OTTAWA — Teams can take a while to bond after an off-season of departures and fresh arrivals.
I was asking the Senators captain about the veteran exodus (think Connor Brown, Nick Paul, Tyler Ennis) versus the influx (Claude Giroux, Cam Talbot, Tyler Motte). Does he believe the team that has been known for its youth and a few retreads now has a strong mix of young players and veterans?
“Everybody’s young at heart here,” Tkachuk said, and we instantly thought of that 35-year-old man/child Nick Holden. “Everybody just loves being at the rink. We’re all loving life, everybody’s got a smile on their face… we’re having a great time. It’s a great mix of knowledge for the young guys to learn from some of the older guys that have been around and some of the peaks and valleys they have gone through.”
Head coach D.J. Smith has already spoken in camp about the need for his team to act more like a mature finished product, a group that doesn’t get carried away with itself after a few wins, nor too discouraged with a couple of losses.
Having players like Giroux, Holden, Talbot, Motte and Travis Hamonic offers a wealth of experience from a lot of different team situations around the league.
Giroux, for example, was captain of the Philadelphia Flyers for a decade, and has played 1,018 regular season games and another 95 in the playoffs. His impact has been immediate.
During the Senators’ first pre-season game, in Toronto, Giroux was interviewed between periods and said that they weren’t playing good enough. Seriously? Off a partial game that doesn’t count? Actually, it was perfect, sending a message that expectations are higher now, every time these players put on a Senators uniform, whether it’s an exhibition game or the first playoff game in six years.
In practice sessions, Giroux can be seen huddling with his new linemates, usually Alex DeBrincat and Tim Stützle (although veteran Derick Brassard is replacing Stützle for Friday’s game in Belleville against the Maple Leafs). Giroux works with the 20-year-old Stützle on his faceoffs, and then stands back to watch him, like a good teacher.
“Everyone knows he’s been a star in the league for however many years now,” Tkachuk says. “And just to be able to be on the same ice with him and see tendencies, his work ethic, on and off the ice — I think it’s contagious not just for me but for everybody to see a guy like who’s still pushing to be the best.
“I think that translates to our group and it’s really going to help us.”
For Smith, a veteran such as Giroux is a massive bonus.
“He knows things that no coach is going to know,” Smith says. “The experience he provides to the young guys and the way he sees the game is only going to help those guys.”
An added bonus? The motivation of a player in the twilight of his career who has not yet won a Stanley Cup.
“What people don’t know about him (Giroux) is that he is a real quiet guy and he wants to win,” Smith said. “He didn’t come here just to come home and play games. He wants to win… to be part of this team getting better. He’s going to push these guys.”
What’s in a number?: Tkachuk 51st and Smith 24th
Who doesn’t love a good sports list? A poll had D.J. Smith 24th out of the 32 NHL head coaches, when it comes to being handsome. And another poll had Matthew Tkachuk among the top 50 NHLers, with brother Brady just missing, at 51.
“It hurts,” Smith deadpanned, about being 24th on the list for looks. “I asked my wife (Christie Bezaire) and she said I’m No. 1. I’m going to call my mom today and I expect she’ll give me No. 1. Then I can feel good again. I’m just happy to be one of 32 (NHL head coaches).”
Tkachuk was similarly unfazed by being ranked behind his brother, who played for the Calgary Flames last season and is now in Florida with the Panthers.
“He deserves it,” Brady said of Matthew. “He had a great year last year… he’s got to be up there, that’s a guy you want to have on your team. So, not too upset about it. It’s just room to grow (being 51st).”
Tkachuk likes the power play options
Not surprisingly, Tkachuk is quite OK with his group from last year getting first unit power play assignments at this point in the camp. That means Tkachuk-Stützle-Norris-Batherson-Chabot. But he is excited about the potential for more to be involved.
“You know, we put it all together last year, so we kind of know where each other is,” Tkachuk said. “But of course it’s early, you never know what happens. The good thing about our team is that there’s a lot of different options (especially with Giroux and DeBrincat).
“That just helps us as a team. It’s not about individuals at this point anymore. It’s all about whatever it takes to win and I think that’s our mindset as a group — whatever’s clicking is what is going to help us win.”
Kraft Hockeyville in N.L. and N.B.
The Senators are looking forward to their trip to Gander, N.L., and Bouctouche, N.B. next week, partly for the experience but also the chance to bring some joy to a region hit hard by Hurricane Fiona. The Kraft Hockeyville games between the Senators and Montreal Canadiens are Oct. 6 in Gander and Oct. 8 in Bouctouche.
“I think it’s important,” said Tkachuk, the Senators captain. “Of course they don’t get to experience the NHL as much as some other cities in Canada. I’ve never played in a Hockeyville game before, so I heard that it’s always energetic and everyone loves coming to the rink.
“Especially now, a lot of people are impacted and affected by the storm. So, to bring a little light, a little happiness to their days, it would be something special to share with them and just kind of get their mind off their struggles.”
Every Child Matters
Every Senators player was given an orange ‘Every Child Matters’ t-shirt on Thursday, in advance of Friday’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Tkachuk and rookie Tyler Bouchard both wore the shirts as they spoke to reporters. So did coach Smith.
“I don’t know as much information as I’d like to, not being Canadian,” Tkachuk said. “But I think the shirt represents the mistreatment of kids and allows us to rectify (some) of the wrongdoings and learn to grow because of it.”
Tkachuk called it an “honour” to wear the shirt.
“Every kid matters, everyone matters,” Boucher said.
“It is just horrible that things like this have gone on in this world,” Smith added, alluding to the atrocities against children in residential schools.
Boucher gets another game
Boucher is in the lineup Friday against the Leafs, and will get a chance to play with Stützle and Angus Crookshank.
“He’s obviously going to find me and make some ridiculous plays,” Boucher said, of playing alongside Stützle. “So I’ll be ready to have the puck on my stick and hopefully can make some plays for him too.”
While Boucher would love to make this team, realistically he is here to gain confidence and have a big year, likely with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s. A 10th overall draft choice of the Senators in 2021, Boucher took a while to settle into a rhythm after playing NCAA hockey with Michigan until late December, and then joining the 67’s.
In practice drills Thursday, Boucher scored one goal off a hard wrist shot, top shelf, and another on a gorgeous deke after driving the net.
“That has to be a part of my game, just taking pucks to the rack, and being hard to play against,” Boucher said. “Being a power forward type, I need to bring that to my game and make it hard on D.”