As Senators award letters, team’s leaders raise bar on 2021 expectations

D.J. Smith talked about the Senators' ability to get back into game shape without playing any exhibition games, especially after a long time between NHL action.

Time flies when a training camp is launched on New Year’s Eve during a pandemic lockdown.

So it is that Ottawa Senators players are already eyeing their first day off of camp while their North Division brethren are just getting going.

With three extra camp days as a non-playoff team, the Senators worked on special teams on Sunday, Day 4 of camp, following scrimmages Saturday. Head coach D.J. Smith has set Monday as a day off for his group to recharge.

“When you’re off 10 months there’s so many little things to the game as a coach you want to hit on,” Smith said in a Zoom call Sunday. “So these extra three days have been great for us. We’ve been able to get some conditioning in, some systems, special teams.

“When we come back (Tuesday) we can start to put it all together a little bit.”

Without exhibition games, Smith said he and his staff are trying to have players mimic game conditions — “which I know, you can’t. But I’ve liked our effort,” Smith said. “Our first game is playing the Maple Leafs live (on Jan. 15).”


Scrimmages were a hit for White, Gudbranson

Smith seemed delighted with his players’ effort during the first two scrimmages of camp on Saturday.

“There isn’t a guy that has disappointed,” Smith said. “Guys have put the work in and come back hungry.”
In particular, Smith has noted the growth of centre Colin White, who had ups and downs in his second full season (2019-20).

“Colin White has really taken a step, strength-wise, confidence-wise,” Smith said. “He’s out there working every day. For me he’s a guy who looks so much more confident and comfortable coming back.”

As a coach who prides his team on physical play, new defenceman Erik Gudbranson has been a revelation for Smith.

“I haven’t watched Erik Gudbdranson a whole lot, him being in the west (for most of the past four years),” Smith said. “I will say he is one physical guy. He wasn’t letting up on anybody out there. He’s cross-checking, finishing checks. He’s playing like he’s ready. Been really physical.”

Tkachuk, Chabot, Gudbranson earn A’s

The Senators have made it clear there won’t be a captain this season, but their two captain candidates — young stars Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot — have been named alternate captains, alongside the veteran Gudbranson.

It’s likely one of Chabot or Tkachuk will be named captain next fall. The team hopes to sign Tkachuk to the sort of long-term deal Chabot already has.

“You have two young guys who are going to be leaders in this league for a long time, in Chabot and Tkachuk,” Smith said. “Last year they had A’s for a bit of the time and I think it’s time to transition and help them be the leaders of this team going forward. And a guy like Gudbranson, who’s been around the league, can help them.”

Veteran Derek Stepan, who just arrived in Ottawa and will be on the ice in about a week, is also expected to be part of that leadership group, with or without an A on his jersey.

Smith didn’t dispute a view that Chabot and Tkachuk will sort out this season who might be best suited to wear the C.

“I think that’s fair,” he said. “Both those guys have captain capabilities. Both lead in their own way. It would be a hard decision when it comes. This year they’re going to work together to help us improve as a team day-to-day.”

Smith notes that Tkachuk is unlike few other third-year players, because he’s “lived in the NHL his entire life,” as the son of 18-year NHL veteran Keith Tkachuk. Brady has also learned from his older brother, Matthew of the Calgary Flames.

“He’s still young, he’s still learning,” Smith says of the rugged winger. “But he leads with emotion, he leads with heart, effort level, toughness. All those things. You know when that game starts, he is as ferocious as anyone in the league when it comes to wanting to win. That is contagious.”

Tkachuk taps into family

One of the few benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic experience has been the time allowed for players to train and spend time with immediate family.

Tkachuk used the time to compete against brother Matthew at their family home in St. Louis, but also to tap into the experience of their dad, Keith.

Brady says he is quite aware that his dad was “loved by his staff and teammates” for his devotion and attitude. And brother Matt, like Brady, is carved from the same competitive family granite.

“We’ve had a lot of different conversations and gone over a lot of different scenarios,” Brady says of his summer and fall at home. “I’ve learned so much from them. And their situations and experiences.”

Keith advised Brady to be himself.

“My dad said, ‘Every leader is different. Some guys speak out, other guys lead by example,’” Brady says. “So, find that happy medium. But also — ‘Don’t overstep, you’re still a young guy.’

“His message is just lead by example, keep playing the way you’re playing. Play hard. Play physical, demand a lot out of yourself. Drag guys into the fight. That was kind of his message.”

Considering their famous rough-housing off the ice, Brady and Matthew can’t wait to face each other regularly in the new North Division of all Canadian teams.

