Now in his third season as an assistant coach with the Ottawa Junior Senators, Chris Kushneriuk was ready to take on more responsibility and Head Coach/GM Martin Dagenais assigned the former professional player to mentor the defense this season.
The early season results have been positive. Ottawa is among the league leaders in goals against and the Junior Senators are once again in their accustomed spot at the top of the CCHL’s Yzerman Division.
“As a player I was a forward so I bring a different perspective to the job,” Kushneriuk said. “When I work with the guys, I show them the things I used to do to try and beat defenders.”
Kushneriuk joined the Junior Senators as an assistant midway through the 2015-16 season, and also coached Ottawa’s U18 development team. Last season he again played a supporting role on Dagenais’s staff, primarily providing insights to the forwards. Kushneriuk’s upbeat attitude, professional and college playing experience and his ability to connect with the players convinced Dagenais to put “Kush” in charge of the defense this season.
“I’m really excited about having an increased role,” Kushneriuk said. “It was great working with the players the last few years. When Martin asked me about a bigger role, I knew it was something that I wanted to do. So I moved some things around to clear up the time and here I am.”
Kushneriuk has spent a fair amount of his time reinforcing fundamentals and focusing his players on being smart in their own zone. That includes taking away an offensive player’s options and anticipating what an attacker will do. Kushneriuk is working with the D on stick position, routes they need to take to get to an opposition player and getting sticks on pucks. He added that if a defender has not separated an opponent from the puck, having the stick on the ice becomes even more important.
In recent years the Junior Senators have generated plenty of offense from the blue line. With a slew of talented forwards who can put the puck in the net, Ottawa’s back line can focus more on defense this time around. Kushneriuk, however, does not want his guys forsaking offensive opportunities.
“I do want our defenders to jump into the play, I just want them to be smart about it,” he said. “We’re also working on some of the finer points of the game that will come in handy from the point, particularly on the power play. If a guy can see some net, he should shoot at it. Otherwise, he should look to find a forward’s stick and if that’s not a possibility the next option is to put the puck down low.”
Kushneriuk is pleased the Junior Senators are out to a quick start and he feels the team will improve as the season progresses. He also understands that the schedule is long and there will be days when things go wrong.
“This is a tough league, all the teams we play are good,” Kushneriuk said. “While no one wants it to happen there will be bad periods and bad games. On some nights a few guys may be off. That’s hockey and it’s ok. It’s all about how you come back after it happens. This group has the character to do that.”