Young Sens head to Battle

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:28 AM ET

Three Septembers in a row now, Senators director of player personnel Pierre Dorion has received congratulations for “winning” the round-robin rookie tournament.

“Just shows our depth is getting better,” Dorion pointed out.

It is, indeed. And that depth will be displayed on a much bigger stage Tuesday and Wednesday, when the Senators open their pre-season schedule with back-to-back games at Air Canada Centre against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The top nine players on their salary chart will be left behind as coach Cory Clouston wants to take a look at guys who are trying to gain full-time employment in Ottawa. Most likely, there will be no job openings until later in the season.

“They have to make us make tough decisions, and give us options,” Clouston said of the top prospects. “Whether it’s trades ... you just never know. You’ve got to go out there, play hard and whatever happens, happens.

“Practice is one thing. They’ve all shown, to a certain extent, what they’re capable of doing in practice. But that doesn’t mean a whole lot. You’ve got to be able to do it in a game. You’ve got to go out there and perform.”

Among the young players who will be watched closest are Jared Cowen, Patrick Wiercioch and Mike Hoffman.

The latter, who was waived through the OHL and then passed on by the Gatineau Olympiques, scored 98 goals over the last two seasons and was the QMJHL’s most valuable player in 2009-10. The 20-year-old Hoffman stands just 5-foot-11 and weighs 175 lbs., but Clouston says he’ll be a NHLer someday.

Is he ready now?

“I guess we’ll see in these couple of exhibition games,” said Hoffman, who played in pre-season match with the Senators last September, but notes: “You obviously develop over a one-year period.”

Hoffman had three goals in the last two rookie tournament games and would like nothing more than to bulge the twine at ACC.

“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “When I saw that we have two games against Toronto, I wanted to get in at least one. I’m happy for that opportunity.”

The broken leg suffered by veteran defenceman Filip Kuba means Cowen and Wiercioch also have an opportunity to expedite the start of their NHL careers.

Cowen, the Senators’ first pick in 2009, says his camp has been “okay” thus far. Others think maybe a notch below.

“For sure, there’s lots of distractions, lots of little comments from people that kind of get in your head sometimes,” said the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder. “The biggest thing is just to get out there and play the way I usually play.”

“Obviously the goal is to make the team. I think you come here and have anything less, you’re not going to play at all. If I do get sent back, I understand. It’s the National Hockey League. It’s obviously not easy to make. I expect it be nothing less than hard. Whatever happens, happens, I guess.”

Wiercioch was the team’s best defenceman at the rookie tournament. His strength is the transition game, moving the puck, but the Senators would like to see him start executing quicker.

Asked if it was his goal and expectation to make the Senators this year, the 6-foot-4 second-round pick replied: “Absolutely.”

“I wouldn’t have left school this past year if I didn’t think there was a spot to be earned,” said Wiercioch, who was a standout blueliner and finance major at the University of Denver. “Hopefully this is the year to do it.”

Wiercioch, who had 35 points in 37 games for the Pioneers in 2008-09 and 27 points in 39 games last year, believes the Senators aren’t looking for him to be flashy at this point.

“I’m an offensive-minded defenceman, but I need to prove I can hold my own in my own end. Do the best I can do with that, and possibly chip in here and there offensively.”

Wiercioch was at the ACC last year for Senators’ game and says he can’t wait to play in his first Battle of Ontario.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “Even though it’s exhibition, I’m sure it will be sold out and the fans will be pretty loud. So it’s going to mean something for our locker room and theirs who comes out with those two games.”


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