MacLean wants team to improve every day

Paul MacLean has the luxury of time on his side.

BY KEN WARREN

Paul MacLean has the luxury of time on his side.

On the eve of Friday’s official opening of training camp, the Ottawa Senators new coach was bold enough to suggest the team will eventually return to its glory days as a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Yet he was also shrewd enough to steer clear of short-term absolutes — “I’m not setting any timetables,” he said — while providing a general outline of his approach towards team building.

While the ultimate goal is winning the NHL championship, the Senators under MacLean might be akin to a 200-metre sprinter training for Olympic gold in a few years time. At the beginning, each step along the course will be analyzed again and again until perfected and the coach is fully expecting some hurdles along the way.

His advantage is that no one is expecting that gold medal performance immediately.

“We want to go fast and we want to play 200 feet,” he said. “We have to do it slowly, so we might not go real fast at the start. But we’re trying to build a foundation for something, not only starting September 16, or for October or November of this year, but a foundation for down the road where we’re competing for the Stanley Cup on a consistent basis.

“And that starts with a, b and c.”

MacLean wants to win as quickly as possible, of course, but in terms of the big picture, “my expectations are to get better every day, just by a little bit.”

MacLean singled out many of those players who could be part of the team’s long-term success. He praised the skill and effort shown by Mika Zibanejad, Stephane Da Costa, Derek Grant, Corey Cowick, Shane Prince, Stefan Noesen, David Rundblad and Robin Lehner at the rookie tournament in Oshawa, where the Senators prospects went a perfect 3-0.

Zibanejad and Da Costa figure to be in battle with Peter Regin for the number two centre spot during training camp, while Rundblad will be bidding to become one of the club’s top six defencemen when the season opens. His chief competition could come from Jared Cowen.

The way top centre Jason Spezza sees it, the hard push from youngsters trying to make a lasting impression makes everyone better. He also suggests that many of the so-called new faces — graduates from Binghamton of the American Hockey League including Bobby Butler, Zack Smith, Colin Greening and Erik Condra — have a head start because of their experiences with the Senators late last season.

“A lot of them are guys we’ve seen before,” said Spezza, who enjoyed a family-focussed summer in Mississauga with his wife and baby daughter. “They have the benefit of having had a (Calder Cup) run together and the chemistry that goes with that. Some of that chemistry will rub off on us. It’s seamless. It seems like we’ve had a lot of turnover, but it also doesn’t seem that way, because we know everybody from the last 20 games.”

While the buzz is clearly about the incoming youth movement, captain Daniel Alfredsson is at the other end of the spectrum. He turns 39 in two months, but is hoping to show he still has a spring in his step after spending most of the 2010-11 season in pain due to back problems. He played only 54 games, scoring 14 goals and 17 assists, and opted for back surgery in June.

“I don’t think anybody is going to camp 100 percent, but I feel good and excited to start,” he said. “Training has been going good so far.I’m happy where I’m at.”

Alfredsson likely won’t be around when the Senators youth movement hits its potential, but he was cautiously optimistic that the club could challenge for a playoff spot this season, in large part due to the goaltending of Craig Anderson and Lehner. Anderson is the unquestioned number one goaltender. Barring an injury, Lehner will start the season in Binghamton, but after winning playoff MVP honours en route to the Calder Cup title, he wants his stay in the AHL to be as short as possible.

“The expectations are not as high as we’ve had previously, but I think we’ve got a real good group of guys that can play to a real high level,” Alfredsson said. “And who knows how far that’s going to take us?”

Alfredsson suggested that establishing consistency could be an issue because there will be steep learning curve for some new players and that the club’s “identity” under MacLean has to be established.

“I think we’ll be exciting to watch and come February or March, I hope we’re in position to make a push for the playoffs,” he said. “But most importantly, we hope to see progress.”

In that regard, the captain is echoing the comments of the coach.MacLean doesn’t care that outside observers have predicted his Senators to be a bottom rung squad. Some have suggested the team will finish dead last in the Eastern Conference.“I don’t know who (open itals) they (close itals) are, but that doesn’t really matter, either,” he said. “All I want to do is to get better every day. Do things right. Do it right every day.”The 59 players in camp will go through physical and medicals today and hit the ice for the first time on Saturday. They will all practice again Sunday. The club opens its pre-season schedule Monday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs. The first home exhibition game is Wednesday, versus the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.

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