Youth movement in Ottawa: David Rundblad, Mika Zibanejad and others make the cut

When you took a look at what the Ottawa Senators were going to have going on for them this season, chances are when you looked at their roster you found yourself asking, “Who? Wait… Who?” Sure there’s Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson and Craig Anderson in goal, but the rest of their support players aren’t exactly a laundry list of stars in the NHL.

With that kind of depth in question and injuries nagging those guys that would start like forwards Peter Regin and Jesse Winchester as well as defenseman Matt Carkner, the door has swung open in a big way for the host of young guys who made big impressions in Senators camp. Forwards Stephane Da Costa and Mika Zibanejad as well as defensemen David Rundblad and Jared Cowen will all be sticking around in Ottawa when the season starts next week helping make the Senators one of the youngest teams in the league.

Bruce Garrioch of the Ottawa Sun gives his take on Zibanejad, the sixth overall pick in 2011, getting his shot to shine.

Zibanejad isn’t here just because he was the No. 6 overall pick and the Senators are trying to sell hope. He deserves the nine-game audition (until his NHL contract kicks in) before a final decision has to be made.

Not only has Zibanejad shown he’s got the skills to compete, he has also worked hard to be physical. Alfredsson said the rookie impressed the coaching staff with a strong performance Thursday in a tough building in Boston.

“His overall game is really solid,” said Alfredsson. “If you’re going to play a lot of minutes, like he has during the exhibition (season), you have to know how to play all over the ice.

“When you’re a high pick, that usually means you have a lot of skill, but for a guy who doesn’t have much experience playing against men, he’s smart with and without the puck and that’s why he’s surprised a lot of people.”

Cowen and Zibanejad are first round picks of the Senators. Cowen was taken in the first round in 2009 while Zibanejad went in the first round just this past summer. Da Costa was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Merrimack College last spring while Runblad was acquired from St. Louis in an exchange of first round picks in 2010.

Now all four players are set to try and change things around in Ottawa under new coach Paul MacLean and they’re going to need them to play like veterans if Ottawa is going to hang tough in the Eastern Conference. As it was, Regin was likely set to be the Sens’ second line center and without much scoring help along the wings, Ottawa was set to look like a one-line team. With Spezza, Alfredsson, and Milan Michalek as their top line guys and only guys like Nick Foligno and Bobby Butler there with any kind of goal-scoring ability… It wasn’t shaping up to be too bright.

Ottawa hopes that Zibanejad, and to a lesser degree Da Costa, can help fill out ranks in a big way. Zibanejad has impressed in a big way in training camp and expect to see him get the full nine-game look before the team decides whether or not he’s headed back out.

On defense, Rundblad will likely get the long look while Carkner is out while Cowen looks to be ready to go regardless. Rundblad had the tendency to turn things over defensively in training camp but his offensive game looks good. Cowen is big and strong and looked NHL-ready all camp. While Carkner is a physical defenseman who fights, the talent level with Cowen and Rundblad is more useful. The only question there is whether the good stuff will outnumber the mistakes.

Goalie nods: Dell starts for Sharks, his sixth in the last 12 games

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There was a plan in San Jose to try and give first-year backup Aaron Dell some additional playing time down the stretch.

And the Sharks certainly are executing.

Dell, who has basically split starts with No. 1 Martin Jones this month, will get the call tonight when San Jose takes on the Stars in Dallas. He’s certainly earned the call — in five starts in March, he’s going 3-2-0 with a .941 save percentage, and has allowed a grand total of eight goals.

While there’s no goalie controversy at play — Jones is the unquestioned starter — this development has to have provided some relief for Peter DeBoer and company. Dell is a 27-year-old minor league journeyman that made his NHL debut this year, but played sparingly behind Jones for the most part.

Now, he looks like a guy the club can rely on should Jones struggle, or get hurt. Dell’s posted terrific numbers overall — 10-5-1 record, .936 save percentage, 1.85 GAA — and could see even more action over the final eight games of the regular season.

No word yet on who starts for Dallas. Kari Lehtonen played in last night’s shootout loss to Chicago, so logic would suggest it’s Antti Niemi.

Elsewhere…

— As we wrote about earlier, Jaroslav Halak makes his first NHL start in 85 days as the Isles visit Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury is in for the Pens.

Petr Mrazek gets the call as the Red Wings host the Lightning. No word yet on a Bolts starter, though Andrei Vasilevskiy would seem likely given Peter Budaj played against (and beat) Boston last night.

— The red-hot Jonathan Bernier gets another start as the Ducks play host to the Jets. No word yet on a Winnipeg starter, but Connor Hellebuyck did play last night against L.A.

