Sens have plenty to play for

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:44 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Shannon surely qualifies as the most pleasant surprise of this Senators season, if not for the team's management, then for all the rest who thought Bryan Murray was adding nothing more than a small, quick, minor-leaguer who would probably do in a pinch, when he traded journeyman defenceman Lawrence Nycholat for Shannon in the summer.

The 26-year-old winger has brought some speed and extra excitement to the Ottawa game, as well as an interesting option at the point on power plays. You want a forward with some vision back there? Here's one who can also track down any penalty killer who has wise-guy ideas about breaking free the other way.

Most importantly, Shannon has recently been a nice fit on a decent second line for a team that has longed for a decent second line. The Shannon-Mike Fisher-Nick Foligno unit has probably been Ottawa's best three or four times in the last five or six games. And Shannon, who has four goals and six assists in 20 games since being recalled from Binghamton, has displayed bursts of brilliance.

His play to set up Christoph Schubert with a wide-open net Thursday seemed to surprise all the Bruins -- and maybe even Schubert a little.

But Shannon, a former Boston College student, is also smart enough to know that earning a regular spot on this Senators team is not going to be the same as gaining regular employment on the 2009-10 edition. Ottawa is going to have to be better next season. Ottawa is going to have to make some upgrades.

Nobody who doesn't have a no-trade clause should feel too comfortable. Shannon, who is realistic and self-deprecating, is well aware he's in no position to kick off his shoes and wiggle his toes.

In the last four weeks of this season, he says he's "playing for a job" with the Senators.

"I want to be an NHL player, a full-time NHL player," Shannon, who has been a pro since 2005 but only on Thursday played his 100th NHL game, said after yesterday's practice at Harvard University. "These last 15 games are an extended audition. I have to approach every game like it's my last and hopefully find myself at the end of the year with a job opportunity for next season."

Jesse Winchester is in a similar boat. Straight out of Colgate, he started training camp as the right winger on a line with Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza, remember? Now, with the trading of veteran Dean McAmmond, he is the Senators' fourth-line centre. That's quite a drop, but Winchester has landed squarely on his feet. He has given Ottawa a physical presence down the middle, sharing a load that previously was being carried only by Fisher. He's also turning into a good faceoff man and honing his skills defensively.

Like Shannon, money will be on his side next season. Shannon makes $605,000 and will likely garner only a modest raise when he becomes a restricted free agent in July. Winchester still has another season at $575,000.

In the cap era, these two can be very valuable players. Especially if they continue to develop and improve.

"I love centre," said Winchester, who leads the team in faceoffs with a 58.3% success rate, but remains stuck on three goals and nine assists through 61 games. "I find myself more involved, just being able to do a little bit more, even though it's less. You see everything better, and I have more flow so I can be more physical. It's a nice change, especially playing with guys like (Jarkko) Ruutu and (Shean) Donovan.

"I take a lot of pride in faceoffs, and I do enjoy being physical. I do feel more comfortable. I feel more of a player. I like helping make a difference, even in a small way."

Who says the last 15 games of the season will be meaningless? For guys like Shannon, Winchester, Brian Lee, Brendan Bell, Chris Campoli and Foligno, they mean quite a lot in terms of a much bigger picture -- the 2009-10 season.

This and that

The Senators yesterday sent C Peter Regin back to Binghamton ... Dropping by to say hi to some old teammates yesterday was Ted Donato, Harvard's hockey coach. Donato suited up for 13 games with the 1998-99 Senators. Just two current players -- Daniel Alfredsson an Chris Phillips -- were on that squad.

DON.BRENNAN@SUNMEDIA.CA


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