Considering it was shrunk, squeezed and expedited due to COVID-19 scheduling limitations, the Senators development and rookie camps had to be rated a big success.
Not only did Ottawa’s rookies beat the Montreal Canadiens youth squad 4-3 in both Saturday and Monday games to end rookie camp, the Senators also got an opportunity to let their prospects drink the kool-aid of team systems and expected style of play.
“With the short amount of practice time, you’re just looking for competitiveness from each player,” Belleville Senators head coach Troy Mann said, as he stepped behind the bench to coach the young Sens. “Certainly we’ve thrown a lot of information their way in three days, we’re hoping for a level of execution, but as soon as the work ethic and compete is there, you leave the games being happy about that.”
It should be noted, Noted stopped camp drills several times to coax higher competitive levels from his charges.
Mann was certainly pleased by a dominant first two periods in Laval Monday as the Sens rookies bolted to a 4-0 lead, behind the strength of two goals by Egor Sokolov. A let down in the third period, combined with some penalty trouble, allowed Montreal back in the game. Goaltender Levi Merilainen, who took over from Kevin Mandolese to start the third period, hung on to preserve the win. Mandolese faced just 10 shots through 40 minutes, stopping all ten.
Big Mads Sogaard played two periods in the Saturday victory and looked impressive. Merilainen made a highlight reel save to close out Saturday’s win with the Montreal net empty, sliding across to make a pad save off Rafael Harvey-Pinard in the dying seconds.
Look for Sogaard to play in the AHL this season, while Merilainen, 19, is expected to start for Kingston in the OHL.
Kastelic stands out
Given the uneven play in these rookie games, you look for individual moments where a player stands out. In the second game, expected leaders Shane Pinto and Sokolov often dominated play, feeding off each other while producing three goals for Ottawa.
Pinto, a centre out of the University of North Dakota, played 12 games for the Senators last season. Sokolov, a Russian who led Belleville in scoring last year, fine-tuned his wicked shot and offensive positioning by doing extra video work with B-Sens coach Ben Sexton
prior to the game in Laval.
In the opener, big centre Mark Kastelic was Ottawa’s best forward. Kastelic, 22, was physical in both games -- he stood up for Angus Crookshank when he was injured after a hit into the boards -- and stood out in camp drills as well. A big-time scorer in junior (47 goals in 66 games for the WHL Calgary Hitmen in 2018-19), Kastelic is being urged by Mann to take on more of a checking role to make it as an NHL player.
“He had two strong games,” Mann said, via Zoom. “He’s a very detailed player and he takes every conversation to heart as to what we’re looking for in terms of his role. For him to play in the NHL and make a statement with the Sens, that is the type of game he needs to play. He underestimates how strong he is. In the NHL he is most likely going to be a bottom-six type of player. He’s excellent in faceoffs as you could see both nights. We are going to use him more on the penalty kill this season (in Belleville) because he will need to play that type of role in the NHL.”
In the dying seconds of game one, it was Kastelic who took the defensive zone faceoff, not Pinto, as Mann had taken note of Kastelic’s work in the circle all game.
Sokolov was here
It is easy to see why Sokolov has endeared himself to the Senators fan base, before having played a single NHL game with Ottawa. The 6-3 winger is a force, and a beauty, mixing it up, ripping shots, and jawing with teammates and opponents all game long. After his second goal on Monday, Sokolov was the recipient of a high hit from Montreal defenceman Arber Xhekaj and responded with his fists.
“I didn’t expect the guy to hit me,” Sokolov told reporters after the game. “If I had relaxed for a second, it could have ended up bad. I didn’t like that. I scored a goal already, you should let it go already.”
The lone low point of the rookie games was the injury to winger Crookshank, who could not put pressure on his left leg after an awkward hit into the boards from Xhekaj. Mann termed the injury “significant” and potentially longer term, although he was awaiting a more complete diagnosis.
The injury to Crookshank is especially disappointing because he was having a good camp and showing the Brendan Gallagher-type of game he has adopted -- a small player not afraid to mix it up and get to the blue paint. Ridly Greig is a similar type prospect for the Sens.
Crookshank worked well with Pinto, especially on the power play in game one, setting him up for some great chances.
Goals by Pinto, Sokolov and even the wrist shot goal from Lassi Thomson on Monday were all shots that could be classified as “snipes,” which has to be a good sign for their production this season. The Pinto shot in the high slot was the result of a gorgeous pass from Roby Jarventie, the Finnish left winger, who showed a terrific display of hands throughout camp.
The Thomson goal seemed to come as a relief to the 20-year-old Finnish defenceman who had some challenges adjusting to his first pro season in North America last year with Belleville. On a Zoom call afterward, Thomson was beaming, especially when asked about wearing an ‘A’ on his jersey Monday.
“I’m from Finland and not the loudest person in the locker room, so that was a big honour for me,” Thomson said.
Defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker, another UND product who got a taste of NHL action last season, earned the night off Monday so he could rest up for main camp starting Wednesday. Bernard-Docker was very solid on Saturday.
Smooth-skating Max Guenette was rated by Mann his best defenceman on Saturday, scoring a third period goal following a net drive by Jarventie and a crease pass from Cole Reinhardt. Reinhardt said afterward that his comfort level was much higher coming into camp after having played games for Mann in Belleville last season.
Zack Ostapchuk, a rangy centre from Vancouver who is still just 18, had himself a nice camp, earning a promotion to the top line alongside Pinto and Sokolov for Monday’s game.
562 days later... fans in the building
They weren’t the loudest crowd in the world, but they may have been the most grateful. As 1,000 Ottawa season ticket holders made their way to their seats for Saturday’s rookie game at the Canadian Tire Centre, they were told by PA announcer Jon Trottier that it had been 562 days since the last game at the CTC attended by fans.
The fan gestures, their applause, even the “Sign Brady” sign, in reference to star forward Brady Tkachuk needing a contract, were all appreciated by the young Ottawa players.
“We were a little bit nervous,” Sokolov said later. “I haven’t seen one fan in about a year and a half.”
With some luck and good care, there will be many more allowed into the building as the exhibition and regular season progress. The Senators are still awaiting word from the province of Ontario on attendance regulations for this season.