With the start of the season quickly approaching, Senators players will begin to find their way back to the Nation’s Capital for some informal workouts before the official start of training camp gets underway Sept.16th.
This season, there will be a ton of new faces. It’s almost impossible to remember a time when there was this much competition for roster spots at a Senators training camp.
Forwards will be vying for the 1 or 2 top 6 positions left empty by former mainstays like Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly, but its on defense where the biggest questions marks remain. Defensemen reporting to camp are going to look around and say “Whoa…there are a lot of dudes here”.
Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar will slot in as the vets on a team full of young guys looking to learn what they can from a couple of players who have been around the block. Phillips should hopefully return to form after a season in which he looked a little lost without long time defensive partner Anton Volchenkov.
Also look for Sergei Gonchar to have a much-improved second season in Ottawa. After signing a free-agent deal in Ottawa Gonch seemed to be a little out of sorts. Not to mention the fact that Cory Clouston misused him for much of the season. Gonchar should feel a little more at home in Ottawa this year and will be a great role model for our young offensive defenseman (not to mention a little Russian named Nikita).
Another guarantee is Erik Karlsson. Coming off of an All-Star calibre season, Karlsson will look to raise the bar even higher for himself and cement himself as one of the best young defenders in the league. At the age of 21, Karlsson is a borderline veteran on a team where there are more questions than answers. Look for him to have another big season.
From there, things get a little more complicated.
The Question Marks
Filip Kuba, barring a trade or major injury, will be a part of the defensive core in Ottawa. Like him or not, the guy is a more than serviceable NHL defenseman who has fallen on some hard times. In the 2010 Winter Olympics Kuba injured his back. He elected to have surgery in the offseason to repair the damage and worked through the offseason to get himself back into game shape. Training camp began and then literally 5 minutes into training camp for the 2010-2011 season, Kuba broke his leg. The rehab had to start again. In the last season or so, people in Ottawa have soured on Kuba, citing him as the source of all of our problems, but keep in mind how difficult it is to come back from two major injuries like the ones Kuba suffered. Anyone who has ever broken a bone will tell you that it is virtually impossible to have the same range of motion or push that bone to the same limits you were able to before you injured it. Kuba looked visibly slower, and seemed unable to confidently make his pivots on his injured leg. However, Kuba began to regain his form in the final 15-20 games of the season. He was noticeably more mobile, and even scored a few goals (IMAGINE THAT!). Coming into the season 100% healthy, look for Kuba to have a bounce back season.
Carkner, who is a free agent at seasons end, seems destined to fill the role of the 7th defenseman. He is an average NHL d-man and can play a role for this team when needed. Keep in mind that Carkner was more of a stopgap solution in Ottawa while our defensive prospects matured into NHL players.
Brian Lee is ridiculously confusing. One minute he seems like the worst possible player in the NHL, sitting in the press box for 25 games at a time, and the next minute he is leading the team in hits, playing a sound defensive game, and looking like he belongs in the NHL. He is often labeled as a bust, but he clearly has set out to prove that he belongs in the NHL and I believe that he does. If he continues on the same trajectory that he finished the year on, I believe that Lee could become a solid, everyday, bottom pairing defenseman.
The Young Guys
David Rundblad is expected to come in and make a big splash for the Senators in his first pro season in North America. He has sky-high expectations coming into the start of the season. It seems like many expect him to step in and score 50 pts. I however do not see it this way.
There is no denying that he is a supreme talent, and that he will be a game changer on the blueline for the Senators for seasons to come, but I see him taking a similar path to that of Erik Karlsson in his first NHL season. Karlsson started the year with the Sens and looked out of place on the smaller North American ice. He had a hard time keeping up with the increased speed and was clearly frazzled by the higher skill level of his competition. After 9 games the Sens sent him to Binghamton to work on his game, improve his confidence and get acclimatized to playing in North America. The way I see it, the Senators will be very cautious with Rundblad. The coaching staff will give him every chance to succeed in Ottawa right out of the gate, but with a team full of puck moving defenseman like Karlsson, Kuba, and Gonchar already on the team, Bryan Murray should feel no pressure to put this kid in the lineup immediately. If he struggles the same way Karlsson did in his first few games they shouldn’t hesitate to send him to the AHL for some conditioning. Look at what it did for Karlsson’s overall game.
Jared Cowen on the other hand looks poised to steal a full time spot in the Senators lineup. Coming off of another stellar season with the Spokane Chiefs, Cowen was added to the roster during the Binghamton Senators run to the Calder Cup Championship and looked like he belonged, taking away ice time from guys like Patrick Weircoich who had played the whole season in Bingo. A Calder Cup Championship, along with a strong showing at the World Junior Championship proved that Cowen had made significant strides in his development and proved that he could play big minutes in pressure filled situations, not to mention the added boost it gave to his confidence.
So, with all that said, here is how I see the defense shaking out at the start of camp, barring any injuries or trades.
I figure we will see Mr.Murray make a few roster moves either at the start of the season or at the trade deadline. I’m predicting that Kuba will bounce back and increase his value. Look for him to be traded at the deadline. The same goes for Matt Carkner. As a free agent, he may be the kind of guy a team looks at to bolster their toughness. If it goes the way I think it will, look for Rundblad to be promoted midway through the season once a couple of bodies have been moved out due to injury or trade and he has had time to get used to the North American game while playing big minutes in Bingo.
It is entirely possible that both Cowen and Rundblad make the team out of camp, but in my opinion I don’t really see them starting the year with 2 rookies in the d-corps when we already have an abundance of NHL ready defenseman.
So this is how I see it all shaking out. Let me know in the comments how you see things shaping up or send me a tweet on twitter (@TomSENS).
I will be drawing the winner in the SBP Memories contest later on this afternoon. Keep an eye on the site to find out who the winner is.