By Warren Rappleyea
After losing 14 veterans who were part of the 2017-18 championship season, and going 0-3 in the league’s opening showcase, not of lot of people think the Junior Senators have a chance to contend this season, but Head Coach & General Manager Martin Dagenais believes his team could surprise a few people.
With nine veterans returning and an influx of talented newcomers, Dagenais’ goal is to see his team secure home ice in the opening round of the playoffs. However, it won’t be an easy task, and he’s fully aware of it.
“I know most people who follow the league closely think we won’t ice a good team, but to honest, it does not bother us at all. The coaches and players on this team believe in each other, and we know that we will improve as the season goes on. Every season, we seem to prove people wrong, so I don’t see why it would change this time around.”
Ottawa is coming off of one of its best seasons. The Junior Senators won the CCHL’s Yzerman Division for the sixth straight season and went on to win both the Bogart and Fred Page Cups. In addition, Ottawa finally overcame the rival Carleton Place Canadians to secure the title.
Despite piling up 99 regular-season points, the most in team history, the Junior Senators still found themselves 11 points behind Carleton Place, which had dominated Ottawa during the campaign.
After meandering through the first two series: a 4-2 series triumph over Pembroke, and a difficult seven game success against Brockville, the Junior Senators met Carleton Place for the third straight season in the Bogart Cup final.
The Senators stole the first game in Carleton Place behind the play of veteran goaltender Connor Hicks. In game two, the Canadians were on the verge of tying the series at one game apiece until Elie Boulerice tied things up in the waning seconds, and then Nick Lalonde scored the winner midway through the first overtime period—a goal that seemingly turned the series in Ottawa’s favor. The Junior Senators went on to win game three, again in overtime, and finally game five to claim the CCHL title. Ottawa carried the momentum forward and went on to win the Fred Page Cup—again downing Carleton Place along the way.
“Finally beating them in overtime was huge,” Dagenais said. We were 0-4 in overtime playoff games against them in the last two seasons, and that’s why we acquired players like Nick Lalonde and Owen Guy during the off-season. We needed guys that could be difference-makers in crunch time, and they were just that.”
As the Senators move forward they must do so without leading scorer Chiwetin Blacksmith, along with Lalonde, Guy, and Pierre-Luc Veillette, all of whom scored 30 or more goals. Key defenders Devon Daniels, Michael Thomas and late season acquisition Zachary Salloum also graduated, as did Hicks the MVP of the Bogart Cup Finals.
“We have a strong core group of players back who helped us win last year,” Dagenais said. “We’re going to be looking for more from them as they move into first and second line roles. I think they’re ready to step up.”
That group includes Boulerice, one of the top face-off men in the league and an outstanding two-way player who contributed 14 goals and 25 assists for a total of 39 points a year ago. Other key forwards include newly named captain Darcy Walsh, Griffin McGregor, Conor Smart, Ethan Manderville and Danny Pion. Adrien Bisson and Bailey Brant, who was acquired from Nepean last season, return to anchor the blue line. Francis Boisvert, who went 15-5 with a 2.00 goals-against-average, is poised to be the number-one goalie.
“This is a different team, and in some ways I don’t fully know what to expect,” Dagenais said. “There are a lot of new guys. They have talent, but it’s going to take them awhile to adapt. For example, they’re still learning what to do when we lose a face-off, what to do in our end and what to do on our set plays in the offensive zone. It will take time, but I’m confident they’ll be fine. We just have to be patient with them.”
Dagenais, who has coached his team to 41 or more wins in each of the past four seasons, knows all too well that the “real” season begins in March. Everything that comes before that is preparation.
“The first 62 games are important,” he continued. “First of all you have to qualify for the playoffs, but players have to learn and develop, too. That’s why we play four lines. If you don’t do that and come playoff time someone is hurt—and that always happens—you need a fourth-line guy to step up. If they don’t play during the season they won’t have the confidence to do that. You can’t win a championship playing three lines.”
Speaking of championships, while Dagenais expects the Junior Senators to contend, he expects a very competitive CCHL season and, as always, is wary of the always dangerous Carleton Place Canadians, whose coach Jason Clarke has occasionally clashed with the Ottawa mentor during games.
“Carleton Place has a lot of firepower returning, and they’re always a good team,” Dagenais said. “I coached with Jason two years ago at the World Junior A Challenge, and he knows how to get the best out of his players. I think we have kind of a mutual respect for each other even if we’re two totally different coaches. He always prepares his teams, he recruits well and he’s a heck of a coach, so until he leaves Carleton Place to coach at a higher level, the Canadians will always be near the top.”
Part of OJS’s success is patterning itself on consistently successful teams like Carleton Place and Pembroke. And success breeds success. Ottawa’s strong showing in the CCHL over the past six or so years has resulted in more players looking to play in the Canadian Capital.
Dagenais’s staff has a track record of finding quality players from throughout Canada and the United States. That’s another reason he expects a strong season.
“We’re very diligent about scouting and recruiting,” he said. “We have plenty of talent, it’s just that some of it is still pretty young right now. But give us time, and we will figure it out.”