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Ottawa Senators Filip Kuba (R) fights for control of the puck with Colorado Avalanche Matt Duchene during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Ottawa December 30, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE)
Ottawa Senators Filip Kuba (R) fights for control of the puck with Colorado Avalanche Matt Duchene during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Ottawa December 30, 2009. (CHRIS WATTIE)

Roy MacGregor

Kuba's injury a break for Ottawa's young defencemen Add to ...

Three days into training camp and the Ottawa Senators are already in a rut.

Or at least one of them is - or was, when veteran defenceman Filip Kuba caught his skate in the ice on the weekend and broke his right leg, inadvertently giving a dry camp its first slightly juicy item.

"It's been awfully quiet," said one veteran observer who had been at every Senators camp since the team rejoined the NHL in 1992.

Certainly quiet in comparison to recent history, when the Dany Heatley circus/trade was all the talk of last September and the bewildering collapse all the way out of the playoffs the despair of the previous fall.

Instead, there are no coaching changes to announce, no new saviour goaltenders to sell and no recognizable new faces apart from Sergei Gonchar. The veteran defenceman, who won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, was signed as a free agent over the summer and assigned to get the puck out of Ottawa's end and get fellow Russian Alexei Kovalev out of the bed he slept in all last season.

The Senators team that will meet the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday and Wednesday at the Air Canada Centre in preseason exhibition play is so much a no-name version that it would be a stretch to sell it as Battle of Ontario Lite. The Senators come to Toronto minus captain Daniel Alfredsson, leading goal scorer Mike Fisher, veterans Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, Kovalev and Gonchar - all staying back in Ottawa to skate carefully about the bad Scotiabank Place ice that the players are blaming for the Kuba injury.

Alfredsson called the on-ice mishap "extremely unfortunate" on Monday but added that the team was fortunate to have "good depth on defence."

General manager Bryan Murray also sought to put a better spin on the situation by noting that, "If it's going to happen, it's better to happen early." The injured defenceman is expected to miss five to six weeks, as no surgery is required. He would therefore be unavailable to the team for at least the first month of the regular season.

Kuba, a slick, puck-moving defenceman prone to injury, had been a lock on one of the seven spots on defence, but now there is an unexpected opportunity for one of the younger players to step up and prove himself.

That step-up role, over the past several seasons, has fallen to Brian Lee, a first-round draft pick (ninth overall) in 2005, who has consistently failed to seize the multiple opportunities that have come his way.

Lee would certainly have the inside track on sticking this year, given his new two-year contract, but he is being challenged by two youngsters who are often projected to be part of the Senators' blueline of the future.

One candidate is another first-rounder (also taken ninth, but four years later): Saskatoon's 19-year-old Jared Cowan, a towering (6 foot 5, 228 pounds) and physical defender who, if the team chooses, still has a year of eligibility left with his junior team, the Spokane Chiefs.

The other is 20-year-old Patrick Wiercioch of Maple Ridge, B.C., an equally tall (6 foot 4, 185 pounds) rushing defenceman who left his U.S. college team in Denver this year to turn professional.

Kuba's injury, Wiercioch said, "does open up a spot for the first six weeks" and he plans to do all he can to grab it. Articulate and confident, he said he would never have dropped out of school if he did not feel he was ready to make the leap to the NHL level.

Cowan, on the other hand, claimed that he "didn't really see it as an opportunity" until someone happened to mention the obvious to him. He, too, said he is ready, despite having but a single NHL game under his suspenders prior to being returned to junior last year.

The one young defenceman with no such concerns is Erik Karlsson, who showed dramatic development over his rookie season and who is today considered, along with Gonchar, the team's most gifted and potent defender on the power play.

Alfredsson said his fellow Swede has excelled because he "sets no limits on himself" and has a calm personality that means "he's not fazed by the moment."

All the same, Alfredsson remains surprised at how fast Karlsson has come along. "I wasn't even sure I was going to play with him when we drafted him," the 37-year-old captain said of his 20-year-old countryman.

As for Cowan and Wiercioch, as fellow first rounders - Karlsson went 15th overall in 2008 - they are certainly expected to play at some point for the Senators. The only question at the moment remains when.

"You just never know," said coach Cory Clouston, "you got to go out there hard and let whatever happens happen."

And that is all the two youngsters are asking for - a chance to prove they belong.

And one has just come along, courtesy of Kuba's right leg.

"Can't wait," a wound-up Wiercioch said. "Can't wait."

 

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