The Binghamton Senators are a young bunch again this season, but they say starting out with the same core they had last spring can only help them reach their goals — namely, surpassing last season’s win total of 44 and building on a first-round exit for a deeper playoff run.
Luke Richardson has his first year as a professional head coach under his belt, and 22 of the 25 players on the his opening night roster played for him at some point last season. Jim O’Brien, who spent all of last season in the NHL and is earning his one-way salary in the minors after clearing waivers, played with the B-Sens earlier in his career and is familiar with returning assistant coach Steve Stirling and most of his teammates.
“We can kind of pick up where we left,” said Mark Borowiecki, entering his first full season as team captain. “We’re all pretty familiar with each other. Sometimes there’s an acclimation period for teams that have a lot of new faces, and we don’t really have that. We can hopefully just jump right into things and get going right away.”
Borowiecki will be playing on the team’s top defensive pairing, alongside 2012 first-round pick Cody Ceci, a skilled point producer who seems to perfectly complement Borowiecki’s rugged style of play. Rookies Troy Rutkowski and Michael Sdao will also be looking to make an impression on the blue line.
The B-Sens are stocked with forward prospects, including 2011 first rounders Mika Zibanejad and Matt Puempel, and surprise training camp standout Buddy Robinson, who may be given an opportunity on the top line with Mark Stone injured. Stone led Binghamton with 15 goals last season, and was tied for the team lead in points with 38. Shane Prince, Cole Schneider and Corey Cowick posted 35 points apiece. Derek Grant, who earned his first NHL call-up last season, had 28 points in 63 regular-season AHL games and led the league with five shorthanded tallies.
In goal, the B-Sens will rely heavily on seventh-year pro Nathan Lawson, who Richardson describes as a calming influence on the team’s young skaters. Lawson went 12-6-2 with a 2.19 goals-against average and .938 save percentage last season, taking over as the team’s No. 1 netminder when the lockout ended.
Richardson knows his obligation as a minor-league coach is to develop talent for the parent club, and he believes a big part of that is allowing players to make mistakes that they can learn from and eventually correct.
“But I also put an emphasis on winning,” Richardson said. “I think that is a skill — to have the desire to push yourself to not accept defeat. This city gives us a great opportunity. Everyone wants to see a good performance and a good work ethic, but they also want to win.
“Winning and experience go a long way, so those guys that were here for the (Calder) Cup experience a couple years ago (in 2011), it’s huge. We really rely on them to remember what that feeling was, winning and overcoming so much … we want them to remember that and pass it on to the other guys, to keep that winning tradition.”
Make or break
Lawson and defenseman Tyler Eckford are the only true veterans on the B-Sens’ roster, but mixed in with all the first- and second-year pros are a handful of more experienced players fighting to keep their prospect status in what could be a make-or-break year for their careers. Among them are Mike Hoffman and David Dziurzynski, two of several players on one-year deals signed when their entry-level contracts expired this summer; and André Petersson, who is eager to get back on track after surgery cut his sophomore campaign short.
“I’m in the last year of my (entry-level contract), and I haven’t done that great the two previous years,” said Petersson, who has 50 points in his first 78 AHL games. “So it’s pretty crucial that I have a good year.”
Richardson doesn’t intend to add any pressure to those players’ situations, but he does hope to see some leadership from them. Hoffman and Derek Grant, who is entering his third full pro season, have been named alternate captains. Dziurzynski, Cowick and O’Brien are some of the other expected to take on a leadership role.
“We want them all to take a little bit of ownership in it,” Richardson said. “I think they have to find that inner drive. If they do, I’m sure with the talent and character we have on this team, they’ll all succeed and do fine, and hopefully reach their goals — whether it be with Ottawa, or with another team. I’m pretty confident that they will do that this year, but unfortunately, if you don’t, people do see that … you don’t want to look back and say you missed your opportunity.”
‘Striving for that call-up’
Regardless of age, experience, and contract status, the greatest motivator for all of these players is the idea of an opportunity at the next level.
“I think everyone’s striving for the same thing, to get that call-up,” Zibanejad said.
Though the same could be said for players across the American Hockey League, Senators prospects feel they have a better chance than most because of the roster moves they have witnessed in recent years.
“It’s huge,” Borowiecki said of seeing teammates earn the call. “Ottawa’s made a point of giving their young guys a chance, and they have a lot of faith in their internal options. That’s a good motivator for a lot of young guys; they see the guys that they play with getting that opportunity, and it kind of gives them that extra push.”
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who is still with the NHL club after being recalled in April, is a perfect example — a source of pride for the coaching staff, and an inspiration to his minor-league teammates.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Richardson said. “It is motivation … you have to make sure you’re playing your best because you never know.”