With an off-ice spending spree and standout player additions, the Ottawa Senators have had a sunnier summer than most Canadians.
So they will just have to live with the fact that a dark, lingering cloud lingers over them until the NHL completes its investigation into the Hockey Canada scandal involving the 2018 Canadian World Junior team.
Eight players, including members of that team, have been accused of sexually assaulting a woman in London, Ontario, following a Hockey Canada gala in 2018. Two players from that team, Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson, are on trial. Senators organization. Batherson is one of 59 players invited to training camp, who fell to the ice Thursday; in fact, he is a first-rate winger.
Formenton, meanwhile, is not yet under contract as a restricted free agent.
Senators General Manager Pierre Dorion told reporters at a pre-camp briefing Wednesday that he cannot speak about the situation until it is resolved.
“I think we all want answers,” Dorion said, “but due to pending NHL investigations, we can’t comment on that.”
Dorion says the organization has been talking to its players about hockey culture for some time and that as a parent and general manager, “I want to make sure we do everything the right way.”
The general manager added that the investigations have had no impact on any contractual dealings with his players (the inference is Formenton), and that different contractual scenarios were discussed with Formenton (Newport) agents, the same agency that represented Brady Tkachuk in his persistent contract negotiations last summer.
Later in the Q&A session, Dorion referred to Formenton and Tkachuk as “two main pieces here.”
Meanwhile, the camp will start tomorrow, with high expectations and without Formenton on the track.
Defense is the focus
The fun thing about adding talent up front, namely Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat, while young stars Josh Norris and Tim Stützle are stretched to long-term deals, worry becomes the blue line.
While head coach DJ Smith, who joined Dorion at the press conference, spoke about the nice problem of having too many scorers to fit on a single power-play unit (he’s considering a two-unit system, like the St. Louis Blues), he admitted his camp’s focus involves the defense corps.
“Where do the people in the rear fit in?” Smith said rhetorically. “Who has taken a step, better than last year. It will be exciting for me there.”
Dorion is still trying to improve his blue line, and it’s no secret that he’s been in the mix trying to acquire Jakob Chychrun from Arizona. He said that he will not wait to make improvements if they are available.
As it is, Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub are the best defensive pairing. Rookie Jake Sanderson is in pair two with Travis Hamonic. That leaves Nick Holden, Nikita Zaitsev and Erik Brannstrom to complete a group of seven.
If the team and individuals are up from last year, Smith plans to reduce the ice-time demands on some of his best players, including Chabot, who has been at or near the top of the TOI charts in the last seasons. Part of becoming a competitive team is having different guys play extra minutes on any given night, depending on the circumstances. Chasing clues late in games meant Smith had to overplay Chabot on many nights.
Advice from Sanderson’s father
When the players arrive at their NHL, the parents usually sit in the stands and keep quiet. But when a hockey parent is a former NHL player with 17 seasons of NHL experience, he might catch the eye of an NHL coach. Such was the case when Jake Sanderson’s father, Geoff Sanderson, spoke with Smith about his son Jake’s upcoming rookie season with the Senators.
“One of his things, for a man who played a lot of games in the National Hockey League, was the concern that an older man would be around his son to help him out in the league, and I totally understand that,” Smith said. “I think a guy like Hammer (Hamonic), a guy like Holden, sitting close to him (Jake) in the room, playing some games with him and talking to him will help his development.”
While Smith leaves the door open to different defensive pairings, he likes the idea of Ottawa’s most experienced defenders being there to guide the 20-year-old Sanderson.
1A and 1B in goal
He often misses out on additions up front, but Ottawa’s goalkeeping situation should be a real source of strength for the club. The Sens not only moved injury-prone Matt Murray’s contract to Toronto, they tapped Minnesota’s Cam Talbot to form a tandem with Anton Forsberg. While Smith likes the idea of one goalie being No. 1, he feels he has two really good goalies at his disposal.
“This is the most comfortable I’ve felt with our goalies since I’ve been here,” Smith said.
Without naming his “1A” or “1B,” Smith feels that’s how he’s shaping up, with plenty of work for both of them.
“There are some really big horses in the league that can play those big minutes in a lot of games,” Smith said. “But what happens when that guy gets hurt? You need two boys.
Different air of confidence
Smith believes the Senators are different night and day from the young, developing group of the past few seasons. Now, he more or less knows who the starters are, and the focus is on winning, not player development.
“I feel a different air of confidence from them,” Smith said.
The players, Smith said, believe they are ready to become one of the best teams in the league and get out of the doormat stage. That’s one of the reasons the players arrived at camp early and have been skating regularly, even skating early in the morning before Tuesday’s charity golf tournament.
“It’s clear to me that they’re sick of losing night after night and sick of being at the bottom (of the standings),” Smith said.
“Part of the rebuild is getting hit, and we got a lot of hard beatings a lot of nights,” Smith added. “These kids are excited to fight for their city, and so are we as a coaching staff. . . on the golf course (Tuesday), people come (to me) and are as excited as ever in a season; Now it’s up to us to make them proud.”
To be one of those playoff teams, Smith says the group has to learn to have an even temper after wins and losses. Younger players sometimes take losses too hard and get carried away with wins.
Consistent play and focus will see to victories, Smith says, even to start the season, which has plagued Ottawa in recent years.
Dorion added that he expects this group to play meaningful games through the end of the year.
Chef added: ‘Food is your fuel’
Little things matter, and so when some players spoke to management about improving the details of everyday on-court experiences, the Senators listened. Changes have been made to the player lounge, including better TVs and couches. There is an even better shower soap! (File this under the details you might not need to know.)
Additionally, improvements have been made to the team gym and a chef has been hired to cook for the players after the game. The menu for team charter flights is also being modified.
“Food is your fuel,” Dorion said.
Norris wins fitness test
According to Smith, Norris won the camp fitness tests on Wednesday, followed by Mark Kastelic and Sanderson.
On another note from camp, forward Ridley Greig, who suffered a shoulder injury during the recent WJC in Edmonton, will skate Thursday in a non-contact jersey. The team hopes he can be ready for game action on September 30 in Belleville against the Maple Leafs.