Senators Notebook: Pinto knocking on door for second-line centre role

On paper, at least, just two games into the pre-season schedule, this is still the fun-and-games portion of training camp.

It’s a beautiful thing — to be able to look awful, as the Ottawa Senators did against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday, lose 4-0, drop a shootout to boot and still get to call it a meaningless game.

Meaningless in the standings, at least. For players trying to earn a spot or move up in the lineup, they all matter.

Zach Ostapchuk would call the pre-season meaningful. At 18, Ostapchuk was awarded a three-year, entry-level contract with the Senators prior to the Leafs game. A six-foot-three centre, Ostapchuk was drafted 39th overall in 2021 and has impressed the organization throughout camp with his skill and spirited play.

Even though the Senators have split into separate NHL and AHL camp groups, the young prospects hoping to make an impression can still do so, and some will continue to get time in the five remaining exhibition games.

And yet, when you take a look at Ottawa’s roster with an eye toward opening night on Oct. 14, how many spots are realistically up for grabs?

Not many. If any.

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We are starting to see signs of the Senators moving further along the path out of their rebuild, most notably that the young players just breaking in over the past few years — like Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Tim Stützle — are now firmly entrenched in the lineup. Add in the veterans either in the system or newly-added and that doesn’t leave a lot of room.

“Every year it’s going to get harder and harder (to earn a spot) because these young players that are continuing to develop are taking spots and we plan on these guys being here, you know, eight to ten years,” head coach D.J. Smith said at the outset of camp.

The only reason there’s an opening in the forward group is because Tkachuk is still outside of camp trying to negotiate a new contract.

Veteran winger Zach Sanford was acquired from the St. Louis Blues for a bubble guy centre, Logan Brown, who would not have made this team out of camp. With Sanford a lock to be here, there goes another forward spot.

Let’s take a look at the forwards as they were set up at practice prior to Wednesday’s game, and again at Thursday’s practice:

Alex Formenton — Josh Norris — Drake Batherson

Tim Stützle — Chris Tierney — Connor Brown

Nick Paul — Colin White — Zach Sanford

Tyler Ennis — Shane Pinto — Austin Watson

What jumps off the page immediately — Formenton is a placeholder on that top line. As soon as Tkachuk arrives, Formenton slides down and someone has to come out of the lineup, whether Formenton or Ennis.

The other misfit in that chart? Pinto, coming off a spectacular game in Winnipeg Sunday, slotted in as the fourth-line centre. After Tierney’s struggles on Wednesday (admittedly, the entire team played badly), Pinto has earned the right to move back into that second-line centre spot.

Advantage Pinto

Does Pinto jump right into a starting role with the Senators after playing just 12 NHL games last season right out of college?

He could. In fact, he should, based on his play at camp to this point. Pinto may be the most intriguing story left in camp. The rest already feels like it’s been decided.

Prior to the Leafs game, Smith was adamant about trying Tierney as his No. 2 centre behind Norris.

“Chris came back in great shape, he did his part,” Smith said. “We want to put him in a few more offensive situations this year. He had 48 points a few years ago. We’re going to move them all around and see where guys fit best. But we think we have a ton of penalty killers and guys who can do that role — I think can give us a bit more offence this year.”

It is only one game, and pre-season at that, but Tierney did very little with 17:18 of ice time, including 4:08 on the power play. He did win five of his eight faceoffs. While his linemate, Stützle, did show some individual flashes, there was little line chemistry.

Pinto is smart, brings more pace and is a better finisher than Tierney. The kid might just make Smith’s next move obvious.

Brannstrom question

Barring an injury, Ottawa’s defence will have veterans filling out the top six spots. Jacob Bernard-Docker, the highly touted prospect from the University of North Dakota, has already been put in the AHL group and can use the opportunity to develop his game in Belleville this year.

Lassi Thomson has had a good camp but needs more time. Erik Brannstrom had some moments in Wednesday’s game, but continues to have issues in his own zone and there are questions about his future in the organization, despite the fact he was acquired in a high-profile trade for franchise winger Mark Stone.

As a local broadcaster noted after Wednesday’s game, there hasn’t been enough “wow” factor with Brannstrom, considering he is small, defensively suspect and needs to stand out in a big way — the way Erik Karlsson once did.

Considering Victor Mete has roughly the same skill set, is more experienced and requires waivers, Brannstrom is likely going down to the AHL at the end of camp.

Roster will change again

Remember last season when fans were riled about young players sitting out while veterans played? By the end of the season, Pinto, Formenton and Brannstrom were playing regularly and the team was rolling. That is more like it, everyone said.

And with veterans Michael Del Zotto and Nick Holden arriving before camp, there were cries of ‘here we go again.’ Keep in mind things can change in a hurry. Until Jake Sanderson and Bernard-Docker, Thomson and other prospects are ready for prime time, Ottawa can at least try to tap into some added experience. If the Senators falter — and let’s face it, this group is a year or two away from legitimate contention — then some of these veterans on shorter term deals (eg. Sanford or Del Zotto) could easily be flipped at the trade deadline for picks.

In their place, defencemen like Sanderson (assuming he leaves UND after this season), Brannstrom (if he’s still in the organization) or a JBD or Thomson can come up and play if they have earned it.

There may not be a lot of spots open now, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be openings for prospects later in the season.

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Fans, finally, but not many

Wednesday’s game against the Leafs was far from a sellout, even by the standards of the current limits (9,000-plus) but it was nice to see the few thousand in attendance for Ottawa’s first home game since March 5, 2020.

Attendance was not cited on the official game summary, but the building didn’t appear to be even one-quarter full (capacity 18,652). Friday’s home game against the Montreal Canadiens should draw better.

It will be interesting to monitor the Senators’ attendance this season, in the face of multiple challenges. There has been little by way of news to market — even the long-awaited Brady Tkachuk signing is dragging its heels, and Senators president Anthony LeBlanc has not been able to assure fans that the arena will be open to capacity when the season starts (although it is optimistic in that regard).

Add in the hesitancy that some may have to join indoor audiences, even if CTC staff are demanding proof of coronavirus vaccine and masks for fans, plus the extra time it takes to check everyone’s vaccination proof at entrance ways . . . and it isn’t hard to find barriers that could impact attendance.

Players and coaches are elated that fans are back, in whatever number.

“We have some exciting young players and we want the fans to grow with us,” Smith said.

They will grow. But like this rebuild to contention, it will take some time for fans to feel confident again.

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