Thursday was an active moving day for the Ottawa Senators, getting down to more serious business at the midpoint of training camp.
First off, coach Guy Boucher divided the players into what have effectively become NHL and AHL working groups and each had separate practices.
On that front, there were no major surprises, but significant cuts could come following Friday’s game at Canadian Tire Centre against the Chicago Blackhawks or Saturday’s contest against the Canadiens in Montreal.
Once the NHL group took the ice Thursday, it was mostly about special teams for the extended workout, the longest practice the Senators have had in recent memory.
“That was something that was awful for us last year and with the firepower we had, there was no excuse for it,” Matt Duchene said of the power play. “We had an hour meeting (Wednesday) morning about it and who is where and who is doing what.”
To refresh the painful memories for Senators fans, the power play ranked 27th in the NHL last season, clicking at only 16.6 per cent. They scored 41 power play goals, 27 fewer than the league-leading Pittsburgh Penguins.
The penalty killing wasn’t much better, finishing 26th overall, at 76.2 per cent. The Senators allowed 56 goals while shorthanded, 22 more than the league-leading San Jose Sharks.
As part of the major internal shake-up of coaching responsibilities, Boucher is now fully in charge of the power play, taking over from assistant Martin Raymond. Raymond and Rob Cookson are now in charge of the penalty killing units.
Boucher says he spent most of May and June in his office, breaking down videos of the league’s most successful power plays.
While he’s not completely set on which players will be on the ice in man advantage situations – “I don’t even know who is going to be on the team yet” – Boucher says it’s a back to the future exercise for him.
“I love it,” he said. “I (organized power plays) for many, many years and it’s one of the reasons I came up in the ranks.”
His survival could very well depend on the power play finding its way again.
If the Senators have any hope of being competitive as they launch their rebuilding regime, every small margin matters.
Duchene, who worked with Boucher way back when both were part of Canada’s world under-18 squad, says the essence of success is to have every player clear on what his responsibility is.
“You can’t have two guys trying to do the same job, you’ve got to know what role is,” he said. “If you are the point guy, you’ve got to shoot the puck. We didn’t do that last year, at all. We were not on the same page. It was frustrating and I know the coaches were frustrated. It was unacceptable with the talent we had. We can have a top half of the league power play.”
However it shakes down, Thomas Chabot will take on a prominent role.
With Erik Karlsson gone from the picture, Chabot is the club’s most dynamic offensive defenceman and he’ll be on the blue line of the first unit.
“We’re focussing a lot on five guys being together,” said Chabot, who will make his exhibition debut Friday. “In the (off-ice) meeting, we were making sure everyone is comfortable in the spot that we’re going to play in.”
Come next week, with three full days of practice before concluding the pre-season against Chicago and Montreal, the exact make-up of the power play will become clear.
At that point, the toughest roster decisions will likely have been made. The Senators AHL affiliate in Belleville opens training camp on Monday.
Accordingly, for those on the bubble, including forward prospects Colin White, Alex Formenton, Drake Batherson, Filip Chlapik and Logan Brown, Friday and Saturday are pivotal games.
Chlapik, who had a strong game in Wednesday’s 4-1 defeat to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Brown are on the roster for both contests.
Formenton and Batherson are scheduled to play Friday, while White is in the lineup for Saturday. Brady Tkachuk, who appears set to start the season on a line with Mark Stone and Chris Tierney, is on the Saturday roster.