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Rookies begin battle for roster spots

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Hope always springs eternal, it’s often been said, when a new hockey season beckons.

It’s an attitude that’s clearly prevalent among several of the top prospects on hand at Ottawa Senators rookie camp, which opened Wednesday with a mid-afternoon session at the Bell Sensplex.

After a summer of change in the Senators organization, some fierce battles loom when the team’s main training camp begins Tuesday at Scotiabank Place. And within the group of players on the ice at rookie camp are more than a few players who figure to compete hard for roster spots. All of which might explain some of the eager anticipation that was palpable right from the first drop of the puck.

Cody Bass (left) and Alexander Nikulin listen to instruction during the opening day of Senators rookie camp at the Bell Sensplex.
“I couldn’t wait to come up (to rookie camp), so I came up a week and a half early to get a feel for it,” said goaltender Brian Elliott, who’s hoping to battle veteran Alex Auld for the backup goaltending position behind returnee Martin Gerber. “I’m just excited. When you have any kind of opportunity at this level, you’re raring to go from the middle of summer. I’ve been waiting for this moment for awhile.”

So, too, has Jesse Winchester, a college free agent from Colgate who is being given a strong shot at making the Senators lineup. Not that he’s taking anything for granted.

“I just have to go out and prove that I belong here,” said Winchester, a forward from nearby Long Sault, Ont. “Hopefully, I can do that. It’s going to be a lot of hard work but I’m eager to accept that challenge.”

That mindset made Russian forward prospect Ilya Zubov spend a full summer in Ottawa, working out with veteran Chris Neil and shedding pounds to whip himself into the best possible shape to make an impact on Senators management.

“It’s my dream, to make this team,” he said. “I spent all summer here to get in shape and get ready for training camp.

“Last summer, I didn’t work as hard as I needed. This summer, I did three months (running) on the road every day. I think I’m in good shape now.”

The end result, after all the evaluations are done, should be “a changed roster” in 2008-09, said general manager Bryan Murray, who’ll bring several veteran newcomers – forwards Jarkko Ruutu, Brad Isbister and Ryan Shannon, and defencemen Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and Brendan Bell among them – to camp next week.

But Murray still believes there’s room for some of the organization’s younger talent – most notably, forwards Winchester, Nick Foligno and Cody Bass and defenceman Brian Lee – to earn a regular place in the Ottawa lineup. The latter three are working out with the rookies for three days, getting a head start on main camp (they won’t participate in the rookie tournament on the weekend in Kitchener, Ont.).

“I think there’s nine or 10 spots available (in main camp),” said Murray. “They’re not really available but they’ll be (filled by) new and different people. It was part of our strategy, to make room for two or three of our young guys to at least make our hockey team and be important on our hockey team.

“With the veterans we’ve acquired in trades or free agency, the other spots would be locked up by them.”

Murray believes Foligno and Bass, in particular, “belong in the NHL, but they have to show they belong in the NHL. I wouldn’t want them to be on our team and be scratches every other night.

“If they’re not going to play somewhat regular, then obviously they’re in a fight. They have to prove they can go by a couple of players on our roster to secure spots where they get ice time.”

He’s convinced there is room for Winchester, who’s already being talked about as a potential linemate for top guns Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley.

“(Winchester) has worked hard from the day he came to Ottawa,” said Murray. “He looks like he’s a player. We believe he can play on our hockey team.

“It’s a matter of where he plays.”

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