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Pageau thriving despite uncertain future with Senators

Center has 18 goals, can become unrestricted free agent July 1

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Jean-Gabriel Pageau admits that he hears the white noise through the cheers, that his time with the Ottawa Senators may be coming to an end.

Confident and healthy, the center is on track to have the best season of his NHL career. He has 29 points (18 goals, 11 assists) through 40 games heading into the Senators' game against the Florida Panthers at Canadian Tire Centre on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET, RDS2, TSN5, FS-F, NHL.TV). He's one goal shy of the NHL career-best 19 he scored in 2015-16 for Ottawa, 14 points off his high of 43 that season with 42 games remaining.

Pageau is second in scoring for the Senators, two points behind forward Anthony Duclair. They might skate together in the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis on Jan. 25; Duclair has been named to the Atlantic Division roster, and Pageau is among 31 players in the 2020 NHL All-Star Last Men In presented by adidas contest, a fan vote through Jan. 10 to select four final all-stars.

But finishing the season with the Senators, for whom he has played all 408 of his NHL games, seems hardly a sure thing. Pageau can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1 and with Ottawa (16-19-5) third from last in the Eastern Conference and in a rebuild, it's possible he'll be traded before the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24.

"It doesn't bother me at all," Pageau said about the growing trade talk. "Whatever team you're on, you want to help your team win. I consider myself a competitor. I don't like to lose. I still like to show up at the rink, learn new stuff and work on not only weaknesses but my strengths. It's something I'm having fun with."

The 27-year-old was born and bred and played his minor and junior hockey in the Ottawa area before the Senators chose him in the fourth round (No. 96) of the 2011 NHL Draft. He jokes about having played his 400th NHL game on Dec. 11, the same night teammate Ron Hainsey played his 1,100th.

"That's crazy," Pageau said. "I can't believe that he's still able to play… still able to walk. I'm struggling and I'm at just [408]."

The thought of being moved before the trade deadline is something that Pageau says he doesn't dwell on, yet it's something he can't push out of his mind, either.

"When there are contract talks in the media, you always hear about it. It's something that you can't really control," he said. "My main focus was just to get back to my game. After the injury last year, I was just trying to come back and prove to myself that I still deserve to play in this League and could still have an impact and help my team in any role that they give me."

Pageau already has proven a lot to himself and others. He played the final 39 games last season after tearing his Achilles during training-camp fitness testing, an injury that could have been season-ending. 

"I wasn't exactly happy with my second half of the year last year, I was just happy to be back on the ice," said Pageau, who had 12 points (four goals, eight assists). "The full summer of recovery really helped my confidence. 

"To be able to jump again mid-summer, to be able to work on some explosive agility work, really put a lot of strength back in my legs. When I came to camp this season, I felt really confident in my abilities, that I was coming back to 100 percent. Now that I'm healthy, my game is back to where it should be."

Pageau pays most attention not to his scoring totals, but rather his plus-minus, currently a solid plus-19, and face-off percentage, now at 52.7 percent. His plus-minus is especially strong given that he often is deployed by coach D.J. Smith in a role to neutralize the opponent's best line.

"I'm a very competitive guy, I don't like to be on the ice when the other team scores," said Pageau, who includes among his role models Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron and Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famers Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau, winners of a combined 11 Selke trophies voted as the top defensive forward in the NHL.

"I loved the way they played, and that's the mentality I have when I approach every game," he said. "I always try to win my shift and be better than the guy who's in front of me. I look at my face-off stats also, and that's about it. 

"My linemates (usually Brady Tkachuk and Connor Brown) are thinking the same way: if we don't give their top line anything, we have a good chance of winning. If we're able to shut down their top line and everyone is doing their job, we're putting ourselves in a good situation every night to win a game."

Pageau, who has 171 points (81 goals, 90 assists) for Ottawa, vividly remembers his first NHL game, called up by the Senators from the American Hockey League for an April 11, 2013 game against the Flyers in Philadelphia. 

And he recalls facing the Flyers' Danny Briere, "who was one of my mentors, similar size and type of player but a guy who was more skilled than me, obviously."

Pageau earned an assist that night, on Daniel Alfredsson's empty-net goal in a 3-1 win, then scored his first NHL goal the next night in New Jersey against the Devils, the game-winner in a 2-0 victory against future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur. Pageau stuck with the Senators through their run to the Stanley Cup Playoffs that spring and their two-round stay in the postseason.

"You're dreaming when you're young about just having a chance to play in the NHL," he said. "You hope to get drafted, and I did. You hope to play your first game, and I did. After that, the hardest part is just to stay in the NHL. … To be consistent has been the hardest challenge for me in my career. Now to be in the lineup healthy and to play more than 400 games for the organization that gave me the chance, that drafted me…

"Hockey is my passion and I'm enjoying the game. I take pride every time I wear a Senators jersey. If that changes, I'll adjust. But right now I'm a Senator, proud to be one, and I want to grow with this team and help this team win."

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