Sens chasing college hotshot

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:26 PM ET

TAMPA — In making their pitch to another U.S. college star, the Senators are able to dangle a carrot some playoff-bound NHL teams either can’t or are reluctant to wave — the chance to play now.

One scout indicated Monday that all 30 clubs are interested in Stephane Da Costa, a 21-year-old forward who just completed his sophomore season at Merrimack College by scoring 14 goals and 45 points in 33 games. 

It’s believed the 5-foot-11, 180-pounder will become the first native of Paris, France, to play in the NHL.  Teams that are either in a playoff race or sharpening their game for a run at the Cup can be reluctant to tinker with their lineup at this time of the season.

“Most teams didn’t want me to come in and ruin their vibe before the playoffs ... understandable,” said Bobby Butler, who the Senators nabbed last spring from the University of New Hampshire — where he scored an NCAA- leading 29 goals — then put him in the lineup for a couple of games before the playoffs. “I chose Ottawa because of the city, and the hockey in Canada is crazy ... (but the Senators) gave the best deal, the best opportunity to play right away. Whether I played two games, and that was it for the rest of my career, I had a chance. That’s an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up.”

Butler played against Da Costa last season and skated with him “three or four times” last summer. He said Da Costa could “definitely” play in the NHL now.

The late-blooming Da Costa received a few NHL offers to sign after being named the NCAA Freshman of the Year, but chose to return to school and work on his game.

“He’s a skilled guy, he can score, he can pass. He’s a really, really smart player,” said Butler. “He’s strong on his skates and he can see the ice better than a lot of guys that I’ve played against. That’s something that just comes natural.”

The jury is still out on what kind of NHLer Butler will be. He has flashed his scoring touch with seven goals and seven assists in 30 games as a Senator this season, but he has struggled of late with two goals in the past 16 games and none in the past eight.

Making those numbers stand out is the fact Butler has spent most of his time in Ottawa as Jason Spezza’s right winger. He was, however, limited to just 11:17 of ice time — the second least amount among Senators forwards — in Sunday’s loss to Atlanta.

“He hasn’t had maybe the jump that he’s had in the last little while, but we’re not upset with him,” said coach Cory Clouston. “That happens when you’re a young player.”

Butler, who had 22 goals in 47 games with Binghamton earlier this season, admits he isn’t used to this much hockey.

“Played already over 80 games, counting pre-season, and that’s two college seasons right there,” he said. “It’s kind of catching up to me. It’s something I have to learn. It’s about being a pro.”

While eight or nine teams pursued Butler at this time a year ago, at least as many were interested in Jesse Winchester when he was finishing his career at Colgate University in the spring of 2007-08. The Senators promised and gave him a game that season, too, and Winchester said that — plus the fact he’s from nearby Long Sault — were not the main reasons he chose them.

“I felt that Ottawa was the most direct and most honest with me, about my chances of playing,” said Winchester, now the Senators’ fourth-line centre, who has four goals and eight assists in 66 games this season. “I spoke to (GM) Bryan (Murray) a few times on the phone. (Assistant GM) Tim (Murray) and the scouts were pretty involved. They came to a lot of my games. “It really was a dream come true when I talked to Bryan and decided to go with that decision.”

Being offered a chance to step in immediately was also appealing, said Winchester.

“That was pretty cool, knowing I had a chance,” said the 26-year-old. “But when it came down to signing between a few teams, the fact that they were confident enough in me, that’s how they really distanced themselves from other teams.”


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