OTTAWA – The potential of a prospect like big wing Nicholas Paul is one of the reasons Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray chose not to re-sign unrestricted free agent Erik Condra.
Condra signed a three-year contract worth $1.25 million per season with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. Murray said he liked Condra and what he contributed on the Senators third line last season, but balked at the length of the contract, fearing it would get in the way of the development of a prospect like Paul.
"This is my point with some of these players: if you sign beyond a year or two it shuts the door on these kids for a long period," Murray said. "(Paul) might be ready to play – and I shouldn't say this – within the first couple of months of the year. He looks like the kind of player you send him to the minors and let him play some pro games down there and by the second half you're saying why isn't he on our team? There's a few guys like that I see over there (at the Senators' development camp)."
Paul, 20, is coming off a season in which he won gold with Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship. He got himself on Canada's radar with 12 goals in 22 playoff games with the North Bay Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League in 2014. He earned an invitation to Canada's summer camp, made a good impression and made Canada's national team in December.
Paul had 37 goals and 29 assists in 58 regular-season games last season with the Battalion while learning a solid two-way game under coach Stan Butler. He had seven goals in 15 playoff games last spring.
"Stan is a really good coach. He's helped me a lot," Paul said. "He showed me a lot of discipline. He's been hard on me, which I love. I love people who are hard on me. He showed me the ropes. He told me in the NHL you have to be a two-way player, you can't be one-way. He taught me defense first and then offense, and I think that's going to go a long way."
Paul has stood out at the week-long development camp, which concludes Monday, because of his size and speed. He's listed at 6-foot-3, but said he is now 6-4 and 225 pounds.
"I put on about an inch and filled out a bit. I'm getting my man strength," Paul said. "I think my body has finally stopped growing and filling out a little bit, getting a little thicker."
That size – only wing Buddy Robinson at 6-foot-5 is bigger among the forwards at Senators development camp – makes Paul noticeable. He scored the only goal of an hour-long scrimmage Thursday with a nice forehand-to-backhand deke.
"He's a man. He's huge. There's a noticeable difference [from last season]," Senators assistant general manager Randy Lee said. "Size. Maturity level. We knew that he was sort of a leaner guy, but big. He is filling out. It's good functional strength. He tested really well. He really did. Bryan saw him for the first time on the ice [Wednesday] and he was one of the guys who stood out to Bryan. You can see a big difference in Nick Paul."
Paul was acquired on July 1, 2014 from the Dallas Stars, who selected him in the fourth round (No. 101) of the 2013 NHL Draft, with forwards Alex Chiasson and Alex Guptill and a 2015 second-round draft pick for former Senators captain Jason Spezza. (The Senators traded the pick they received from Dallas to the New Jersey Devils as part of a package to acquire the Devils' second round pick. They used the 36th selection to take wing Gabriel Gagne.)
Lee said getting Paul, Guptill and Chiasson (and Gagne with the draft pick) has helped broaden the Senators' depth. Lee also likes the type of players they got in the trade, pointing to Paul's two-way game and the grinding styles of Guptill and Chiasson.
"[Paul] played a good system under Stan Butler," Lee said. "He played hard. He's a guy that's responsible at both ends of the ice. When he hit guys, he was physical and could really separate guys [from the puck] with big time hits.
"In terms of guys who we wanted out of that trade, guys who play in the paint, guys who play a sort of grittier game, you get Nick, you get Guptill and you get Chiasson. It addressed a lot of issues for us."
Paul said winning WJC gold (one of his Canadian teammates was Senators forward Curtis Lazar), and learning to deal with the attention that came with playing in Montreal and Toronto during the tournament, will help prepare him for what's ahead.
"For sure," he said. "The world juniors is a huge stage. Learning how to take all the pressure and all the noise and all the hype, that was a definite learning curve for me. I learned a lot of things from the guys and the coaches. Just playing in that type of atmosphere. It was a great experience, happy I had it and one of the best experiences I had in my life right now."
Paul will likely start the season with the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League. He said he was flattered by Murray's comments about his potential to play NHL games this season.
"Hearing that from him is huge. I don't want it to go to my head," Paul said. "I'll just put it behind me and keep doing what I'm doing. I worked hard this season to get where I am now and I just want to keep pushing. Obviously, it's great to hear that from him, but I've just got to keep pushing and getting better.
"There's always a lot of moving parts. Ottawa is a young team and Binghamton has definitely had a lot of graduates. I think there are some open spots and right now I'm just trying to get in the best shape I can; be mature about it and just be ready for everything. I'm just going to put everything out there and we'll see where it winds up."