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Battle brewing on Sens blue line

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
It’s game on in what figures to be a rather robust battle to land a coveted spot on the Ottawa Senators’ crowded blue line.

Not at the top, mind you. Veterans Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov couldn’t be more solidly entrenched as the No. 1 duo, with newcomers Jason Smith and Filip Kuba already getting to know each other in what’s expected to be the Sens’ second pairing.

The No. 5 and No. 6 spots, though? Now there’s where a battle royale figures to ensue among the likes of Brian Lee, Alexandre Picard, Brendan Bell and 20-year veteran Luke Richardson. And that’s not including Christoph Schubert, who’s being given a chance by head coach Craig Hartsburg to secure the regular defence spot he so obviously desires.

Lee, the Senators’ top pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, was declared by then-head coach Bryan Murray to be “an NHL player from now on” when called up from the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Senators near the end of last season. It’s been widely assumed he’ll start the new campaign in Ottawa and Lee believes the 2007-08 experience, which included four playoff games, will serve him well.

“It just helped the confidence, knowing you can play out there with these guys,” he said. “They’re such great players and you watch them on TV the whole year, then you come up here and you can play with them. It’s a confidence boost.”

Picard, who came to the Senators with Kuba in the trade that sent Andrej Meszaros to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and free-agent signee Bell both spent the majority of last season in the AHL. They’d like to take a major step toward changing that with an impressive display during this camp.

“I just want to focus and play my game,” said Picard, a 23-year-old from across the river in Gatineau. “I’ll take the minutes I can get.”

The Senators’ need to settle on a power-play quarterback has been widely discussed and Bell, a former Ottawa 67’s captain, believes he can be the right man for that job.

“That’s why I signed the contract to come here,” he said. “Looking at their roster and the moves (the Senators) made, I think I can fit in here well if I do my part,” he said. “I think there’s a need for what I’ve got or what I think I’ve got.

“I think that’s the strength of my game and that’s what I’ve really got to impress upon (the coaches), that I can do that kind of stuff and, given the opportunity, I’ll be ready.”

Hartsburg said pre-season play, starting with the New York Rangers’ visit to Scotiabank Place on Saturday night (7 p.m., Rogers TV, Team 1200), will go a long way toward telling the final tale.

“You go into training camp and there’s always those jobs that are available,” he said. “Usually not a lot, but we know the situation on defence. Exhibition games are the key.

“We have three days of practice and then the guys that we think have a chance will play games.”

Phillips believes the duel to round out the blue-line brigade can’t do anything but help the group overall.

“Competition is healthy,” he said. “Everybody’s pushing for a spot and that’s just going to make our team and all those guys better. It’s healthy.”

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