As Senators prepare for season with expectations, Hockey Canada investigation lingers

Pierre Dorion speaks to the media about the team's salary cap budget and how spending might differ this year compared to previous seasons.

With an off-ice spending spree and marquee player additions, the Ottawa Senators have had a sunnier summer than most Canadians.

So they will just have to live with the fact that a dark, persistent cloud lingers over them until the NHL completes its investigation into the Hockey Canada scandal pertaining to the 2018 Canadian World Junior team.

Eight players, including members of that team, have been accused of sexually assaulting a woman in London, Ont., following a Hockey Canada Gala in 2018. Two players from that team, Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson, are in the Senators organization. Batherson is one of 59 players invited to training camp, who hit the ice Thursday – in fact, he is a top line winger.

Formenton, meanwhile, has no contract yet as a restricted free agent.

Senators general manager Pierre Dorion told reporters at a pre-camp briefing Wednesday that he cannot speak on the situation until it gets resolved.

“I think we all want to have answers,” Dorion said, “but because of the NHL pending investigations, we cannot comment on it.”

Dorion says the organization has been speaking to its players about hockey culture for some time now, and that as a parent and GM “I want to make sure we do everything the right way.”

The GM added that the investigations have had no impact on any contract dealings with his players (the inference being, Formenton), and that different contract scenarios have been discussed with Formenton’s agents (Newport), the same agency that represented Brady Tkachuk in his lingering contract negotiations last summer.

Later in the Q and A session, Dorion referred to Formenton and Tkachuk as “two major pieces here.”

In the meantime, camp will get underway tomorrow, with high expectations and no Formenton at the rink.

Defence is the focus

The funny thing about adding talent up front – namely Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat while getting young stars Josh Norris and Tim Stützle extended to long-term deals – the worry then becomes the blueline.

While head coach D.J. Smith, who joined Dorion at the media briefing, spoke about the pleasant problem of having too many scorers to fit on one power play unit (he is considering a two-unit system, like the St. Louis Blues), he admitted his camp focus involves the defence corps.

“Where do people fit on the back end,” Smith said rhetorically. “Who’s taken a step, better than they were last year. It’ll be exciting for me there.”

Dorion is still trying to improve his blueline, and it’s no secret he has been in the mix to try to acquire Jakob Chychrun from Arizona. He said he won’t wait to make improvements if they become available.

As it stands, Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub are the top defence pair. Rookie Jake Sanderson is penciled into the second pair with Travis Hamonic. That leaves Nick Holden, Nikita Zaitsev and Erik Brannstrom to round out a group of seven.

If the team and individuals are a cut above last year, Smith plans to reduce the ice time demands on some of his top players, including Chabot, who has been at or near the top of TOI charts the past few seasons. Part of growing into a competitive team is having different guys play extra minutes on a given night, depending on the circumstances. Chasing leads late in games meant Smith had to overplay Chabot many nights.

Advice from Sanderson’s father

By the time players reach their NHL, parents usually sit in the stands and keep quiet. But when a hockey dad is a former NHLer with 17 seasons of NHL experience, he might just catch the ear of an NHL coach. Such was the case when Jake Sanderson’s father, Geoff Sanderson, spoke to Smith about the approaching rookie season of son Jake with the Senators.

“One of his things, for a guy who played a lot of games in the National Hockey League, was concern that an older guy be around his son to help him through the league, and I understand that totally,” Smith said. “I think a guy like Hammer (Hamonic), a guy like Holden, sitting near him (Jake) in the room, playing some games with him and talking to him is going to help his development.”

While Smith is leaving the door open to different defence pairings, he likes the idea of the most experienced Ottawa defencemen being there to guide the 20-year-old Sanderson.

1A and 1B in goal

It often gets lost in the additions at forward, but Ottawa’s goaltending situation should be a real source of strength for the club. Not only did the Sens move the contract of injury-prone Matt Murray to Toronto, they picked up Cam Talbot from Minnesota, to form a tandem with holdover Anton Forsberg. While Smith likes the idea of one goalie being a No. 1, he feels he has two really good goalies at his disposal.

“This is as comfortable as I have felt about our goalies since I have been here,” Smith said,.

Without naming his “1A” or “1B,” Smith feels that is how it shapes up, with lots of work for both.

“There’s a few real big horses in the league that can play those big minutes in lots of games,” Smith said. “But what happens when that guy gets hurt? You need two guys.”

Different air of confidence

Smith believes the Senators are night and day different from the developing young group of the past few seasons. Now, he more or less knows who the starters are, and the focus is on winning, not player development.

“I feel a different air of confidence in them,” Smith said.

The players, Smith said, believe they are ready to become one of the really good teams in the league, and out of the doormat stage. That is one of the reasons players arrived early for camp and have been skating regularly – including an early morning skate prior to Tuesday’s charity golf tournament.

“It’s clear to me that they’re sick of losing night after night and sick of being at the bottom (of the standings),” Smith said.

“Part of the rebuild is getting beat up, and we took a lot of tough lickings a lot of nights,” Smith added. “These kids are excited to fight back for their city, and so are we as a coaching staff . . . at the golf course (Tuesday), people are coming over (to me) and are as excited as I’ve seen going into a season – now it’s up to us to make them proud.”

To be one of those playoff teams, Smith says the group has to learn to have an even temperament, after wins and losses. Younger players sometimes take losses too hard and get carried away after wins.

Consistent play and approach will look after the victories, Smith says, including to start the season, which has hurt Ottawa the last couple of years.

Dorion added that expects this group to be playing meaningful games right to the end of the year.

Chef added: ‘Food is their fuel’

Little things matter, and so it is that when some players spoke to management about improving the details of day-to-day experiences at the rink, the Senators listened. Changes in the players’ lounge, including better TVs and sofas, have been made. There is even better shower soap! (file this under details you may not have needed to know).

As well, there have been improvements made in the team gym and a chef has been hired to cook for players post-game. The menu on team charter flights is also being amended.

“Food is their fuel,” Dorion said.

Norris wins fitness testing

According to Smith, Norris won the fitness testing at camp Wednesday, followed by Mark Kastelic and Sanderson.

In another camp note, forward Ridley Greig, who suffered a shoulder injury during the recent WJC in Edmonton, will skate Thursday in a non-contact jersey. The team hopes he can be ready to participate in game action by the Sept. 30 game in Belleville against the Maple Leafs.

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