The honey badger is on the verge of capturing the Ottawa Senators’ biggest training camp prize.
Nobody has declared the competition officially over yet, but Cory Conacher has the inside track on winning the coveted spot to play right wing alongside Clarke MacArthur and Kyle Turris on the club’s second line.
Conacher opened the scoring in the Senators’ 3-1 exhibition loss to the Montreal Canadiens Thursday. He also scored in Wednesday’s 5-2 win over Montreal in Ottawa and leads the Senators with three goals in the pre-season.
More than that, though, Conacher has re-established himself as a fierce battler for pucks everywhere on the ice — living up to his nickname — and has responded to the Senators’ biggest off-season demands. Conacher, who was in and out of the lineup during the playoffs due to his sporadic play, has committed himself to improving his defensive play and to better nutritional habits to deal with his diabetes.
“I’m looking to be more reliable on the ice this year,” said the 5-8, 175-pound Conacher, who was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning for goaltender Ben Bishop at the trade deadline last year. “Defence is a big part of this game. And it’s a big part of winning, as well. I’ve got to focus on that first. And if I am playing with Turris and MacArthur, or whoever it is, the offence will come as long as you play good defensively. It’s about being comfortable and well positioned in the defensive zone.”
Conacher suggests he’s simply “getting some good bounces” and credited MacArthur and Turris for making life easy for him in Wednesday’s game, but he also knows he can’t succeed without the chip he carries on his shoulders — shoulders which are almost always lower than those of his opponents. As soon as he starts taking shortcuts, there’s a bigger guy behind him, waiting to grab his position.
“It would be a little easier if I was 6-5 and a big guy,” he said. “But as a small guy, definitely, you always need to have your head on a swivel and be the hardest-working guy on the ice. I’ve tried to do that my whole career. I’ve never been the best player on my team. I’ve just tried to work harder than the guy beside me.”
Throughout training camp, Senators coach Paul MacLean has said earning a roster spot isn’t just about having a good game here or a good game there. Everything, from fitness tests to off-ice workouts to practice performance to game production, is included in the analysis of who is deemed the most ready to start the season in Ottawa. Conacher hasn’t disappointed.
“He has been very consistent,” said MacLean. “He did a real good job in the summer. He had a good talk with (conditioning coach) Chris Schwarz about controlling his diabetes in the proper way, with diet and exercise, and more than just a can of coke and a pump kind of thing. He has embraced that and his fitness level is good.”
GRYBA ON THE MEND
We haven’t heard much about defenceman Eric Gryba during training camp. That’s because he suffered what he calls “a freak accident” during one of the first skating sessions.
He has been officially diagnosed with a “lower body” injury.
“It just happened in a random drill, sort of like slipping on a banana peel kind of thing,” he said. “I didn’t even fall. It was just something that I kind of tweaked wrong.”
Gryba returned to practicing with the club’s non-game day players earlier in the week and he’s hoping to be cleared to play in one of the Senators’ two split-squad games Sunday against the New York Islanders — one in Ottawa and one in Barrie, Ont.
“I’m a lot stronger, a lot better now — I’m feeling like my old self,” he said. “Definitely, before going into any regular season, you would like to get some touches and get back up to speed.”
If Gryba is healthy, he’s expected to be one of seven defencemen on the roster. He would need to clear waivers in order to be assigned to Binghamton of the AHL and, considering his solid play as an injury replacement after Erik Karlsson’s Achilles injury, the Senators don’t want to risk exposing him. If he’s not ready to go, Mark Borowiecki could start the season in the NHL.
Gryba knows there are no guarantees.
“I still have a lot to prove and I still have to establish myself,” he said. “There are always young guys looking for the chance. That’s good for the team to have that competitive atmosphere and there’s always someone pushing to take your spot if you’re not ready.”
Friday was a day off for the players, but they will be back at practice Saturday and most will see game action Sunday. Forget about the idea that everyone who is shipped to Barrie will automatically be assigned to Binghamton. NHL rules require that all teams must dress at least eight veterans for every pre-season game. Monday will be a day of transition. Binghamton is scheduled to open training camp on Tuesday.