The Ottawa Senators have been one of the NHL's elite teams for most of the past decade. So, last season's slide to seventh place in the Eastern Conference was both unusual and alarming.
Perhaps overlooked was the development of young players Cody Bass, Nick Foligno and Brian Lee. There appear to be quite a few other prospects developing nicely for the Senators, according to Tim Murray, the club’s assistant general manager. He was very pleased with the turnout and effort displayed at the Senators' recent prospect development camp.
"We had 28 or 29 guys at conditioning camp, better than last year," Murray said. "There was a lot more depth, a lot better than last year. It forces these guys, if they have a realistic approach, to think, 'Gee, I have to work hard because there are guys coming and guys going by me.' It's an internal push they get from each other."
Here is a look at the Senators' prospects:
Ilya Zubov -- One of the most skilled players coming out of Russia, Zubov had 15 goals and 38 points in 74 games as a rookie with Ottawa’s American Hockey League team, the Binghamton Senators. He also played one NHL game.
He has a great deal of speed, and his vision, combined with his passing skills, makes him very dangerous. At this point, his lower-body strength is ahead of his upper-body development and he may need more time for growth. This was the third summer he attended the Senators' development camp.
"He's a talented kid," Murray said. "I give him a lot of credit for coming over here and making that decision to play in the AHL. Alexander Nikulin did the same thing. We have a philosophy that we'll give them a contract if they come over and play here. We don't know how far from the NHL they are unless they play here in North America."
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(7th east/13th NHL)
|Change from 2006-07||-11|
(7th east/16th NHL)
(5th east/8th NHL)
Instead, O'Brien signed with the Senators last summer and played for the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, where he had 21 goals and 34 assists and was plus-22 in 70 games. He had only 18 points in his first 33 games, but 37 in his final 37 games.
The Senators love his grittiness and work ethic. He is a strong skater who makes sharp passes, his defensive skills are excellent and he is a very good penalty killer. O'Brien is also a weight-room junkie and coaches love his dedication to his craft.
"Speed and strength are issues with him and he's not the most confident kid in the world," Murray said. "He had a very good season in Seattle. Well, he had a good start, then hit a wall in midseason because there were a lot more games and a lot of travel. He adjusted and had a good playoffs. I talked to his general manager in Seattle, Russ Farwell, and we're thinking it will all come together with another big year."
Alexander Nikulin -- Nikulin was regarded as the fourth-best Russian in his draft year, 2004, behind Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. He is a well-built 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, but is not a physical player. He is, however, an excellent defensive center with great awareness and top-notch passing skills. He has a great understanding of the game and skates well but needed last season in the AHL.
Nikulin was Binghamton's third-leading scorer and the AHL's seventh-leading rookie scorer with 14 goals and 36 assists last season. He was called up for two NHL games in November.
"He's a young Russian kid who we put pressure on to come over later than we did with Ilya Zubov," Murray said. "Zubov's success helped Nikulin's decision. Alexander played two NHL games for us last year and looked decent. He had 14 goals and 50 points in Binghamton, playing on the second and third lines. He had an outstanding rookie year. The main thing Nikulin has to work on is that some nights he's good and some nights he's not. He has to improve his consistency. He needs to understand that he can't just rely on his skill all the time. He'll get it. He's a very talented kid."
Josh Hennessy -- Hennessy was a standout junior player who has been on a three-year offensive slide in the AHL. His strengths are his skating and determination and he is a vigorous forechecker, but his defensive work has been criticized. He was acquired from the San Jose Sharks in a three-team deal that saw Martin Havlat leave Ottawa.
Hennessy had 63 points in his first AHL season, but slipped to 57 the next and 51 last season. Hennessy shot and shot and shot in juniors, and the Senators would like to see him return to that kind of thinking.
"Josh is at the point, coming out of our entry-level contract, where he has to make a real push to be a true depth player," Murray said. "It can't be for one or two games when we have an injury. We have to be able to trust him to play 10-15 games effectively. He is 23 and a fourth-year pro and he can be a top-end AHL player. He has talent and hockey sense, but is not a top skilled player. He has to make himself more of a two-way center."
