OTTAWA – The Senators left Ottawa on Monday for a four-game road trip as officially the worst team in the NHL.
But even on a day when the news got even worse for their already-depleted lineup, they aren’t without the odd bright spot in what’s become the most dismal of seasons.
“There’s a lot at stake still,” said centre Jason Spezza, whose play alongside newcomer Bobby Butler is one of those positives.
“A lot of the young guys are learning and us older guys are learning, too. We have to dig deep and be good examples and play well every night,” Spezza said. “If we can win some games with the group we have now, it’ll give guys confidence going into next year, knowing that we can beat some good hockey clubs.”
The Senators were surpassed by the Edmonton Oilers in the overall standings over the weekend and sit 30th in the NHL, although they’ve played one less game than the Oilers.
On Monday, they announced that Peter Regin will miss the next four to six months after undergoing shoulder surgery while fellow forward Milan Michalek is out at least a month with a broken foot and defenceman Matt Carkner is also gone for at least a couple of weeks because of arthroscopic knee surgery.
That leaves a player like Spezza, now one of the team’s senior members, in unfamiliar surroundings, but he’s making the most of them.
Spezza was always counted upon to produce points, but these days he’s also expected to be a teacher, role model and all-around leader while playing out the remainder of the season.
He’s lost his regular linemates, Michalek, who fractured his left foot after being hit with a shot by Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson, who’s sidelined indefinitely with a back injury, but has played his best hockey of the season recently since returning from his own injury troubles.
“It’s a different mindset and a different atmosphere,” said Spezza, who watched as veterans and longtime teammates Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu, Brian Elliott, Alex Kovalev and Chris Campoli all left the club before the trade deadline.
“It’s obviously not where we want to be, but it’s the situation we’re in and it does us no good to look at the standings right now,” he said. “We’re just going out and playing and trying to stay positive and become a better group because of what we’ve been through this year.”
Lately, Spezza’s found himself playing with right-winger Butler and Colin Greening, a Newfoundlander who’s been shuttled back and forth between Ottawa and Binghamton, and he’s producing at a point-a-game clip for the first time all season.
“My game’s changed a little bit now. You try to use the strength of your linemates,” said Spezza, who missed 15 games after suffering a shoulder injury on Boxing Day and now has 12 goals and 33 points in 45 contests this season.
For Butler, that strength is finding the back of the net.
The Senators signed the 23-year-old native of Marlborough, Mass., last March out of the University of New Hampshire after he led the NCAA in goals.
“He’s got a nose for the net, he goes to the net hard and he’s not scared to go to the tough areas to score goals and I think he’ll only get better as he learns to be a little more patient and finds those dead zones in the offensive zone,” Spezza said.
Butler led the AHL in goals early in the season with Binghamton, but failed to even register a point in a couple of four-game NHL auditions earlier this year. After being called up again Feb. 9, however, things began to click for him and he’s scored six goals and nine points in the 11 games since.
He may not be Dany Heatley, but Spezza thinks there’s a place for him in the NHL lineup on a regular basis.
“He’s a little more calm this time around,” Spezza said. “I think he realizes he’s here for the rest of the year and realizes his role. He’s playing first-line minutes and first-line power play and getting an opportunity to get into games. When you’re an offensive guy you have to have that kind of feel going for you and I think he’s starting to get that feel.
“He’s improving all the time and starting to get confident. He’s big and he can score goals, for sure. I think he could be a regular 30-goal guy.”
The plaudits are good news for Butler.
Like Greening, right-winger Erik Condra, centre Ryan Potulny and a number of new faces that are only with the Senators right now because of the disastrous season, they’re auditioning for roles for the future.
“There’s definitely a lot of that going on,” Butler said. “It’s a good way for us to show what we have and show that hopefully we can hang (around) up here.
“I felt a lot more comfortable with more games and (Spezza) is a great player and helps me out a lot. The more comfortable I get, the better I feel.”
While the Senators still have 16 games left in their schedule, it’ll be a while until Regin plays in another one.
Much was expected of him this year and he struggled badly, with three goals and 17 points in 55 games. He was finally beginning to play better when he hurt his shoulder a couple of weeks ago.
“I’m very disappointed,” Regin said. “We were all hoping to end the season good here, myself included. It didn’t go the way I wanted for me personally and it didn’t go the way we wanted as a team, either.”