Ottawa Senators prospects know there will be roster spots in play when the puck drops on the team’s preseason schedule this weekend.
How many spots, and how quickly they become available, will be up to the young hopefuls.
With 11 forwards, six defencemen (including the currently unsigned Jared Cowen) and two goalies seemingly locked into the opening night depth chart, on the surface there wouldn’t appear to be much room for movement.
But if a handful of players manage to blow away expectations over the eight-game preseason schedule, which kicks off Sunday night in Winnipeg against the Jets, that could set the dominoes tumbling.
“We got a good look at some guys at the rookie tournament, and that’s just a start, but there were some dominant performances there, and we expect that they’ll come to camp with that confidence of playing well down there and showing us they’re ready,” Senators assistant general manager Tim Murray said in an interview Friday at the Bell Sensplex.
“Whether we can put them on the team or not, that’s a different question, but if they show us they’re ready to be on the team and they have to start in (AHL affiliate) Binghamton, that means that we feel comfortable maybe moving a guy out of here, for whatever reason, to maybe get a kid on the team.
“Our depth shows that we have guys knocking on the door.”
Players participating in Sunday night’s game will skate here first thing in the morning that day, then board a plane to the Manitoba capital. After the contest there, they’ll head straight back to the airport for a flight to Saskatoon ahead of Monday’s matchup against the Calgary Flames.
It’ll be the first step toward identifying early favourites to land NHL gigs either now or in the near future, and Murray expects the battle will be furious.
“There are openings, but there are very few openings, so we’re going to look at the top guys,” he explained. “That’s the kind of competition you want to see. So if there’s only one forward job open, is it (Mike) Hoffman? Is it (Mark) Stone? Is it (Jean-Gabriel) Pageau?
“There’s two or three other guys, and they know that,” he added. “They’re all friends and they’re all going to sit beside each other in the dressing room, but they know that the best guy in the eight games is going to be the guy that stays.”
The assumption among fans is the forward job is Pageau’s to lose — and rightly so after an impressive rookie camp and a playoff hat trick last spring — but Stone has an excellent opportunity play his way into the picture as well.
He has a couple advantages over Pageau: Size (he’s 6-2, 211 pounds versus 5-9, 172) and the fact he’s a natural right winger trying out for a team that needs one on the second line.
Coach Paul MacLean said the best overall player will get the job regardless of position or skill set, however.
“With Kyle (Turris) and Clarke (MacArthur), we have the elements of speed and skill and there’s decent size on the line already,” he said. “What we’re looking for is the guy that earns the job.
“Whether or not it’s Mark Stone, he may be a little bit bigger but not as fast, Mike Hoffman, he’s not as big, but he’s fast and a touch more skill, (Cory) Conacher’s maybe not as fast as Hoffman, but his puck skills are good … Shane Prince has actually played pretty well,” MacLean said. “I think we’re not looking for one specific type of player.”
Conacher has been lining up with Turris and MacArthur so far, but expect the team to give a few players a look in that spot.
As for Pageau, who plays centre but is looking up the depth chart at Jason Spezza, Turris, Mika Zibanejad and Zack Smith, MacLean echoed Murray. If a player earns his way onto the team, the coaching staff will find somewhere to put him.
“If he’s ready to play in the league on a regular basis, every night, every night, someone will have to move over (to the wing), but that’s what hockey’s about.”
And all that that doesn’t even take inevitable injuries into consideration. Murray said players are trying out now to be the first call-up as well.
Stone, a Winnipeg native who was hoping he’d get the chance to suit up at the MTS Centre and play in front of friends and family, was looking forward to proving himself in a game situation.
“You just need to play well, play consistent and I think they’ll find a way to keep me on the team if I do that,” he said.
Cowen’s absence, on the off chance it extends into the regular season, makes the competition on defence equally intriguing.
Said Murray: “Not every one of them is a depth player, but we have four or five guys down there that we know are depth players. (Mark) Borowiecki, is he going to make the team because Jared’s not here?
“There are lots of questions like that to be answered, and that’s why I think it’s an important camp for him. It’s an important camp for (2012 first-round draft pick) Cody Ceci.”
Borowiecki acknowledged the Cowen impasse has cracked the door open a little wider for him and others.
“Opportunities always present themselves in strange ways,” he said. “Pro hockey’s very much a game of opportunity and if that happened to be the situation, great, but that’s kind of out of my control right now.
“It’s not something that I can change in any way, so if that spot is there, it’s there, and I’ll work my hardest to get it.”
CAPTAIN CALL COMING
MacLean again said the team will make a call on the next captain when the time is right, but didn’t reveal when that time might be. General manager Bryan Murray hinted an announcement could come as early as Saturday morning, however.