|With veteran Matt Carkner sidelined by knee surgery, rookie Jared Cowen figures to get an opportunity to provide more of a physical presence on the Senators blue line (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images).
Forgive Jared Cowen if he's not exactly ready to relax just yet.
Even at just 20 years old, the big blueliner from Saskatoon is already well versed about how life works for a young guy trying to make his mark in the National Hockey League.
So even though the 6-5, 228-pound defenceman arguably turned in the best performance of any defenceman at Ottawa Senators training camp, Cowen knows there's plenty of work to be done yet to secure his immediate future with the big club.
"You always know when you're playing well and when you're not," Cowen said earlier today when asked about how it feels to still be on hand in Ottawa just four days before the 2011-12 season-opener against the Red Wings in Detroit. "I knew after the first couple of (pre-season) games that I was playing better than I was last year. I already knew I had a chance going in.
"When you see guys get cut, you feel a little bit of relief but at the same time, you're realistic and you know you're not really on the team until they tell you to buy a place or whatever it is. I won't feel settled until that happens."
However, Cowen's rather immense presence became a little more important today in light of the news that veteran Matt Carkner underwent surgery on the left knee that has troubled him since the latter part of the 2010-11 campaign. Senators general manager Bryan Murray would only say that Carkner is out "indefinitely," but also acknowledged "when you go under the knife, especially the knee, you expect it will be a fair amount of time" for a recovery period.
What it means, for the time being, is the Senators will head into the season with seven defencemen on the roster — Cowen and fellow rookie David Rundblad both among them. Whether both are in the lineup in Friday's opener remains to be seen, but head coach Paul MacLean suggested it's a possibility that will be considered.
"The opportunity (is there) for both Rundblad and Cowen to be on the team and possibly play, depending on how we see fit to play it for the first game," MacLean said following a brisk 90-minute practice session at the Bell Sensplex. "We'll take it day by day and see how everything irons out for Detroit and Toronto (on Saturday).
"You go on the road in the National Hockey League and it's a hard league to learn in. Sometimes having two young defencemen out there might be a bit of a hazard as well. We're going to study it and we'll make the decision that gives us the best chance to win."
No such extra scrutiny is needed when it comes to play of Cowen. The Senators' top pick (ninth overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft arrived at training camp as a man on a mission and has let his play speak rather loudly for him.
"It's a fact," said MacLean. "He's been one of the best defencemen — if not the best defenceman — in training camp. But it's a good two weeks for him and time is what makes you a National Hockey League player. His two weeks that he's been here have been very good and the expectation for him is to remain the same, knowing at the same time that young players tend to go up and down.
"What we have to make sure we impress upon him is the need to be here every day and do it right every day. So far he has, so great for him."
While Cowen's size makes him an obvious choice to take on some of the physical element that Carkner brings to the table, Murray said a 20-year-old rookie shouldn't be asked to shoulder the load alone.
"Jared, without question, is one of our best defencemen," said Murray. "He's big and physical ... he's going to be able to, we hope, carry the ball for us fairly well in that area, but to throw (all of) that on a young guy only is not right. We need (Chris) Phillips and (Sergei) Gonchar and (Filip) Kuba and these guys to step up and help lead the way here."
The setback is especially frustrating for Carkner, who required arthroscopic surgery on his knee in April and had worked diligently through the summer months to return.
"Matt works so hard all the time," said Murray. "On the ice, he can work real hard but maybe off the ice, he was doing a little too much and it did affect him. There are some fragments in (the knee) that need to be cleaned out."
Added MacLean: "It's disappointing for him. He's a legitimate player in the league, he's a legitimate heavyweight in the league and that element certainly can give young players a lot of comfort ... we're going to miss that element he brings to the team. Off the ice, his work ethic and work habits are exemplary and we'll also miss that."
Cowen, meanwhile, is enthused about the chance to start a season in the NHL for the first time. it won't be his first league game, but that fact makes this one all the more satisfying.
"It's way different when you're here for the first game of the season," he said. "You made it out of training camp and that's way different than when I played that one game (last season). It's just way more exciting. You're a part of everything, you're in the action and it's the start of the season for everyone.
"You feel like you're on an even level (and) part of the team. You're not just the add on, I guess."