Ridly Greig didn’t dare dream this big.
Asked what the boyhood Greig would have said about setting up his hero, Claude Giroux, for Greig’s first NHL point in his NHL debut, Greig demurred.
“I don’t even know what he’d say,” Greig said, before holding up the puck from his first assist as a member of the Ottawa Senators. “Pretty awesome. He (Giroux) was a big part of me growing up, I kind of idolized him a little bit. So, pretty unreal.”
Greig’s father, Mark, was a player and then a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers organization, where Giroux spent most of his career.
Oh, and in other news, the Senators hung on to beat the New York Islanders 2-1, but the 20-year-old Greig was the main attraction, a perfect distraction for an Ottawa team badly trailing in the playoff chase.
You couldn’t have scripted a better night for the Lethbridge native, recalled from AHL Belleville this week when Josh Norris re-injured his shoulder, requiring surgery. On his father’s birthday, Greig had eight shots on goal (tying the record for shots in a NHL debut), assisted on the winning goal, played 13:46 and saved a possible goal in the first period when he sprawled to break up a pass between Casey Cizikas and Mathew Barzal.
“He’s so competitive,” head coach D.J. Smith said of Greig. “His hockey sense is really high. He can skate. He’s going to be a real good player.”
Giroux, playing alongside Greig and Alex DeBrincat, said he told Greig just to work hard, not to think.
“He’s fun to play with,” Giroux said. “His game is very mature. I remember my first game, mentally I wasn’t there. So, it’s pretty impressive the way he was playing, winning puck battles and he had a good time.”
Raw rookies used to have to be taught defence. Now, they come into the league as two-way players.
Shane Pinto, still technically a rookie himself, was impressed with Greig’s debut. But then, who wasn’t?
“He stepped up big for us and to play like that in your first NHL game, that’s awesome,” Pinto said. “I’m very happy for him.
“He was calm the whole day,” said Pinto, who scored the other Senators goal on a deflection. “He has a quiet demeanour to him but I know he’s a confident kid and he chilled out there on the ice today, so it was cool.”
A week or so ago, this game was one to circle on the calendar for Senators fans. Not that the arrival of the Islanders is generally an occasion, other than to welcome home native son and former Senators centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
No, the Islanders game looked interesting because, at the start of last week, the Senators were entering into the so-called “mini-playoff series” against the Pittsburgh Penguins, with an eye toward getting closer to the pack of playoff contenders. On Jan. 17, the Penguins and Islanders were tied for the last wild card spot and Ottawa was nine points back of both of them.
What a difference a week makes. The Islanders are reeling, winners of one of their past 12 games, after losing to the Senators on Wednesday, in front of 13,980 at the Canadian Tire Centre. A driving blizzard kept the crowd numbers down.
As for Ottawa, after earning just two points against Pittsburgh (while granting them three points), the Senators got routed by Winnipeg. In that same game, centre Josh Norris re-injured his shoulder and will miss the rest of the season.
It was as though the hockey gods were telling Senators fans to face reality – this 25th-place Ottawa team is equidistant between last place and the last wild card spot. Six teams ahead for WC2. Seven below to last place in the league. Hockey No Man’s Land.
All eyes on Greig
These last 11 weeks of the season are going to be about assessing prospects like Greig and eyeing yet another high pick in the draft.
When Greig took to the ice, it marked the first time that Ottawa’s top three picks from their lucrative 2020 draft appeared in a regular season game together: Tim Stützle, third overall. Jake Sanderson, fifth overall. Greig, 28th overall.
It’s not a stretch to say that today, Stützle is the Senators’ best forward and Sanderson is already their best defenceman, in his rookie season. Where Greig fits in will get sorted out – is he a top-six centre or winger? Or the perfect energy guy on a future third line, when this team is ready to compete? He will get 35 games to audition. Playing the Leafs on Friday in Toronto will be a good test.
No rentals for Ottawa
There are other prospects in the minors who should receive long looks over the balance of the season.
Jacob Bernard-Docker, who has already played 13 NHL games this season and will get more down the stretch. Pending unrestricted free agent defencemen like Nick Holden and Travis Hamonic should only play to the point that they are chips to be used at the trade deadline.
Forward Tyler Motte, still injured, would draw interest at the deadline with his expiring contract.
Goaltender Cam Talbot is a big question mark. Earlier this season, the Senators had an interest in extending the 35-year-old pending free agent. But Talbot has struggled mightily in the past few weeks. Prior to the Islanders game, Talbot had lost five of six starts with a .865 save percentage.
Against the Isles, Talbot had a solid first period, behind a 2-0 lead, and then left the game in the second period following what appeared to be a routine pad save on a long, low shot.
Smith said Talbot suffered a lower-body injury and will not be back before the NHL All-Star break next week. With Mads Sogaard hurt in Belleville, the Senators have recalled goaltender Kevin Mandolese to back up Anton Forsberg for the next week.
Assuming this is not a long-term injury for Talbot, the Senators have to consider moving him if there is any interest around the league for a veteran backup among the playoff teams.
In other potential moves, winger Egor Sokolov, who could have been the forward prospect elevated when Norris went down, had a slow start in Belleville but has taken off, now with 38 points in 40 games. In his past 10, Sokolov has four goals and nine points.
While not in the same class of prospect as Greig, Sokolov will soon be 23. The Senators have to find out if he can play in the NHL or should be moved. Forward Rourke Chartier has seen time in Ottawa and could get another viewing.
What’s up with Lassi Thomson? Though currently injured and clearly passed on the depth chart by Bernard-Docker, Thomson was a 19th overall pick by Ottawa in 2019. When he gets healthy, will Thomson get another look? He played two games for the Senators in November.
Defenceman Max Guenette, 21, had a good camp with Ottawa and leads B-Senators defencemen with 20 points in 39 games.
Sogaard has had injury issues that have delayed his progress. In 18 games played, Sogaard’s numbers are underwhelming (5-8-1, .904 and 3.02) though not awful. He will likely need more AHL time, which means the Senators will have to address their goaltending in Ottawa during the spring and summer.
One thing is clear. The Senators don’t need to add any rental players at the deadline in their pursuit of meaningful games down the stretch. That ship has sailed.
Any additions made now need to make sense for the near future, aka next season.