|Senators prospect Patrick Wiercioch's strong early-season play earned him an invite to Team Canada's final selection camp for the IIHF 2009 World Junior Championship in Ottawa (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images).
As the Ottawa Senators gathered for their annual team photo in early April, a young defenceman stood off to the side, soaking in the moment.
Soon enough, Patrick Wiercioch
– who was brought to the capital to experience the atmosphere around a National Hockey League team – might find himself in the middle of that picture.
Literally and figuratively, that is.
The 18-year-old native of Maple Ridge, B.C., turned in a standout freshman season for the University of Denver Pioneers and already the whispers have started about just how soon he'll be ready to make an impact on the Senators blue line.
Much like Erik Karlsson
, a fellow member of Ottawa's draft class of 2008 – the slick Swedish defenceman was the Sens' top pick a year ago (15th overall), while Wiercioch was chosen in the second round (42nd overall) – it comes down to size and strength. While Wiercioch is an impressive 6-foot-4, that frame only carries 185 pounds.
"He's a tall, lanky kid," said Brent Flahr, the Senators' director of hockey operations. "But he has very good hands, good offensive instincts and he can really shoot the puck."
All of that showed during his freshman season at Denver. He racked up 12 goals and 23 assists in 36 games, with his goal, assist and point totals topping all first-year blueliners in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). Wiercioch's dozen goals made him No. 1 among defenceman in the conference in that category and he rated as the second-highest scoring blueliner in the entire nation.
"He was at about a point a game as a freshman in the WCHA, which is a high level for college hockey," said Flahr. "He met or exceeded all of our expectations as a freshman."
Wiercioch also put himself on Hockey Canada's radar screen, earning an invite to the final selection camp for the IIHF 2009 World Junior Championship in Ottawa. It was a mighty leap for a player who wasn't even a part of the Team Canada summer camp group.
Earning a ticket to the final camp "was a pretty good honour for a kid who wasn't even on the map with them during the summer time," said Flahr.
"He's a tall, lanky kid. But he has very good hands, good offensive instincts and he can really shoot the puck. He was at about a point a game as a freshman in the WCHA, which is a high level for college hockey. He met or exceeded all of our expectations as a freshman." - Brent Flahr
"He has a legitimate chance to make that team this year," he added. "He gained great experience and had a lot of fun with it. He had a strong second half of the season (in Denver). Once he gets stronger and grows into his body, we have high hopes for him."
Earlier this season, Wiercioch credited his experience at the annual Senators development camp last summer with kick-starting his growth in 2008-09.
"The big step for me was coming to development camp here," he said. "I thought generally, I was a hard-working, determined athlete on and off the ice. But once I came to development camp, I saw guys like (Nick) Foligno and Cody Bass, who were a step away from the NHL, and the (Jesse) Winchesters and how hard they work. And they hadn't stuck yet, so it kind of puts your life in perspective.
"The stuff I learned in camp – on and off the ice – in the nine days I stayed here helped me throughout the summer to try to get that (right) mindset heading off to college."
As of now, Wiercioch is headed back to Denver this fall for his second season with the Pioneers. He'll also attend Senators development camp, which begins June 30.