Every NHL rookie team has its own flavour and reach, largely dependent on the state of the parent club and approach to a prospect tournament.
Is the team a contender or rebuilding with high draft picks? Do they ice a ‘veteran’ rookie bunch or lean toward teenage draft picks?
In the case of the maturing Ottawa Senators, gone are the days when the rookie camp was chock full of serious hopefuls and high picks with a shot to make the NHL club in the fall.
In fact, draft picks were outnumbered by walk-ons by a two-to-one margin as the Senators rookies took to the ice at the Canadian Tire Centre Thursday morning.
Only one 2023 draft pick was here, and it was fifth-round pick Matthew Andonovski of the OHL Kitchener Rangers. The Senators didn’t have a selection in the first three rounds of the 2023 draft, a far cry from the years when Ottawa was stockpiling picks.
Only two of the rookie skaters, defenceman Tyler Kleven and forward Ridly Greig, both of whom saw NHL action with Ottawa last season, have a legitimate shot to make the big club when the main camp starts next week. A third player, forward Tyler Boucher, is actually the highest pick of the bunch at 10th overall in 2021.
At age 20, Boucher’s young career has been stalled by myriad injuries and suspensions. So, there were more groans and rolled eyes than any sense of surprise that Boucher didn’t make it to the ice on Thursday.
AHL Belleville Senators head coach David Bell, who will coach Ottawa’s rookies in the tournament in Buffalo this weekend, told us that Boucher tweaked a groin during team testing on Wednesday and will not play at this weekend’s prospect tournament in Buffalo.
“Just to be cautious, we’re going to keep him out of this camp, we fully expect him to be ready next week for the main camp,” Bell said.
Bell said that Boucher, a physical winger, “pushed himself so darn hard in fitness testing,” that he suffered a minor groin issue.
“It’s not an injury, it’s just sore,” Bell said. “We’d rather him be sore and take a weekend to recover and be fully ready to go next week for the main camp.”
Any other player, and this would not be an item. But it’s Boucher, so yeah, it just figures.
Since being drafted in 2021, Boucher has jumped from Boston University to the OHL Ottawa 67’s, caught COVID-19, suffered recurring shoulder injuries, faced two suspensions in the OHL and has played a grand total of 62 games in two years.
He will hope to get healthy enough to be a regular in the AHL this season.
Boucher appeared in 21 games with the 67’s last season, with 10 goals and 17 points. He wasn’t healthy enough to play in the OHL playoffs.
Greig, meanwhile, a year older and with 20 games of NHL experience last season, has a legitimate shot as a third or fourth liner with Ottawa. Here is a prospect on the rise, visibly stronger from his summer workouts in Lethbridge than he was as a thin rookie.
“Having those games gives me a little bit more confidence coming in here,” Greig said, after the two morning skate sessions were over and the team packed up the bus for Buffalo. “I remember coming in here three years ago, it was pretty nerve-wracking. I’m not so nervous now and it’s pretty easy to get going here.”
In practice drills, Greig was centring a line with fellow 2020 Ottawa draft pick Roby Jarventie on his left wing and 22-year-old Tarun Fizer on his right. Fizer is here on a professional tryout.
“We were pretty fast,” Greig said, of his line. “Scored a couple of nice goals. Chemistry should be good.”
No one on the ice looked more confident and ready than Kleven, the six-foot-five defenceman out of North Dakota who was steady in his eight games played with the Senators after the college season ended. At rookie camp, Kleven is paired with the 18-year-old Andonovski.
Kleven will run Ottawa’s rookie power play from the point and hopes to show off his big shot in the rookie tournament as a springboard to a little more offence in his pro game this year. He did have eight goals and 18 points in 35 games with the University of North Dakota last season. With the Senators, he had two assists in those eight games.
“I think I can play a two-way game,” Kleven said. “You know, my offensive numbers have not been incredible, but I think that being put in a situation where I can put up some numbers will be good to try to help my team win this weekend.”
Any offence he brings to Ottawa or AHL Belleville would be a bonus. The Senators like Kleven’s size and defensive ability as a potential shutdown D-man down the road.
Oddly, because of the pandemic and other commitments, Kleven is appearing in his first rookie camp despite having been drafted three years ago (44th overall).
Not only did Kleven also come to Ottawa for the development camp this summer, he arrived for camp in early August to train with local fitness guru Tony Greco. Those sessions have given him “jump” on the ice, he says.
Coach Bell says he will be relying on Kleven and Greig, among a few others to show the way in Buffalo.
“They know what to expect,” Bell says. “They know it’s a rigorous schedule, a quick turnaround with these games, so they will definitely be leaned on to lead the group and show how they are supposed to play.”
Bell says he will go with what appears to be his top lineup on paper for game one and then adjust it, depending on who plays well and who is lacking.
The Senators open with a 12 p.m. game against New Jersey on Friday, then meet the Pittsburgh rookies on Saturday and the Canadiens’ on Monday.