|Defenceman Erik Karlsson, the Senators' top selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, became a major contributor to the team during his rookie season in the league. And there are more young prospects itching to make an impact of their own in the near future (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
Without question, it is one of those inescapable facts of life in the National Hockey League.
One generation of talent has its day, then passes the torch onto the next. And if an organization finds a way to time it all just right, the transaction occurs as seamlessly as can be.
No muss, no fuss.
So it is that the Ottawa Senators are looking at their past two draft crops, in particular, with the maximum amount of hope. Somebody has to be the next Daniel Alfredsson
or Chris Phillips
or simply the right person to keep the organization moving forward at a given position. And as the Senators are beginning to find out, they just might have those pieces in place already.
The jewel of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft — a gifted teenage blueliner from Sweden named Erik Karlsson
—already appears to be on the fast track to huge NHL success. Given his size (5-11, 175 pounds) and youth, the 19-year-old from Landsbro, Sweden, wasn’t expected to truly arrive until the 2010-11 season. But by the middle of the current campaign, he’d already established himself as the puck moving defenceman general manager Bryan Murray and his staff has been craving for a few years now.
“He’s come such a long way in such a short time,” Senators head coach Cory Clouston said about the teen phenom, who saw more than 40 minutes of ice time in Ottawa's epic triple overtime playoff triumph over the Penguins last week. “He plays with a lot of confidence and a lot of poise … He’s (already) shown he’s going to be a heck of a player down the road, not only right now.”
Karlsson will tell you that he is probably a year ahead of schedule, that he expected it to take two full years from the June 2008 night he was drafted at Scotiabank Place to make it to the NHL. But he couldn’t be denied a spot on the opening-day roster, even if a little bit of extra seasoning was needed along the way with the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Senators.
"You've got to figure out what's best for the guy and what's best for the team. Where's he going to play and where's he going to develop? You could give them too much of a challenge too early and then it's counter-productive. It's got to be where have they gone, have they mastered the level they're at and then what’s the best opportunity for them." - Randy Lee
“I knew that I wasn’t ready to play in the NHL when I came (to Ottawa),” Karlsson said near the end of the regular season. “But it feels like I made the right decision and the team made the right decision to keep me. Everything feels good, but I’ve just got to keep going and don’t fall off the track.”
Fortunately, Karlsson found himself in a Senators dressing room that quickly came to see and embrace the value in the confidence and high skill level he brings to the mix. Qualities, it bears noting, that any team can’t have enough of if it hopes to succeed in a big way.
“He’s going to make mistakes, but that’s part of the process,” said Alfredsson. “He’s still learning, but his upside is unbelievable.”
Having a young player on a rookie contract grab a roster spot is also an ideal fit in today’s salary cap world. But the trick is deciding when and where that should happen.
“You’ve got to figure out what’s best for the guy and what’s best for the team,” said Randy Lee, the Senators’ director of player development and hockey administration. “Where’s he going to play and where’s he going to develop? You could give them too much of a challenge too early and then it’s counter-productive. It’s got to be where have they gone, have they mastered the level they’re at and then what’s the best opportunity for them?
“I think Zack Smith
(a third-round selection in the 2008 draft) could play on our team right now. But what’s better for him? To play four or five minutes a game up here or to play 15 or 20 (in Binghamton)? And that’s the bottom line.”
But whether a pit stop in the minors is necessary or not, the Senators feel confident Generation Next will soon be ready to make its mark. Karlsson made the grade this season, as did Peter Regin
, a rangy centre from Denmark who played his way on to the team in training camp and was one of the team's top performers in the playoff series against the Penguins. Lee expects the gritty Smith to have his turn soon enough.
Then there are a few of the gems mined in the 2009 selection in Montreal, most notably first-round defenceman Jared Cowen
and Swedish goaltender Robin Lehner
, a second-round pick. Lehner, who spent the season with the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds before finishing up in Binghamton, intends to push for a goaltending job in training camp in the fall.
“(Lehner) told me he'll challenge real seriously and I believe him," Senators general manager Bryan Murray said earlier this week. "He's that calibre of kid. All these young guys have the potential to be very good and it's a matter of timing and what's best for their careers.
"If Robin Lehner
comes in and knocks our socks off at training camp, we'd probably be fairly open minded."
"They can play next year if we want them to, if it's the right thing. They're both big strong kids. Both have areas to improve, as Erik Karlsson did when he came to camp this year. Do we want them to play right away? I think training camp will tell (us) that, if they're close to being ready or not. Both they're both very, very strong candidates." - Bryan Murray
The Senators are also expecting big things from defenceman Patrick Wiercioch
, a 2008 second-round selection who’s now a sophomore at Denver University. Already, it is being suggested that Karlsson, Cowen and Wiercioch will form the core of the Senators’ blue-line brigade in the near future. Murray thinks it's realistic that all three could have roles on the team by the end of next season.
"They can play next year if we want them to, if it's the right thing," Murray said of Cowen and Wiercioch. "They're both big strong kids. Both have areas to improve, as Erik Karlsson
did when he came to camp this year. Do we want them to play right away? I think training camp will tell (us) that, if they're close to being ready or not. Both they're both very, very strong candidates."
Clearly, the drafts of 2008 and 2009 have the potential to shape the organization’s future.
“They’re going to be huge,” said Lee. “We sort of had a void of players who were coming because we traded away some draft choices in the past and some draft picks didn’t work out. If you don’t have a continual supply of young, talented players coming, then you’re in trouble.”
Generation Next, it must be noted, doesn’t limit itself to the teenage set. Take the case of 29-year-old Matt Carkner
, a journeyman pro for eight seasons who battled his way onto the Senators roster in training camp. A month later, the native of nearby Winchester signed a two-year, one-way contract with his hometown NHL team.
“A lot of people in this business write guys off if they haven’t made it by a certain (age),” said Lee. “But you can’t give up. (Carkner) never stopped working and he never complained and he never made excuses and he never said ‘I’m getting screwed.’ And he opened his own doors. Sometimes, you’ve got to do that and if you see the door shut, you’ve got to open it and he did that. That’s a great story.”