Surprise playoff hero Pageau looks to take the next step

As 20-year-old Jean-Gabriel Pageau prepares to enter just his second season as a professional hockey player, he faces a daunting question: What does he do for an encore?

Surprise playoff hero Pageau looks to take the next step
Jean-Gabriel Pageau of the Ottawa Senators practices drills and scrimmages in Ottawa on July 30, 2013. (Jana Chytilova/Ottawa Citizen)

As 20-year-old Jean-Gabriel Pageau prepares to enter just his second season as a professional hockey player, he faces a daunting question: What does he do for an encore?

At the beginning of last season, he was little more than an undersized (5-9, 164-pound), fourth-round draft pick (96th overall) who would struggle to make the AHL Binghamton Senators.

The Ottawa Senators had their fingers crossed that he would amount to something in a few years, but they weren’t ready to place any bets.

But after a 19-game stint with the Senators, which included a dazzling hat trick in Game 3 of the opening round series against the Montreal Canadiens, the Gatineau native became a local hero and one of the team’s brightest lights for the future.

The hat trick, only the fifth in the playoffs by a player under 21, came in just his third playoff game, faster than Mike Bossy (eight games), Wayne Gretzky (six), Mario Lemieux (nine), Alexander Ovechkin (16) and Sidney Crosby (33).

It was also, notably, one of the top eight individual performances of the 2012-13 season as selected by NHL.com.

If Pageau never plays another NHL game, he’ll dine out on that for a very, very long time.

But he is aiming for a very, very long NHL career, which is why, if everyone can’t forget his magical night, he’d like it to be tucked away in the record book as part of ancient history.

It’s not something that’s going to help him make the team this season.

“Yeah, I did have a pretty good playoff,” he said on Tuesday, after an informal skate with Ottawa teammates and rivals at the Sensplex.

“There was a lot of emotion in not a lot of time. But I think that’s in the past right now.

“I need to prove myself again. I need to come to the camp and win my spot to be in the lineup again. This is a new start.”

You’d have to think that Pageau will get a long look from coach Paul MacLean and general manager Bryan Murray, but there won’t be much room for error.

Barring a trade, 11 forward jobs appear to be locks: Jason Spezza, Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek, Kyle Turris, Clarke MacArthur, Chris Neil, Colin Greening, Zack Smith, Mika Zibanejad, and Cory Conacher and Erik Condra.

And there’s a big group after the 12th and 13th forward spots, including Pageau, Jim O’Brien, Mark Stone, Matt Kassian, Mike Hoffman, David Dziurzynski, Stephane Da Costa, Shane Prince, Corey Cowick, and Matt Puempel.

So Pageau is realistic enough to see that his future could include spending more time in Binghamton.

“Obviously I hope I can play with the Senators again,” he said.

“But you never know what the coach is going to think about you, so I want to make a good impression at the camp.

“I’m working out hard this summer with other guys that I had the chance to play with last year, and I just hope they’re going to give me a chance again this year.

“But if it doesn’t go the way I’d like it to go, I’m going to go to Binghamton and just work harder for the chance to come back here.”

One thing working in Pageau’s favour is that his growing familiarity with the organization, coupled with the NHL games he played last season, has given him a great boost in confidence.

When you know your teammates, and you don’t feel nervous on the ice, you feel more comfortable, he said.

One thing’s certain: No one will be able to escape the nervousness that comes with training camp.

But all he can do is work harder than the next guy.

It was the road map he followed to success last year, albeit with a few bumps along the way.

“At the beginning of the season in Binghamton, I had trouble making the team,” he said.

“It was pretty hard, a big competition with a lot of good players.

“But I finally won my spot, and after the lockout I had the chance to play more and more and that helped my confidence on the ice with the puck.

“When you have confidence, it’s a lot easier to play. But we’re all coming back for a new start this year.

“The coach is real fair,” he added. “If you work hard, you’re going to be on the team, and if you’re the best player, you’re going to stay.

“But if not, you’re going to go down. He was clear about that.

“I’m just working out this summer to make sure that I’ll be the best player.”

Twitter.com/allenpanzeri2

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