“We are so pumped to be able to play each other nine times,” Brady said. “Those are going to be fun games, not only for ourselves and our parents, our friends and family.

“I think this is going to be awesome. It’s unfortunate everything that has happened that has led to it but to play an all-Canadian division is going to rekindle a lot of rivalries and start some new ones.”

Like nine-game playoff series

Gudbranson says that with the entire 56-game season in Canada: “These are essentially nine-game playoff series you’re going to be playing against these teams this season.”

“And that’s a lot of fun. There are going to be games you’re going to want to be in, and that’s so exciting as a player. For fans it’s a dream come true and it certainly is for us as well.

Every single game is going to be huge.”

Gudbranson relishes hometown ‘A’ and new partner Chabot

When he was traded to Ottawa in October, Gudbranson, 28, was thrilled to be coming home. The former Gloucester Ranger and Blackburn Hamlet Stinger got another thrill when he was named an alternate captain, having made such a strong impression with his pre-camp leadership in the weight room and on the ice.

Gudbranson told us he feels like he represents Orleans, Blackburn Hamlet and the entire Ottawa community every time he pulls on a Senators jersey.

“I had a buddy send me a text last night saying, ‘It’s pretty cool that a Blackburn Stinger is an assistant captain for the Sens now.’ That really brought it home for me. I sat thinking about it, it was pretty cool.”

Gudbranson said he was “very proud” to get the A. He was born in 1992, the year the Senators played their first game as a franchise.

“This is an incredible experience and has been every single day just being able to come here and put the Sens logo on,” he said. “I grew up watching this team and the people I grew up with were watching this team.

“So being here has been very special. Something I’m definitely not taking for granted.”

Early in camp, Gudbranson has been partnered with ace defenceman Chabot, not a bad place to start. Chabot said the two are still learning to read off each other, and loves Gudbranson’s physical play. Gudbranson fairly raves about the 23-year-old Chabot.

“It’s been really good,” Gudbranson said. “He’s a pretty easy guy to play with. His level of talent is just incredible. He’s got balls, too, he plays the game the right way, he’s not scared to try things. His confidence is constantly going up but he doesn’t get phased by things.

“As far as working together it’s been pretty seamless.”

Awed by Tkachuk’s maturity

Gudbranson has also taken note of a certain forward. He said he was blown away by the maturity of Tkachuk.

“When he told me he was 21, to be honest with you I was shocked,” Gudbranson said.

“He plays like a man already. He plays like a true pro already. He does so many things already you don’t expect from a kid that age.

“Along with that, he’s a fantastic player. Having a guy like that who plays with that edge, right on that line at all times, that gives a group so much confidence in the future. I think he’s a great piece for this team going forward for a number of years.”

Tkachuk vows playoff expectations inside the room

Go ahead and pick the Senators to be an also-ran in the North Division. But the players themselves are thinking bigger things, especially since the additions of Stanley Cup veterans like Matt Murray, Braydon Coburn and Cedric Paquette.

“A realistic expectation, what we have in mind, is to make the playoffs,” Tkachuk said. “We’ve got so many veteran guys who have won, who have got the experience. They’ve won the Cup.

“I think we have the tools. We have young guys eager to learn. Seven teams, top four in a short season. Anything can happen.”

Tkachuk believes the Cup is there for the taking.

“Our mentality is the Stanley Cup is right there. It’s a different year. We have the confidence within ourselves. We can push ourselves right from Day 1. We’re just going to keep pushing.”

Thomas Chabot agrees this team is ready to take a step up.

“We’re still going to be a young team but we’ve added a lot of pieces that are going to help us grow,” Chabot said. “We want to start winning games.”

Gudbranson says that management has “hammered home” the point that the past three seasons have been “unacceptable” and over with.

“We expect a lot of ourselves,” Gudbranson said. “There’s going to be some growing pains. It just happens when you’re young.

“But that buzz is in the room that we’re going to be better. We feel confident about it. It’s how we handle ourselves, how we come in every single night and what we do on the ice.

“Wins and losses aside, it’s how you do it. It’s a process. And every single guy in here has taken that to heart big time.”

Murray on paternity duty; Tierney injured

Other than the incoming players (Stepan, Coburn, Paquette), goaltender Murray and centre Chris Tierney were the only two players who did not take part in Sunday’s special teams drills.

Murray has the best reason — his wife Christina just gave birth to a daughter.

Tierney has a minor injury and is not expected to miss much time.

Coburn and Paquette are going through protocols and will join the team within the week.

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