

How many of the Senators’ young guns have a legitimate chance to crack the opening night lineup?
In the fall of 2019 feel free to call Ottawa the Land of Opportunity, a place where youth prevails and the rebuild is full on. But be sure to check the fine print on that returning NHL roster. While the Senators did part ways with veteran stars Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel last season in favour of prospects and draft picks, there have been enough veteran additions made since to create a limited number of spaces on the roster.

For example, there are eight veteran forwards with one-way contracts on the current roster: Artem Anisimov, Bobby Ryan, Chris Tierney, Connor Brown, Mikkel Boedker, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Anthony Duclair and Tyler Ennis. Brady Tkachuk (ELC) and Colin White are still waiver exempt, but they are locked into pro roster spots. Unless the club is interested in paying one or more of their veterans full NHL salary in the minors, that leaves just two spots for rookie forwards, or three if they decide to start the season with 13 forwards.

Among the notable prospects looking to make the grade at forward are winger Max Veronneau, the Princeton grad who finished the year in Ottawa, big centre Logan Brown and winger Drake Batherson, who went on some crazy scoring streaks in his first pro season, mostly in Belleville. Add in Rudolfs Balcers, Vitaly Abramov (acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets), an offensive star in the recent rookies tournament, plus Alex Formenton, Josh Norris, Jonathan Davidsson …and it gets a bit crowded with prospects trying to make the big jump.

Realistically, Logan Brown and Batherson should have the inside track, depending on how they perform in the pre-season.

At defence, most of the spots are spoken for by veterans Thomas Chabot, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Dylan DeMelo and Christian Jaros. Christian Wolanin had his moments in 30 games with the Senators last season. That leaves Mark Borowiecki as the swing man, bringing grit and experience. And it makes it difficult for Erik Brannstrom, the dynamic prospect who came over in the Stone trade with Vegas. Unless Brannstrom, just 20, blows the doors off everyone in camp, it makes sense for him to gain more experience at the AHL level, where he can eat minutes and run the power play.

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How will they sort out the goaltending depth chart?
On paper, it seems simple enough. Everyone keeps saying that Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson are the NHL goalies while prospects Filip Gustavsson, Marcus Hogberg and Joey Daccord will play in the minors. It may start out that way, but finding quality minutes in the AHL and ECHL for three excellent prospects is not ideal.

Hogberg turns 25 in November and could be ready to see some time in the NHL, if he continues his solid play at the AHL level (2.32 goals-against and .917 save percentage in 2018-19). An injury or a consensus decision to move Anderson, 38, a pending UFA, to a contender would open up some more breathing room for Ottawa’s interesting pool of goalie contenders.

In the off-season, GM Pierre Dorion did move backup Mike Condon to Tampa Bay to make the crease slightly less crowded. The Senators made an interesting move at the draft, taking 6-foot-6 goalie Mads Sogaard 37th overall.

What will it take for the community to embrace this team?
For years, the Senators have battled attendance problems. Some would say Ottawa hasn’t drawn well since the Sens went on that surprising playoff run in 2017. In fact, they were a story even then by failing to sell out all of their playoff dates. Last season Ottawa ranked 27th in NHL attendance with an average gate of 15,935. Fans of the rival Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens don’t complain — they know they can get affordable tickets to see their favourite team, by making the short road trip to the Nation’s Capital.

There is one element that can turn the tide and create a buzz around this hockey team. Develop and promote the best and brightest of young talent and sign them to contracts as soon as practicable. The Senators made a small move in that area by inking centre Colin White to a deal this summer, but fans are waiting to make sure that Tkachuk, Chabot and Brannstrom are here to stay as well. The scars of losing Karlsson and Stone, in particular, have not fully healed.

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