The National Hockey League pre-season, which seemed excruciatingly long because of last year’s mini-camps, mercifully came to a close on Monday as teams submitted the lineup they will take into battle for the 2013-14 regular season.
The Senators announced a 22-man roster that does not include one of their most popular young players, 2011 first-round pick Mika Zibanejad. A 23rd player, forward Jim O’Brien, will also make an NHL salary in American Hockey League Binghamton as he has a one-way contract.
As expected, Cory Conacher won the battle for the second-line wing position, although head coach Paul MacLean has never been afraid to mix up line combinations that aren’t working, so stay tuned.
Zibanejad, who is on his entry-level contract and doesn’t have to clear waivers to go down to the AHL, received a stern message that he had let Stéphane Da Costa and Jean-Gabriel Pageau “come in and take your job,” in the words of general manager Bryan Murray. Zibanejad may have taken his spot for granted after playing 42 of Ottawa’s 48 games last season, producing 20 points, plus four more in 10 playoff games.
However, the 20-year-old will start this season where he started last: in Binghamton.
“We said that to him. ‘You saw how Pageau was playing, you saw how Da Costa was playing, and you didn’t step up and say, I better pay attention and win my spot here.’ We felt he let that happen.”
While it’s true that Da Costa would have had to clear waivers (probably a low risk considering all the bodies available around the league in recent days), the Senators felt it was important to reward the great strides Da Costa had made.
A stylish college player at Merrimack College, Da Costa had a tough adjustment to life as a pro after signing with Ottawa as a free agent in March 2011. While enjoying modest success in the better parts of two seasons with Binghamton (38 points in 57 games last season), he wasn’t physically strong enough to withstand the rigours of the NHL. Now 24, he seems to have figured it out, as he survived a heavy pre-season workload, even filling in for No. 1 centre Jason Spezza as he nursed a groin injury.
“We called in Da Costa at the end of last year and said, ‘Wake up,’ ’’ Murray said. “ ‘If you don’t get stronger, if you don’t work harder this summer, you won’t have any future as an NHL player.’ ”
Da Costa heeded the message.
“This guy has come in in great shape, worked hard and I think he has been a real good performer throughout camp,” Murray said. “Likewise with Pageau.”
The GM and head coach Paul MacLean have been telling their prospects all camp that hard work would be rewarded. As Murray put it in a conference call on Monday afternoon, how do you keep players like Pageau and Da Costa off the team “if we’re going to be good on our word: that is work hard and you will get a chance.”
The 20-year-old Pageau, a fourth-round pick from Gatineau, won the hearts of Senators fans with a hat trick against the Montreal Canadiens in a 2013 playoff game, but continues to win over the organization with his work ethic day in and day out. Murray wonders if the 5-9 forward wouldn’t benefit from taking a break once in a while, but resting isn’t in his makeup. Pageau has been a poster child for pushing the limits of possibility. Look for him to win faceoffs, set up wingers and kill penalties for this team.
“All I see out of him is a guy who has great respect for the opportunity and works hard every shift on the ice, ” Murray said.
The Senators sent 29 players to Binghamton, and there were no surprises outside of the Zibanejad move.
In the 30th move, Curtis Lazar returned to the Western Hockey League’s Edmonton Oil Kings.
Early in camp, there was thought the club might keep Lazar, their 2013 first-round pick, around for a few regular-season games, but, when he injured his shoulder, it became obvious he would rejoin his junior team as soon as camp ended.
That leaves a roster of 22 players: 13 forwards, seven defencemen, two goaltenders.
Murray said he liked his team, especially with the depth on defence and the goaltending of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. He hopes the Senators will score more easily than last year’s 27th most prolific team.
Speaking of scoring, new captain Jason Spezza appeared on the newly rebranded TSN 1200 in Ottawa to declare himself fit and ready to start the season. Spezza said the word was out on last year’s pesky Sens.
“We understand we’re not underdogs anymore,” Spezza said. “We’ve made a name for ourselves around the league as a really hard-working team, a team that can be hard to play against, and we have to make sure that stays our identity.”
After a full day off on Monday, the Senators return to the ice Tuesday at 11 a.m. They have three practice days before Friday’s opener in Buffalo against the Sabres. On Saturday, they visit the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
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Mika Zibanejad (L) looks to pass the puck with Nikolai Kulemin (R) closing in during the third period as the Ottawa Senators take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in pre-season NHL action at Canadian Tire Centre, September 19, 2013, in Kanata, Ontario.
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen