The Ottawa Senators’ three smallest players made the biggest impact in training camp and were rewarded for their efforts with roster spots.
The trio of Cory Conacher, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Stephane Da Costa took advantage of a day off Monday to enjoy the news before returning their focus to the hard work that lies ahead.
Da Costa’s performance was perhaps the biggest surprise. The 24-year-old centre seemed to fall out of favour with the Senators last season and was told to commit to his summer training regimen and be willing to make some adjustments.
He took the advice and spent the summer in Poland training with his older brother Teddy, who is currently playing in Finland.
“I knew what they were saying and I took it seriously,” said Da Costa. “I’m not the biggest player physically so I knew I had to work on that and I tried to focus on my defensive play.”
While he spent much of the pre-season centring the team’s top line as Jason Spezza recovered from a mild groin sprain, Da Costa found himself on a line between Zack Smith and Chris Neil at Tuesday’s practice.
“He’s a player that plays with speed and some tenacity and he’s got good skill level,” said head coach Paul MacLean. “He was good in the faceoff circle so we expect him to do the same things. The expectation is that he’ll continue to play well and should be able to create more opportunities for those guys to maybe have an opportunity to score.”
Conacher had been one of four players being considered to play on the left wing on the second line with Clarke MacArthur and Kyle Turris, but he was easily the most consistent of all.
The trio seemed to generate some early chemistry.
“They’re two guys who are pretty easy to play with,” said Conacher. “I just want to try and create space for them because they’re two guys who are really good with the puck. As long as I’m being a little bit of a pest in the (offensive) zone that will create a little bit more room for them.”
At five foot eight, Conacher is the Senators’ smallest player and he’s also diabetic, but he won’t let his size or his illness define his career. He refuses to allow anything to be used as an excuse should his play begin to slide.
“There’s so much competition so you can’t be too comfortable,” said Conacher. “I have to show that I’m willing to get better every day and it starts off by the things I eat and how I track my diabetes.
“I think I worked a lot this summer to be more focused and more reliable on the ice to allow the coach to put me on the ice with two minutes left in the game rather than sit me on the bench.”
After an impressive start to his pro career last season — which featured a playoff hat trick — many wondered if Jean-Gabriel Pageau would be able to thrive under the high expectations.
Pageau, 20, participated in the team’s summer development camp and was strong at the rookie tournament. He earned regular praise from MacLean through the pre-season.
“It’s a great feeling (to be here),” said Pageau. “But even today I don’t want to take anything for granted. I know there’s always players pushing to come back here, but I’m ready to do all the sacrifices to stay with the big team.”
As the team’s youngest player, Pageau isn’t afraid to take advice from his older and more experienced teammates. He also believes last year’s experience allowed him to come into camp with more confidence.
“It helped me be more comfortable both on and off the ice,” admitted Pageau. “I think when you’re more comfortable you can play your real game. You don’t have to think between every play you can just go and play like you can play.”
While all three players will face different challenges, the one thing the Senators will be looking for is a consistent effort.
“As young players the hardest thing to find in the league is consistency,” said MacLean. “At some point and time someone or all three could struggle with that, but at this point they’ve been probably the most consistent players from the start of training camp to the end of training camp and as a result they’re here to start the season.”
Notes: Spezza has been sidelined by a mild groin sprain was able to take part in a full practice Tuesday and believes progress has been made. “It seemed to hold up pretty good,” said Spezza. “I got through a whole practice and it felt pretty good. There was some hard skating.” Spezza doesn’t anticipate any more setbacks and is looking forward to Ottawa’s season opener at Buffalo on Friday.