Scanlan: Cowen gets up to speed
Missing first days of camp just might be an advantage
In the early days of training camp — feels like months ago, now — Jared Cowen was conspicuous by his absence.
Without a contract, the big defenceman missed the first, gruelling days of Ottawa Senators camp (veteran move, in hindsight), and only joined the team when it happened to be visiting Cowen’s hometown of Saskatoon for a pre-season game on Sept. 16. Cowen had agreed to a new four-year deal two days earlier.
Ten days on, Cowen, no longer the young restricted free agent falling behind by missing time, may be ahead of the game. While others are fading, tiring, getting injured in this relentless pre-season, Cowen is fresh and eager to play hockey.
Memo to NHL: Teams don’t really need to play eight exhibition games to prepare for the season. Three would be about right. Three is probably how many Cowen will get before the Senators open their season in Buffalo on Oct. 4.
“The more minutes I get, the better I feel,” Cowen said, before a group of Senators — mostly non-NHL players — boarded the train for Thursday’s game in Montreal. This was Ottawa’s fifth pre-season game, but just the second for Cowen, who played in Toronto against the Maple Leafs Tuesday.
“The biggest thing is just trying to get back into situations and being comfortable,” Cowen said. “I’ve only played one game since last year.
“I just want to get good with the puck and make better plays.”
For Cowen, adjusting to camp life and pre-season games is child’s play compared to last spring, when he had to leap on a speeding vehicle. That’s how it felt to play just seven regular season games before joining the hurly-burly of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With just one full NHL season behind him (82 games, in 2011-12), the 6-5, 230-pound Cowen struggled to find his comfort level while returning to action from hip surgery. Today, he is in a better place, physically and mentally.
“I feel good. The hip is good,” Cowen said. “It’s not holding me back. It’s more healthy and strong and I have lots of confidence in it. It’s not really bothering me, it’s just something I’ve got to stay on maintenance-wise.”
While his conditioning was not an issue in the spring, he missed the “reps” that provide a sense of familiarity to all that is thrown at an NHL defenceman.
This is a big year for the big man. He’s pencilled in as a top four defenceman, and will likely start the season alongside Patrick Wiercioch. Cowen is 22, Wiercioch 23. Both are 6-5, western Canadian boys. They could be twin towers on Ottawa’s blueline for a long, long time.
Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot are the top pairing in a corps that also includes Chris Phillips, Eric Gryba and Joe Corvo.
“The depth we have in the back end is as good as it’s been in a long time,” Cowen says. “If we work out (Cowen-Wiercioch), that’s awesome. It’s a pretty good tandem. And we can support the other guys as well.”
While Karlsson continues to be pestered about the state of his Achilles, he was in great form against a youngish Canadiens team on Wednesday, wheeling at will. Even then, he wouldn’t say afterward that he feels as good as ever, the “old” Karlsson who won the Norris Trophy two years ago before having his foot slashed by Matt Cooke’s skate blade on Feb. 13.
Better than most, Cowen has a sense of what Karlsson is going through, while slowly getting back to normal.
“I think he looks fine,” Cowen says. “I know what it’s like to have that kind of discomfort, it’s not really hindering you that much, but it’s always in the back of your head. You just don’t feel the same way, you don’t really notice it until you feel 100 per cent again.
“It’s just an annoying thing, you can’t really put your finger on it, you just kind of get used to it. And one day you just feel good again.”
SPEZZA SKATES, SITS
Captain Jason Spezza skated on Thursday, but did not accompany the team to Montreal, still nursing a training camp injury that kept him from playing against the Canadiens Wednesday.
“I’m just dealing with a little bit of a strain, I want to make sure we take care of it so it isn’t something that lingers,” Spezza said.
Spezza insists he should be good to go for the season opener in Buffalo.
“That’s why (we’re) taking precautions now,” he said.
While Spezza and his new linemate, Bobby Ryan, have only played two pre-season games together, Spezza doesn’t think they will have a problem connecting when the real games start.
“Ideally we would have played more, but we’ve had a lot of intra-squad games as well.” Spezza said. “Truth be told, you’re not going to feel each other out until you get to the regular season games anyway, when you’re under live fire in real situations.”
Spezza will consider suiting up in Ottawa’s final pre-season game Sunday against the New York Islanders.
“If there’s any chance of straining it a little more, I’m not going to play just to play and jeopardize not being ready for the first game of the year,” he said. “But I’d like to play, so if I’m feeling good enough I’m going to play.”
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