|Merrimack College star Stephane Da Costa chose the Senators over a reported 20 NHL suitors in signing a two-year entry level contract with Ottawa today (Merrimack College photo).
The college free agent market's biggest prize is convinced he's hit the jackpot of opportunity with the Ottawa Senators.
"Ottawa was the fit for me," Stephane Da Costa said hours after choosing the Senators over a number of other National Hockey League suitors and inking a two-year entry-level contract with the team.
After a standout sophomore season at Merrimack College, the native of Paris, attracted the attention of a reported 20 NHL teams, the pursuit reaching a feverish pitch after the Warriors' season ended Saturday with a 4-3 overtime loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA Northeast Regional finals in Manchester, N.H.
"There was a lot of interest in Stephane," admitted Senators general manager Bryan Murray, whose staff has kept tabs on Da Costa during most of his time at Merrimack. "We're very happy to get him. When you follow people over a couple of year period, you like what they bring to the table. It’s nice going through the process and getting rewarded."
The 21-year-old Da Costa is slated to practice with the Senators on Friday and make his National Hockey League debut the following night against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Place (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200), following Bobby Butler
and Jesse Winchester
as former college free agents signing in Ottawa and playing immediately.
"I thought this was the best opportunity, a good fit," Da Costa said during a conference call with reporters. "I heard a lot of good things about the city and the organization, so I thought it was the best fit for me. Everything was attractive about Ottawa (to me)."
He admitted the process of making the decision was both stressful and exciting.
"Like for every little kid, that was my dream, to play in the NHL," said Da Costa, who will become the sixth France-born player to see action in the league, following in the footsteps of Cristobal Huet, Philippe Bozon, Paul MacLean, Pat Daley and Andrew Peloffy. "Of course it was stressful, but I got the right fit and the best place for me."
"I thought this was the best opportunity, a good fit. I heard a lot of good things about the city and the organization, so I thought it was the best fit for me. Everything was attractive about Ottawa (to me)." - Stephane Da Costa
Butler, who played against Da Costa when he was a senior at New Hampshire last year, believes the Senators have added a dynamic talent to their roster.
"He's a great player," Butler said in Sunrise, Fla., where the Senators are preparing to face the Florida Panthers tonight at BankAtlantic Center (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet East, Team 1200). "He sees the ice (well), he makes good passes and he can score. He's got a lot that he can bring to the table to help the organization ... he can see plays happening, and he just has that ability that a lot of good players in the NHL have. It's definitely a good day for Ottawa."
Count Murray, too, as a big-time admirer of Da Costa's hockey sense.
"He’s got head and hands. That’s the biggest thing I can say about him," Murray said prior to the Senators' game Thursday in Sunrise, Fla., against the Panthers. "He looks like he’s fairly competitive with the puck, he sees the ice really well and makes good passes. He certainly was a big reason Merrimack had a very competitive team over the last couple of seasons. He looks like he has a chance to be a very good pro."
After a freshman season during which he exploded for five goals in just his second game, including a natural hat trick, Da Costa had NHL teams knocking at his door, offering him the chance to turn pro. But he chose to return to Merrimack for his sophomore season and helped the Warriors reach the Hockey East final for the first time in school history while setting team records for wins and points. The North Andover, Mass., school also earned its first-ever NCAA tournament bid.
In 67 games over two seasons at Merrimack, Da Costa produced 90 points, including 30 goals. But in joining the Senators, the 5-11, 180-pound forward will forego his final two seasons of college eligibility.
"He’s got head and hands. That’s the biggest thing I can say about him. He looks like he’s fairly competitive with the puck, he sees the ice really well and makes good passes. He certainly was a big reason Merrimack had a very competitive team over the last couple of seasons. He looks like he has a chance to be a very good pro." - Bryan Murray
"We are proud of and excited for Stephane," said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. "He is a special player but, just as important, a special person who had a huge impact on our program, the college and the community."
Da Costa has also represented France at the last two IIHF world hockey championships, with Murray saying the Senators have no objection to him heading to Slovakia for the 2011 worlds later this spring if he so desires.
The fact he's picked Ottawa as the place to keep chasing his biggest hockey dreams offered Murray a vote of confidence for the retooling effort that's now well underway in the capital.
"It tells me that it is (one) down year only in Ottawa, that we can rebuild this thing (quickly) and get going again," he said. "Ownership to management to coaching to the players, over the course of time, have proven that Ottawa is a good hockey market.
"The fact we moved a couple of our centres out during the trade deadline period opened doors for a couple of young players here. A centre ice position looks like it could be (available). We talked about that with (Da Costa), we talked about the Canadian market, we talked about the city of Ottawa and the Senators. We talked about the fact that we’re down this year but we’ve got a number of young people coming and (things) look very promising."
Da Costa's two-year, two-way deal kicks in Saturday, assuming he's in the lineup against the Leafs. Then the Senators have another year to see where he fits in the future plans.
"We have a whole year to evaluate if we like him or not and then we go forward with him," said Murray. "He’s like signing a high-end draft pick. (College free agents) add a great deal to the organization's depth wise if they play well. They all have to develop and they all need time. It just gives you another asset, another building stone to really set your organization up."