One sure way to know life has changed dramatically for Stéphane Da Costa?
The native of Paris was answering questions Tuesday in his native French, as well as in English, after he completed practice at Canadian Tire Centre as part of the 22-player Ottawa Senators opening night roster.
For most of the past two seasons, Da Costa has been in Binghamton, N.Y., where, well, there wasn’t that much call for him to his French to use.
“I’m definitely excited, but I’m not relieved yet,” said Da Costa, the 24-year-old centre who practised on a line between wingers Zack Smith and Chris Neil on Tuesday. “I’m on a two-way contract (much higher National Hockey League salary only if he remains in the NHL) and I could go down tomorrow or in two months or in two weeks, so I’ve got to try my best to stay here all year.”
Da Costa received his NHL spot the old-fashioned way: he earned it. While Mika Zibanejad lost his spot for essentially going through the motions — more on that later — Da Costa responded to the Senators’ challenge to report to training camp in better shape and with a renewed commitment to do everything it took to make the roster. From his summer workouts to his efforts in practices and in games, he turned heads of coaches and management.
While Da Costa began the 2011-12 season with the Senators, it quickly became clear he wasn’t prepared for the huge jump from Merrimack College to the NHL.
“I feel like I have more experience,” Da Costa said. “Two years ago, I came out of a 30-game season in college, and now I feel I’m a bit more experienced with the (NHL) schedule and a little more built physically.”
Senators coach Paul MacLean says there’s a night and day difference between the Da Costa of then and now. “He couldn’t even play in the league two years ago,” the coach said. “He wasn’t strong enough. He wasn’t fit enough. His game wasn’t competitive enough to play in the league.”
Now, however, MacLean says the Senators can fairly judge how high in the lineup he can play.
“He’s a player who plays with a lot of speed and tenacity,” MacLean said. “He may not be with (Milan) Michalek and (Bobby) Ryan all the time, but he should be able to create more opportunities for those guys (Smith and Neil) to have a chance to score. That’s something we’re looking for: secondary scoring up and down the lineup.”
There’s no guarantee that Da Costa will be in the lineup when the Senators open the season Friday against the Buffalo Sabres. If MacLean opts to dress heavyweight Matt Kassian to account for the likely presence of Buffalo tough guy John Scott, another forward must sit out.
The other forward lines at practice Tuesday featured Michalek-Jason Spezza-Ryan, Clarke MacArthur-Kyle Turris-Cory Conacher and Colin Greening-Jean-Gabriel Pageau-Erik Condra.
Da Costa’s presence among the group is the biggest surprise of camp. Three weeks ago, it was generally assumed Zibanejad would line up as the Senators’ third-line centre behind Spezza and Turris.
The way MacLean saw it, Zibanejad played as if he assumed he had a spot locked up, too, delivering a mediocre training camp. The Senators had reminded him of the need to pick up his game during camp.
“Last year, he was on a third line, in an important role and those two players (Da Costa and Pageau) came in and outplayed him,” the coach said. “You don’t just get the job because you’re supposed to have it. … Mika is not Jason Spezza, he’s still Mika Zibanejad, still finding his game, and players can’t just go by you and you have no response to it and have an expectation that you’re going to be on the team because you’ve played 42 (regular-season) games.
“If you’ve played 420 games, you can have a reasonable expectation that you’re on the team after a so-so, just an OK, training camp and be on the team. He was in a position to do that and the two players went by him.
“And the best guys play.”