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Junior achievement benefits Sens prospects

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Goaltender Robin Lehner has gained invaluable experience between the pipes for Sweden at the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo, where the Tre Kronor will play for a bronze medal against the United States later today (Photo by Matthew Manor/HHOF-IIHF Images).

The letter on his jersey alone suggests Jared Cowen is a different young man on this most glittery of hockey stages.

It is only the beginning of the reasons why the 2011 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship is giving the Ottawa Senators plenty of reason to smile about some of their best young prospects.

Take the performance of Cowen, the Senators' top pick (ninth overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, who has been a major force on the Team Canada blue line in its run to tonight's gold medal game against Russia at HSBC Arena in Buffalo (7:30 p.m., TSN).

And what a major step forward at this level it has been for the 6-5, 230-pound Cowen, who didn't have nearly the same impact at his first WJC a year ago in his home province of Saskatchewan. But it's clear he learned from the experience, as bittersweet as it became at times.

"Jared didn't play as big a role (in the 2010 WJC), but it prepared him for this year," said Randy Lee, the Senators' director of player development and hockey administration. "He's been a key guy and to be an assistant captain is huge. (Team Canada head coach) Dave Cameron talked to me about him and he was impressed with his attitude and leadership."

Cowen has also displayed the kind of game the Senators want to see when he eventually earns a full-time spot on their roster, perhaps as early as next season.

"His straight-line speed was a lot better, his stick (position) was really good when he was defending guys and I thought he played with more of an edge," said Lee, who was in Buffalo for the early portion of the WJC. "He cleared the crease tougher, he was hard on guys in the corner and he shut the cycle down just by closing the gap, finishing checks hard and separating guys from the puck.

"It was a great thing for him because that's where he's going to be in the NHL. He's going to be a big, tough shutdown (defenceman) with some offence. It's been a great experience for him."

Senators management is also pleased with its decision to loan netminder Robin Lehner to Sweden, which faces the United States in the bronze-medal game today (4 p.m., TSN). The organization's top goaltending prospect blanked Russia 2-0 during the round-robin portion of the event and endured a pair of pressure-packed shootouts, including a 6-5 victory over Canada on New Year's Eve.

"Jared didn't play as big a role (in the 2010 WJC), but it prepared him for this year. He's been a key guy and to be an assistant captain is huge. (Team Canada head coach) Dave Cameron talked to me about him and he was impressed with his attitude and leadership." - Randy Lee
"The biggest thing we thought is (let's) put him on the world stage against some of the best players and see how he responds to the challenge," said Lee. "Every game is a pressure game and you have to play in games where it's sudden-death, basically. It's a good experience for him, so we thought that would be great.

"As long as we knew he was going to play a lead role and a key role, we thought it was going to be perfect for him ... I saw some of the Russian game and I thought he played very well. He stood on his head and made big saves. There were times when (the Russians) went post to post and I thought 'this is a goal,' but he came across and made the save. He was huge in that game."

Lehner, who will return to the American Hockey League's Binghamton Senators later this week, has embraced everything this WJC has thrown at him.

"I'm very happy they gave me the chance because this is my country and I wanted to be there for them," Lehner, a second-round pick (46th overall) in the 2009 draft, told reporters after shutting out Russia. "This is a great experience, an incredible feeling."

Meanwhile, getting his feet wet at this WJC is forward Jakub Culek, a third-round selection (76th overall) by the Senators in the 2010 draft. The 18-year-old represented the Czech Republic in Buffalo.

"He's a young guy, he got drafted last year, so this is a good situation for him," said Lee. "He played some minutes, he got to kill some penalties, we saw him chip in on a goal ... I think it's perfect for him. He's having a tougher year in Rimouski (QMJHL), so this is a good experience where he gets some success. This might be a thing to really shake him up and challenge him to be an even better player."


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