Brady Tkachuk’s absence felt as Senators open camp with physicals, tests

Senators GM Pierre Dorion won't comment too much on ongoing negotiations, but says we know Brady Tkachuk will be signed, meanwhile head coach DJ Smith has full confidence Tkachuk will be here, but says Nick Paul could fill in until his arrival.

OTTAWA — As the Ottawa Senators began camp Wednesday with medicals and physical testing, Brady Tkachuk was not available to have his name carved in granite at left wing on the top forward line.

He was top of mind, though. And he will be, until the 22-year-old franchise winger signs a new contract and reports to camp.

“Obviously Brady is a huge part of this team, a huge part of this franchise,” said Senators general manager Pierre Dorion, seated next to head coach D.J. Smith at a conference room table at the Canadian Tire Centre, safe from the downpour outside.

“We’ve been through a lot of these negotiations, they’re moving forward,” Dorion added. “We’ve discussed (terms) every day, we know Brady will be signed.”

Later in the Q and A session, Dorion was asked to classify the nature of the contract talks.

“Productive and positive,” Dorion said, calmly, repeating a phrase he has used before. “But there is still work to be done.”

Until Tkachuk is signed, ideally to a long-term deal, fans will remain a little anxious and Smith will try to replace a menacing leader and force who truthfully can’t be replaced. A makeshift set of lines will make do until No. 7 is here to pull on a Senators jersey once again. Possibly one with a “C” on it, although Dorion says he would like to get through training camp and likely well into the season before worrying about whether Thomas Chabot or Tkachuk should be captain.

Smith was adamant that he feels Tkachuk will be here soon. In the short term, it’s like replacing an injured player, he said. You move on with what you have.

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Smith was certainly forthcoming about his immediate plans — telling us Nick Paul, a veteran, late-blooming forward who is undaunted by any role thrown at him — will be pencilled in on the top line for now, alongside Josh Norris and Drake Batherson. All three are part of Group “A” in a camp that has 54 players and groups A, B and C.

As for the second-line centre position, look for veteran Chris Tierney to temporarily slot in there (as an audible gasp rings out on social media). That puts a little less pressure on young Shane Pinto, who has just 12 games of NHL experience and could be a second or third-line centre eventually. Pinto is one of a few players who could stick in camp or could just as easily end up being sent to Belleville to gain more experience as a pro.

“The best player is going to play there and the player who is going to help us win the most is going to play there,” Smith said of the No. 2 centre position. “And if you can call Nick Paul a third-line left winger, if that is essentially what he is, on any given night he can be the best player and that could be the best line.

“We think Chris has the most experience of the group. He’s come back, and had an injury-free summer — he was injured the summer before. So, he was able to train and has come back in much better shape.”

Colin White and Logan Brown will also get looks at centre during a camp and exhibition season that promises lots of shifting before it is all done. Dorion also said he continues to look for outside help to upgrade his talent at the forward position.

Camp battle at D and RW

The game of pencilling in Ottawa’s starting 12 forwards and six defencemen has already begun, long before the Senators first hit the ice Thursday morning. Smith believes the team has a few spots open, although he imagines a day in the not-too-distant future when the Senators don’t have openings and just roll out their established group as a contending team in the Eastern Conference.

Dorion didn’t want to say he expects this group to be a playoff team in 2021-22, although he repeated his line at the time of his recent contract extension that the “rebuild is over.”

“I don’t want to hear that word anymore, we’re moving on,” Dorion said. “This team has to take a big step. I think we have a lot of good young talent, I think we will be one of the youngest teams in the NHL again this year. Young teams have to learn how to win … as DJ said, we want to be a good team for the next 10 years.

“When we drop the puck on opening night for the next 10 years, we want to know we’re a playoff team and we’re pushing and getting better all the time.”

One of the more interesting camp battles could be on right wing where the Senators haven’t replaced the offence lost with the departure of Evgenii Dadonov. Forward Tyler Ennis was a nice pickup as a professional tryout and he could help the team in the short term at any number of roles, though not really as a scorer.

Smith said he has been “excited” by what he has seen of Russian right winger Egor Sokolov, 21, whose wicked shot helped him become Belleville’s leading scorer last season.

Smith lauded the scouting of Dorion and Trent Mann to continue to find interesting and competitive prospects, including a late bloomer like Sokolov, twice passed over in the NHL draft.

Yet, hearing Smith speak about the Senators’ knack for letting young talent gain experience at the AHL level, citing Batherson as a prime example, you got the sense that while Sokolov will get looks in camp, he is almost certainly going to be in Belleville to start the season.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Another interesting battle will take place on the bottom of the defence pairings. Artem Zub, last year’s revelation, will get a chance to play alongside Chabot as the top pair and Nikita Zaitsev and Michael Del Zotto slot in as the second duo. That leaves the likes of newcomer Nick Holden, holdover Josh Brown and younger D-men Victor Mete, Erik Brannstrom and former UND stalwart Jacob Bernard-Docker to sort things out for the final pairing. The team will probably carry seven D at least to start.

Holden seems likely to get a spot and can play either side. Bernard-Docker might need some AHL time to fully develop. And considering that Mete and Brannstrom are practically clones — smallish, puck-moving types from the left side (even if Brannstrom likes the right side) — there probably won’t be spots for both of them at the same time. Advantage Mete: Keep in mind that Brannstrom is still on his entry-level deal and won’t require waivers to be sent down. Mete, at 23 and a year older than Brannstrom, arrived here via waivers from Montreal.

Asked specifically about Brannstrom’s chances, Smith didn’t give a lot away. But he wasn’t all that encouraging either.

“He has to perform at training camp and in exhibition (games),” Smith said. “I think the good part of getting better is the tough competition that’s out there. There’s no jobs given. The best players get to play.

“When you’re in a complete rebuild, a lot of times you just slot a guy in there, maybe at the end of the year and see how he does. We are not doing that (anymore). The best six D are going to play on Night One and the best six will play the next night. And if (Brannstrom) is one of those guys, he’ll be playing.”

It’s a telling comment on where the Senators feel they are on their progression curve. They may not be talking about being a playoff team right out of camp, but they intend to be in the mix from Game 1 through 82. And they will expect a lot from every single player in that lineup.

All are vaccinated

Throughout the league, GMs and coaches were giving updates on their vaccine situation, and Ottawa was no exception.

“Everyone is vaccinated,” Dorion said. “Everyone in the Senators organization, as far as I know: players, staff, players in Belleville, players on AHL contracts. Everyone is vaccinated.”

Crookshank out 4-6 months, Brown ill

Dorion has already lost one of the 54 players invited to camp. Forward Angus Crookshank, injured in a rookie game against the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, could be out as long as four to six months, Dorion said. Crookshank is believed to have suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee after getting hit into the boards in Laval. He is expected to see a doctor again Friday after the swelling goes down.

“That means there is still a chance he could play at the end of the year,” Dorion said. “It’s disappointing because this player did everything asked of him last year, was having a very good rookie camp, was noticeable and was going to play in exhibition games. It was a flukey thing.”

Dorion added that defenceman Josh Brown was ill Tuesday, got tested for COVID-19 as a precaution and that test was negative. Just to balance out the camp D-pairings, Vincent Sevigny of Victoriaville, was added to the camp roster.

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