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Senators GM: Door is open for young standouts

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Mika Zibanejad, the Senators' top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, will get his chance to impress team management during the rookie tournament in Oshawa, Ont. (Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images),

They're regarded as integral parts of the Ottawa Senators' future.

But general manager Bryan Murray is fully prepared to open the door to including some of the organization's brightest young talents on the Senators' 2011-12 roster, if they make a strong enough case for themselves in the weeks to come.

"If they're good enough to play, we're going to let them play as best we can," Murray said on the opening day of Senators rookie camp at the Bell Sensplex. "There may not be a spot (for them) at the beginning of the year but as we go forward, if they deserve to play, then I'd like to think at some point they'll get the chance to do exactly that.

"We'll look at what has to be done. If some of these young guys are ready to play (in the National Hockey League), it's up to me to create a roster spot for them."

The decision-making process begins in earnest this weekend at the General Motors Centre in Oshawa, Ont., where the Senators prospects will take on their counterparts from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and host Toronto Maple Leafs in an NHL rookie tournament. Play begins Saturday, when the Sens and Pens face off (2 p.m., Rogers TV, Team 1200).

With a roster that includes five first-round NHL draft picks, the Senators aren't just heading west for the ride. At least not in the mind of Binghamton Senators head coach Kurt Kleinendorst, who'll direct the team in the tournament.

"We're going to represent the Ottawa Senators and we don't want to go there and lose hockey games," said Kleinendorst. "One of the things we want to instill is winning. Winning is a heck of a lot of fun and winning is a habit. I know we're talking about a rookie tournament, but we're still there to represent the organization.

"We're also going to get to see our young kids play. We're going to see where we are with regard to where maybe other teams are at. We know it's not the Stanley Cup final, but it's still important to us."

Most eyes in the Senators camp will be on David Rundblad and Jared Cowen, two blueliners expected to contend strongly for roster positions, along with 18-year-old Swedish centre Mika Zibanejad, Ottawa's top pick (sixth overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. But Murray said there's no pressure on any of the players at this camp to show they're NHL-worthy this weekend.

"They all want to show up, they all want to play well and they all want to be recognized," said Murray. "From a management point of view, we want to see how they can play and we want to see our future. Some of them will get a chance in pre-season games and, hopefully, this rookie tournament will be a real showcase for some of them.

"It's simply one stage in their development. We've got a lot of kids out there who look like players in our future. It's just a matter of them showing us, as best they can, what they're capable of doing."

Zibanejad's case is slightly different than the rest in that he's an 18-year-old who's already under contract for the coming season to Djurgarden in the Swedish Elite League. And that's where he'll be headed if he doesn't make the Senators roster. But Murray wants to do what's best for the teen standout's development.

"He's a good hockey player. He's a big strong guy," Murray said of Zibanejad. "He just has to play and do what he can on the ice to show he's close to being ready and then we have to decide if we can put him on the team or not.

"It's a big step (from Sweden to the NHL). We like to think our league is better and our team is going to be better than it was last year by a (good) margin. For a young guy to play on it, he just has to compete every day and hopefully, develop along the way. But we don't want to retard his development by putting him in a position where he doesn't get a lot of ice time."

After Saturday's opener, the Senators rookies tangle with the Blackhawks on Sunday (2 p.m., Rogers TV, Team 1200), then close out tournament play on Tuesday against the Leafs (7 p.m., Rogers TV, Team 1200).

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