Perhaps laughter is the best medicine for the Ottawa Senators.
Despite the MASH unit all around them and the likelihood that three American Hockey League call-ups – forwards Derek Grant and David Dziurzynski, as well as defenceman Eric Gryba — will be making their NHL debuts Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Senators were in great spirits Friday. There was energy in practice. And there was humour in the air.
When coach Paul MacLean was asked about how defenceman Marc Methot would deal with losing defence partner Erik Karlsson for the season due to Achilles tendon surgery, MacLean answered with a joke.
“We tried to make it easier for him by playing him with another Eric (Friday) and we figured the adjustment should be simple,” MacLean said.
Sure. Eric Gryba is exactly like Erik Karlsson. If, that is, you forget the fact Karlsson is the reigning Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenceman, was an early candidate for the Hart Trophy as NHL player of the year and the fact that Gryba is a defensive defenceman who has played a grand total of zero big-league games.
“Karlsson is an irreplaceable player,” Gryba said, in all seriousness. “I’m not coming in here to try and do anything else, other than what my strengths are: hard work, physical presence, keeping it simple. You won’t be seeing too many toe-drags from me out there, but hopefully (I will be) keeping the puck out of the net.”
The Senators’ injury list is beyond ridiculous. Once you include Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, Guillaume Latendresse, Peter Regin, Jared Cowen and top minor leaguers Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone, eight is more than enough.
When the Senators face off against the Maple Leafs in the Battle of Ontario, it may well be a case of not being able to tell the players without a program. Gryba, 6-3 and 214 pounds, will be wearing number 62. Dziurzynski, a 6-3, 218-pound winger/fighter who has made it all the way from playing Tier II junior in British Columbia, will be sporting a 59 on his back. Grant, a well-rounded, defensively responsible 6-3, 201-pound centre, will skate with a number 57 jersey.
At least there’s some sense of familiarity among the players.
“It feels a little bit like the Binghamton locker room when we won the Calder Cup (in 2011), it seems like all those guys are here now,” said Erik Condra, who, for the time being, has been bumped up to a first line left wing spot beside Kyle Turris and Jakob Silfverberg. “I’ve never seen anything like this, where all the top guys on the team go down. It’s a tough situation.”
The Senators, are, however, treating it as the ultimate challenge. While they’re generally considered longshots to hold on to their playoff spot, they’re now embracing the notion of being underdogs. Their lineup against the Maple Leafs looks like the roster for a pre-season game, well before final cuts.
Goaltender Craig Anderson acknowledges the Senators can’t try and play like the high-scoring, wide open Edmonton Oilers of the 1980′s, but they can compete if they play solid defensively.
“There are two ways you can look at it,” said Anderson, who owns a 7-3-2 record, a 1.59 goals against average and a league leading .949 save percentage. “You can be a pessimist and piss and moan and cry all you want or you can man up and look at the glass as half full and see the opportunity.”
The way Anderson sees it, it will require a commitment to teamwork.
“When someone tells you that you can’t do something, that’s usually when an athlete steps up and proves everyone wrong, pretty much says, ‘I’ll show you’. There’s an opportunity for the guys in the room to do that, for guys who nobody gave any credit to. (Karlsson) wasn’t the only reason why we were winning. Spezza wasn’t the only reason we were winning. They were a big part of it, but there are guys that supported them.”
The coaches, along with the leadership group including captain Daniel Alfredsson and assistant captains Chris Phillips and Chris Neil, discussed the situation in what Alfredsson calls “a great meeting” Friday morning.
“We’re going to figure it out,” said Alfredsson. “It’s easy to start yelling, but guys are going to have to get used to different roles and there might be an adjustment period, but we’re not going to change too much.”
Alfredsson says some players may have had a limited chance to make their mark in the past due to circumstances.
“Sometimes, guys get stuck in third and fourth line spots because the guys in front of them are too good and maybe they never get that chance,” he said. “But some guys are going to get ice time that didn’t have it (before). Their confidence is going to grow and maybe you get something rolling.”
As a case in point, Alfredsson was practicing Friday on a line with Mika Zibanejad and Stephane Da Costa, players who were in the AHL three weeks ago.
At the same time, players can’t try to become something they’re not. Eric Gryba is not, and never will be, Erik Karlsson.
“If you try to do too much on the ice, you get into trouble and that’s usually the trend,” said Methot. “There’s nothing wrong with stepping up and scoring timely goals, but whatever type of player you are, just stick to it. If you’re a third line grinder or checker, you can’t try to dangle guys at the blueline and turn pucks over. Just get timely goals and have (Anderson) stand on his head.”