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Condra sees a brighter hockey future in Ottawa

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Hockey sense is the platform for success for versatile forward Erik Condra, who's been compared favourably with former Senators centre Chris Kelly in terms of playing style (Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

The comparison, it might be suggested, makes plenty of sense.

Even if Erik Condra isn't exactly ready to buy into the theory behind it all just yet.

But the parallels between the 25-year-old forward and one of his predecessors in an Ottawa Senators jersey are just too many to ignore. That they happen to wear the same number ... let's just say it adds even further to the intrigue.

This much, however, might just be true. When the Senators dealt away versatile centre Chris Kelly to the Boston Bruins back in February, it opened up a window of opportunity for the young man who gives every indication that he just might be Kelly's mirror image.

"(Condra) sees the game just like Chris Kelly," said Randy Lee, the Senators' director of hockey operations and player development. "And Chris Kelly was another guy who played in Binghamton, who everybody thought was a good minor league guy but wasn't sure he could make the next step because he wasn't the prettiest skater.

"But he just sees the game so well, and Chris Kelly was a pretty effective player for the Boston Bruins and I'm sure they appreciated him. Erik Condra is the same type of player."

When that line of thinking is presented to Condra, he's willing to go along with its validity — even if he might not yet be ready to embrace it fully.

"He's a very smart hockey player and he's a centre," the native of Trenton, Mich., said in describing Kelly. "I'm a winger, which is a totally different position. I think I'm a smart hockey player, too. I can read the game and I know where to be and when I should be there, and I'm smart defensively, as well.

"I'm not sure if I'm the new Chris Kelly, but I try to be smart and be in the right position."

It's that hockey sense, Lee will tell you, that has gone a long way in helping turn Condra — a seventh-round pick (211th overall) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft — into a bona fide National Hockey League talent.

"He's a bright guy off the ice," said Lee. "But hockey sense is different. Some guys are very smart, but don't have the best hockey sense. He has very good hockey sense — he anticipates well. He's very receptive, very cerebral in the way he processes the game. He's one of those guys that coaches love to work with because they know what they want done, he'll be doing it.

"His angles are right, he uses his feet well, his stick is always in the right position, he anticipates ... he never puts himself in the right position."

You'll hear the same type of raves about Condra's play from Binghamton Senators head coach Kurt Kleinendorst, who learned all about his value during the B-Sens' drive to a Calder Cup crown last season.

"Without hockey sense, you could be the best skater in the world, and that skating is going to be neutralized by the fact you're not an intelligent hockey player," said Kleinendorst. "For me, if I was evaluating (Condra), his hockey sense would be No. 1 on my list and then from there, the skills would start to fall into place.

"If you take a look at where he was late last year and the way we used him, you could tell he was somebody we appreciated as a staff, because we used him in all situations."

Condra saw 26 games worth of duty in Ottawa down the stretch last year, producing six goals and 11 points. The Senators were so impressed with his all-around play, they rewarded the University of Notre Dame grad with a two-year, one-way contract.

"It showed I could play at this level and compete and be an impact player," said Condra, who wasn't always certain he'd reach this point. "When I was in college or even my first year of pro, you look at these (NHL) guys and you see their skill and you see how well they play. There's some days when you don't think you can ever make it. But when you play with them, you get that confidence and you realize 'wow, maybe I can do it.'

"I was given a great opportunity last year and I think I made the most of it. Hopefully, I can ride that into this year."

While Condra's skating ability was his biggest hurdle to overcome, Lee credits the young right-winger with doing the work necessary to improve that area of his game. It allowed his hockey sense to truly come to the fore.

"I talked his coach, Jeff Jackson, at Notre Dame and he said (Condra) is one of the smartest players he's ever coached at any level," said Lee. "And he's that smart a guy ... He knew he had to improve his skating to take it to the next level, to be able to use his hockey sense at the NHL level. And he's done that."

Kleinendorst sees a player who's determined to continue that growth curve.

"It starts with his character," he said. "He's just such a good person and he does everything well. If you watch him real close, he's a little bit sneaky, too. His skating is much better than you first think it is. He handles the puck very well. He's intelligent with or without the puck. He's disciplined.

"(Condra) understands what it means to be a pro and what he has to do to be a quality pro. I honestly don't think I could find that many weaknesses. That's not to say there's not room for him to get better. He's a young pro, but I just feel like there are a lot of good qualities to his game. Moving forward, he's the kind of guy who's going to challenge himself every day to get better. And he will."

Oh, and that choice of number ... Condra admits it's actually his Plan B.

"I've been wearing 11 all my life," he said. "Obviously, I wasn't going to get it here (it belongs to Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson), so I thought doubling 11 was going to be similar."

Smart thinking there, it might be said. And yes, in more ways than one.

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