|Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson is confident that fellow Swede Erik Karlsson will know how to handle his first NHL game against the Rangers in New York tonight. It's also Ottawa's 2009-10 season-opener (Getty Images).
Even on the night Erik Karlsson
was drafted 16 months ago, his first National Hockey League game still remained far from his thoughts.
"Probably not this year," the 19-year-old blueliner recalled thinking on that June evening at Scotiabank Place, when the Ottawa Senators made him the 15th overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. "Maybe next, maybe even more than that. I was pretty small back then (165 pounds). I'm still not very big now (175 pounds), but I feel much bigger."
The Senators feel he's also more than ready for the big time. So it is that the organization's brightest prospect will make his NHL debut on the bright lights of Broadway tonight, when Ottawa opens its 2009-10 season against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).
Karlsson, the youngest player on the Senators' opening-day roster, will be among the six defencemen head coach Cory Clouston sends over the boards against the Blueshirts. Clouston insists it is an opportunity that was well-earned throughout an impressive training camp.
"We still feel he's the right guy at this particular point in time," Clouston said following the Sens' pre-game skate at the Garden on Saturday morning. "We feel he's definitely in our top six, no matter (his) age or the time of year or however you want to slice it. He's deserving of being in our lineup right now."
Clouston doubts Karlsson will be fazed by the magnitude of the moment.
"He seems to be the kind of player who likes the pressure," he said of Karlsson. "He likes to be a go-to guy — it doesn't matter what his age is. We're just looking at one game, really. We're not trying to put any pressure on one individual."
On the morning of his first NHL game, Karlsson wasn't feeling the butterflies just yet. But he imagines his emotions will be churning by his first shift tonight.
"We'll see what happens right before the game," he said. "I only got nervous once before in my life and that was the first game I played for Frolunda last year in Sweden. I only played the power play, maybe seven minutes. That's the only time I can remember having nerves. So I'll probably be nervous tonight as well."
His coach's advice for the rookie defenceman?
"Just keep it simple," said Clouston. "The things that we've been harping on throughout training camp are probably going to be the same things we'll contineu to say for the next eight or nine months. We want him to use his skill, we want him to find that first outlet pass, execute on the power play and just be responsible defensively.
"We'll see what happens right before the game. I only got nervous once before in my life and that was the first game I played for Frolunda last year in Sweden. I only played the power play, maybe seven minutes. That's the only time I can remember having nerves. So I'll probably be nervous tonight as well." - Erik Karlsson
"His strengths are his skating, his vision and his intelligence. In the defensive zone, he gets into trouble when he tries to just gamble or when he tries to maybe win a strength battle. As long as he has good stick and body position, he'll be okay."
Almost a year to the day, Karlsson was just starting into his first season with Frolunda and spoke with enthusiasm about facing his future team in an exhibition game in Goteborg. Today, the future is now and Karlsson is ready to embrace it.
"I did a pretty good job last year going from juniors to the men's league (in Sweden)," he said. "That was a big jump for me, too, but I think I handled it pretty well. Now I've got a big jump again from the Elitserien to here. But I think so far, everything has been going good and everyone has been taking of me really well."
Captain Daniel Alfredsson
, who's had Karlsson sharing his home since the beginning of camp, isn't concerned about how his fellow Swede will handle things.
"The first game is always a good memory," said Alfredsson. "But in New York, in Madison Square Garden, one of the biggest stages in the world for athletes ... He knows how he's going to play. Just go out there, play hard and enjoy it."Around the boards
Four other players will make their official debuts as Senators tonight: Forwards Alex Kovalev, Milan Michalek
and Jonathan Cheechoo and goaltender Pascal Leclaire. Two others (centre Peter Regin
and defenceman Matt Carkner
) also weren't on the opening-day roster a year ago ... Forward Shean Donovan and defenceman Alex Picard are tonight's scratches ... Following tonight's game, the Senators return to Ottawa to prepare for Tuesday's matchup with the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto (7 p.m., TSN, Team 1200). Then it's four straight home games against the New York Islanders (Oct. 8), Atlanta Thrashers (Oct. 10), Pittsburgh Penguins (Oct. 12) and Tampa Bay Lightning (Oct. 15).