Pre-game reading: Bettman insists NHL isn’t ‘anti-Olympics’

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— Up top, members of the Detroit Red Wings and their fans recall some of their fondest memories from Joe Louis Arena, which will host its last NHL game on Apr. 9.

— Here’s NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, speaking Friday in Chicago: “The league isn’t anti-Olympics. The problem is, the clubs are anti-disruption to the season. To disappear for almost three weeks in February when there is no football and baseball and it’s only basketball and … there’s no programming for the NHL Network, for NHL.com (and) all of our social media platforms. … If somebody proposes something dramatic and radically different that gets the attention of the clubs where they say, ‘You know what? We don’t like going but on balance it’s worth it because of this,’ we’ll have to look at it again. But overwhelmingly the sentiment of the clubs is it’s too disruptive.” (Chicago Tribune)

— The players have said they won’t negotiate with the league for the right to participate in the Olympics. But they’ve made no secret about their desire to go, as evidenced by ESPN’s lengthy list of player quotes on the topic. Said Steven Stamkos: “In talking to a lot of players, I’ve yet to hear someone say they didn’t want to get a chance to represent their country at the Olympics.” (ESPN)

— Whether the NHL continues its Olympic participation or not, it’s clear the league is eyeing China as part of its growth strategy. In September, the Canucks and Kings are expected to play a couple of exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. And according to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, there may even come a time when an NHL franchise is owned by Chinese business interests. (The Globe and Mail)

— Are the Bruins on the verge of collapse? CSNNE columnist Joe Haggerty saw some concerning signs in last night’s loss to Tampa Bay — a loss that put the B’s in further danger of falling out of a playoff position. Haggerty concludes: “Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.” (CSN New England)

— Islanders rookie Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, is ready for — and even looking forward to — a hostile crowd tonight at PPG Paints Arena. “For me, Pittsburgh is the one city as a whole where I’m totally OK with them hating me. For wearing No. 66. Mario Lemieux is a hero, a pioneer for them there, and for them to take it as disrespect is completely understandable.” (Newsday)

Enjoy the games!

PS — Lemieux said he was “fine” with Ho-Sang wearing his old number.

In prepping Vegas for draft, McPhee cites ‘outstanding’ record with Caps

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George McPhee is a veteran of the draft process, having presided over nearly 20 during his time with the Caps.

This year, he’s in a unique position — spearheading the first draft for the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights — and he suggests his past success should set him up well for the future.

“I think we have an outstanding staff,” McPhee said, per the club website. “I think our draft record in my previous job was outstanding.”

Assessments like these are always up for debate — draft success is somewhat subjective, and there are inevitably a bunch of misses among the hits — but McPhee does have a strong history of drafting and developing players, and could point to the current Capitals as validation to his claim.

The active roster has 11 players that were original draftees (Braden Holtby, Philip Grubauer, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom), with goalies Holtby and Grubauer — both fourth-round picks — emerging as pretty good finds.

McPhee’s strategy? Go big or go home.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played it safe going to the draft,” he explained. “I believe in swinging for the fences, and trying to find someone who can be a real difference maker. The difference makers are those core guys on your team, those 4-5 players that become elite players are the ones that can really take you a long way.

“They are hard to find. Those are the ones I’d like to swing for.”

At this year’s draft in Chicago, Vegas should have a shot at landing an impact guy. The club will have the same odds of winning the lottery as the team that finishes with the third fewest points this season and, though it’s considered a weak draft overall, there is some serious talent at the top end.

WHL Brandon’s Nolan Patrick, QMJHKL Halifax’s Nico Hischier and OHL Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi are all considered high-end prospects and — importantly — all three play center. For a team that’s building from scratch, filling that position is of vital importance.

McPhee acknowledged this is a weaker draft, but contended those are the ones “where the best teams excel.” He theorizes that with fewer quality players available, the strongest teams emerge with the good ones.

He also shared how the Golden Knights plan to land ’em.

“We’re really aggressive,” he said. “We try not to play it safe very often.”

B’s ink prospects Fitzgerald, Johansson to entry-level deals

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Boston has brought a pair of talented youngsters into the fold.

Forward Ryan Fitzgerald, who just wrapped his senior season at Boston College, and defenseman Emil Johansson — who spent this year playing in the Swedish Hockey League — have signed their entry-level deals and will begin playing with the club’s AHL affiliate in Providence.

Fitzgerald — who’s father, Tom, is the assistant GM in New Jersey — scored 31 points in 34 games for BC this year, serving as an alternate captain. He was originally taken by Boston in the fourth round (120th overall) of the ’13 draft.

Johansson, 20, was a seventh-round pick in ’14 that’s panned out pretty well. He scored a career-high seven goals and 17 points in 49 games for Djugardens this year, appearing in three playoff contests.