|Senators prospect Stephane Da Costa is representing France at the 2012 world hockey championship, the fourth straight year he's suited up for his homeland on the global stage (Photo by Dale MacMillan/Getty Images).
Call it the latest chapter in the hockey education of Stephane Da Costa.
When the Ottawa Senators prospect — who's currently toiling for his native France at the 2012 IIHF world hockey championship — faced off against Team Canada on Monday, it was an opportunity to line up against plenty of National Hockey League talent.
It will be more of the same on Thursday, when the French tangle with tournament co-host Finland at the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki (1:15 p.m. ET). The Finns' roster includes hardened NHL veterans such as Minnesota Wild capain Mikko Koivu, along with Jussi Jokinen of the Carolina Hurricanes and Valtteri Filppula of the Detroit Red Wings — players who possess the kind of physical strength Da Costa must eventually match to be an impact player in Ottawa.
But the 21-year-old centre surely has time on his side in that area. Much like defenceman Erik Karlsson — who weighed in at 157 pounds on the night the Senators made him the 15th pick of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft held at Scotiabank Place — he's got some growing to do.
Today, Karlsson is a much more sturdy 180-pounder who's a finalist for the James Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenceman after a season in which he produced 19 goals and 78 points.
"It's the strength factor," Pierre Dorion, the Senators' director of player personnel, told the Team 1200 in assessing the biggest growth need for Da Costa in his path toward the NHL. "I always remember talking to Erik Karlsson after his first year in the NHL and he said 'Pierre, they're big and they're strong.' And I think he's down well for himself (since then).
"People have to understand that these are men (in the NHL) and when you're coming out of college, it's such a big step. Even if you have all the talent in the world — which I think Stephane has — it's just putting the whole package together."
Da Costa, who's representing France for the fourth time at the worlds, is indeed a gifted offensive talent with elite-level vision on the ice. During two seasons with Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., he totalled 30 goals and 90 points in 67 games. It made him a hot commodity among NHL teams, but the Senators won the battle for his services a year ago and signed him to a two-year contract as a college free agent.
The Paris native started the 2011-12 season in Ottawa and recorded three goals and two assists in 22 games before being assigned to the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League. He finished the season as the B-Sens' fifth-leading scorer with 36 points in 46 games, including 13 goals. The 68 total games represented the longest season of his hockey life in North America (he spent three seasons in the United States Hockey League with the Sioux City Musketeers and Texas Tornado before heading to Merrimack).
"I thought he was very good and deserved to be on our team at the start of the year," said Dorion. "The whole team was struggling at the start of the year and he just fell into that pattern. He went down to Binghamton and was a point-per-game guy until real late in the season, then he just hit the wall."
The Senators remain big believers in Da Costa and the skill level he brings to the game.
"With Stephane, he's got the tremendous playmaking ability and puck skills and that offensive talent you wish for in a lot of players," said Dorion. "Coming from France and then playing in the USHL and then playing in college ... you don't have that high number of games. But once he gets that strength factor up, I think he'll be all right."