OTTAWA – Jason Smith has seen first-hand just how hard it can be to play against the offensively gifted Ottawa Senators.
And with the Senators seeking to be equally as tough to beat in their own end this season, they’ve turned to players such as the veteran Smith for help.
The 34-year-old is the key addition to a revamped Ottawa blue-line, one the Senators hope will earn as much recognition for keeping the puck out of its net as Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley have earned for putting it in.
“Having played against and obviously watched enough games of this team . . . it’s a very gifted group offensively,” Smith said following the Senators’ practice Thursday. “Hopefully, I can fit in on the back end of things, play solid defence and just make the team that much better defensively.”
Smith signed with the Senators in the off-season after spending last year as an Eastern Conference rival with the Philadelphia Flyers.
He was brought on board to replace the departed Wade Redden, who elected to sign with the New York Rangers. But that was just one of many changes to a defensive corps that was much maligned during a disappointing 2007-08 campaign.
When the puck dropped last year, the Senators’ top six defencemen included Redden, Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov, Joe Corvo, Andrej Meszaros and Luke Richardson.
When the puck drops on their regular season next week in Sweden, only two of those six, Phillips and Volchenkov, are expected to be in the starting lineup.
It’s the result of the Senators being deemed too easy to play against – a trait that was exposed by the swift-skating Pittsburgh Penguins during a first-round playoff sweep.
“The group that’s going to be here this year is completely different group from last year and we have to take the stance and make the commitment that we’re going to be a tough group to play against every night,” said the six-foot-three, 208-pound Smith.
In addition to Smith, the other fresh faces expected to be in the lineup opening night are Brian Lee, a rookie who was given a chance late last season at the expense of Richardson’s playing time, and newcomers Filip Kuba and Alexandre Picard.
Kuba and Picard, along with a first-round pick in 2009, were picked up in February from the Tampa Bay Lightning in a trade for Meszaros.
Kuba, a 31-year-old from Ostrava, Czech Republic, has been paired with Smith by new Senators coach Craig Hartsburg and the two have looked a good fit so far in training camp.
Kuba has good size at six-foot-three, 202 pounds, and also brings power-play capabilities. He scored 15 goals during the regular season two years ago with the Lightning.
The 23-year-old Picard, who’s from just across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, has drawn good reviews in previous limited stints with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, but again brings good size (six-foot-two, 220 pounds) and mobility.
Notice a pattern developing?
“With the addition of Smith and Kuba, they’re both big guys and our younger guys are big guys that can skate really well and move the puck really well,” Phillips said. “I think it’s just a good well-rounded combination of guys.”
All those additions have made the competition for a job on the Senators’ blue-line this fall a fierce one. It’s been so tough that it was established early on in camp that utility man Christoph Schubert will once again play left wing instead of his preferred defence position, at least in even-strength situations.
Also, Matt Carkner, an experienced AHL defenceman, is being converted to a winger, 20-year NHL veteran Richardson is only in camp on a tryout basis and may find himself hanging around as a seventh defenceman, and Brendan Bell, who wasn’t able to find a regular NHL job during previous stops with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Phoenix Coyotes, may start the season on the outside looking in.
Senators goaltender Martin Gerber likes what he sees so far from the new-look defence in front of him.
“We have big bodies back there,” he said. “It’s going to be more physical around our net and that’s great for a goalie, and for everybody to have more presence and a lot of experience, too.”