Peter Regin -- It's time for Regin, 22, to come to North America and see where he fits among the Senators' talent pool. He has been Denmark's best player at every age level in international competition and was the Danish league rookie of the year in 2004. He has played the past three seasons in the Swedish Elite League, and last season had 12 goals and 19 assists for Timra IK.
"I went to the World Championships in Quebec to see him play and I liked what I saw," Murray said. "I knew I was going to like it. He's had a couple of years in the Swedish Elite League. I think that's the best league outside of North America. I don't think they compete as hard in the Russian league. Peter is a great kid, an extremely intelligent player. If anything, he is too responsible defensively. He really understands the center's responsibilities."
Kaspars Daugavins -- Daugavins played the past two seasons with the Toronto/Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors in the Ontario Hockey League after leaving his native Latvia. In 2006-07 he had 18 goals and 42 assists in 61 games, and played 11 AHL games with Binghamton, scoring twice. He returned to St. Michael's last season and had 40 goals and 34 assists and was plus-11. He had an assist in three games with Binghamton.
"He's a really good hockey player," Murray said. "It's good that he came over here because there is nothing hockey-wise that will hold him back. He has to learn conditioning and nutrition, the whole thing that kids have to learn. The kids who play Canadian juniors are ahead on that score. His only issue is conditioning."
Brian Lee -- Lee was the ninth pick of the 2005 draft after earning Minnesota "Mr. Hockey" honors at Moorhead High School.=
Lee played two seasons at North Dakota, leading the Fighting Sioux to the Frozen Four both years. As a freshman, he led North Dakota defensemen in scoring.
Lee had three goals and 25 assists last season as a pro rookie with Binghamton and one assist in six NHL games. Rail-thin when he was drafted, Lee is now 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds. He still needs to get more physical and become used to the pressure on NHL defensemen, but he’s a smooth puck mover with great vision and scoring ability.
"He had an excellent season," Murray said. "He stepped right into the AHL with both feet on the ground. He was very poised and showed veteran qualities that you don't expect in a young guy out of college. He contributed right off the bat. He moved the puck very well and he sees the ice well. Right from the start, he was playing an intelligent game."
Tomas Kudelka -- Kudelka, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound offensive defenseman, has added over 20 pounds since being drafted in 2005. He played two seasons with WHL Lethbridge after being drafted and his second season there he had 14 goals and 27 assists while going plus-20 in 59 games. He also had call-ups to Binghamton both seasons.
Kudelka struggled last season in the AHL, but thrived when sent down to Elmira in the ECHL, where he had five goals in 23 games, including three power-play goals and three game-winners. He still makes defensive mistakes, though, and likely needs more AHL seasoning.
"He was a first-year pro last season and he struggled early," Murray said. "We had seven or eight defensemen in Binghamton and he was at the bottom of the depth chart. That was mostly because he didn't understand the pro game and the price you have to pay. We want him in the top six defensemen in Binghamton, if not higher, and play on the first or second power-play unit. Tomas is a big guy who can skate and has skill. He's another guy that needs to develop more consistency and be willing to pay the price. We also want him better at going back, getting the puck and bringing it out. If he can do that, he has a chance to be a good NHL player."
Brian Elliott -- With Martin Gerber and Alex Auld the goaltending tandem in Ottawa, Elliott and Jeff Glass will split time in the AHL.
Elliott, named the 2006 Frozen Four All-Tournament goaltender after leading Wisconsin to the NCAA title, went 18-19-1 in Binghamton last season with a 2.81 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. He's a 6-foot-2, 206-pound butterfly goaltender who is technically solid and challenges shooters. He has exceptional kick-save ability and plays very well under pressure. He has great work ethic and continues to work on his rebound control.
"What can you say, other than to give the scouts here credit," Murray said. "He was the second-to-last pick (No. 291) in 2003 and he's a real talent.
"Brian is doing all that he needs to do. He is a hard-working, conscientious kid. He missed the AHL playoffs last year because someone fell on him and he sprained a ligament (but) his knee is perfect now. We brought him here for our short playoff run and he was around our training staff and doctors. We kept him here 10 more days to make sure he was ready to do his work. He's working out every day at the University of Wisconsin. Brian has a bright future here."