Pageau biggest surprise as Binghamton opens regular season Saturday

The way Luke Richardson sees it, there was nothing surprising about the impressive performances of top Ottawa Senators forward prospects Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad during the American Hockey League pre-season.

Richardson, the Binghamton Senators head coach, expected as much.

What he didn’t foresee, however, was the standout display by rookie Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who has emerged as the centre between Silfverberg and Zibanejad as Binghamton prepares to open the regular season Saturday against the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins.

Pageau, according to Richardson, excelled with his offensive touch, his defensive awareness and his work on special teams as Binghamton outscored its opponents 16-9 during a perfect 3-0 pre-season.

“He’s a smaller guy (5-9, 165 pounds), but in the last couple of years, he has taken special attention to getting stronger,” says Richardson. “He’s confident, he looks great. He’s also the first guy back (defensively) in his own zone.”

Two weeks ago, when Binghamton opened its training camp, Pageau was in a battle simply to stay in the AHL. Considering the trickle down effect of the NHL lockout and all the young offensive talent surrounding him – including Silfverberg, Zibanejad, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Stephane DaCosta, Shane Prince and Andre Petersson – it was thought that Pageau might be assigned to Elmira of the ECHL.

Yet when opportunity knocked due to injuries to DaCosta, Prince and Wacey Hamilton, he wasn’t about to let additional ice time go to waste. Pageau, the Gatineau native selected in the fourth round (96th overall) by the Senators in the 2010 NHL entry draft, has created a pleasant problem for Richardson.

“When everyone gets healthy, it’s really going to be tough to make (roster) decisions,” he said.

In the bigger picture, there wasn’t much for the Binghamton coach to criticize during the exhibition games and training camp practices, but he’s naturally anxious to get the regular season underway, when the pace and intensity will increase.

Ottawa Senators fans will want to keep close tabs on Zibanejad, the club’s sixth overall draft selection in 2010 and Silfverberg, who played in the Senators final two playoff games after capturing most valuable player honours in the Swedish Elite League regular season and playoffs last year. Silfverberg only played one game, but in the estimation of Richardson, “he controlled the game and is eye-popping to watch.”

While there’s plenty of offensive potential, Binghamton also boasts a balanced defence.

Jared Cowen, who was solid as an Ottawa Senators rookie last season, will be paired with Binghamton veteran Andre Benoit. AHL veteran Tyler Eckford and Swedish rookie Fredrik Claessen will make up another pair, with Mark Borowiecki – possibly a seventh defenceman in Ottawa if the NHL season ever begins – and Eric Gryba providing a tough stay-at-home tandem. That’s a role Richardson is all too familiar with, considering he parlayed that style into a 21-year NHL career.

“We have a lot of size defensively and we want to punish opposing forwards with it,” Richardson told the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin earlier in the week. “We’re going to make it miserable for teams to come (to Binghamton). And if they want to come here and try to set the tone, there’s going to be someone standing right there to make sure they don’t.”
The defensive decisions will also become more difficult once Patrick Wiercioch returns from his foot injury.

The goaltending situation features an internal battle between Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop, who signed an AHL contract on Thursday. Lehner will draw the start for the season opener and Richardson wants to see Bishop in practice before assigning him any games. Nathan Lawson, who is returning from a groin injury, figures to be the odd-man out.

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