OTTAWA – Much like his new team, Pascal Leclaire is getting a fresh start when the puck drops to open the 2009-10 season.
In a career that’s so far been hampered by injuries, the 26-year-old goaltender will be a key figure for the Ottawa Senators as they look to make a return to playoff contention after a dismal 2008-09 season.
“Good goaltending is the foundation of a good team and we think Pascal will bring that to us,” centre Jason Spezza said Friday before the Senators left for New York, where they’ll open the season against the Rangers on Saturday night.
Leclaire’s own season last year wasn’t one to remember.
He was limited to just 12 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets after an ankle injury that required surgery forced him to shut it down in December.
That opened the door for rookie Steve Mason to supplant him in the No. 1 job in Columbus and made Leclaire expendable before the trade deadline, when the Senators acquired him, along with a draft pick, for centre Antoine Vermette.
Saturday’s game will be his first regular-season appearance since a 5-4 overtime loss in Dallas on Dec. 18 and it’s been a long time coming for the native of Repentigny, Que. He hasn’t posted a win since November 2008.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he said Friday. “It’s been a long few months and it’ll be good to just get back in a regular-season game. You look at the schedule when it comes out in the summer and you see the first game and you kind of start to focus on it.”
Following Friday’s practice, the Senators announced that forward Mike Fisher would take over the alternate captain’s role vacated by the departure of Dany Heatley.
The spotlight in Ottawa was on Heatley all summer before he was dealt to the San Jose Sharks. Much of the focus during the season will now fall squarely on the 26-year-old Leclaire’s slender shoulders.
The Senators have never really had a top-notch goaltender that’s been able to live up to that billing for any extended period of time.
The closest they’ve come was when Dominik Hasek signed in 2004. Since then, successors such as Ray Emery and Martin Gerber have failed in the task.
Last season, Gerber and Alex Auld weren’t up to it, eventually bringing about the promotion of Brian Elliott from Binghamton of the AHL and the acquisition of Leclaire.
From what the Senators have seen so far in practice and pre-season, they’re confident the six-foot-two, 200-pound Leclaire will finally provide the answer.
“You see him in practice and he’s always good, then watching him in pre-season, he was just real solid,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said Friday. “You have a guy who hasn’t played a lot last year, but looks like he’s right back into it and having fun. “
“For me, as a shooter, he’s hard to read. He reminds a little bit of Hasek in that way. He tries to read you more than just being in position all the time and read the game which is impressive to see.”
The Senators, who cleared some salary-cap space when Christoph Schubert was claimed by Atlanta on waivers Friday, have invested US $3.6 million in Leclaire this season and $4.8 million next year for him to be their guy, despite being limited to just 125 games over five NHL seasons.
Until he survives a full season, critics will point to the fact that he’s been injury prone since being drafted eight overall in 2001. Plus, he’s also been able to play in the relative anonymity of Columbus instead of a Canadian city with a history of goaltending troubles.
However, Leclaire insists he’s under no additional pressure to perform.
“I’m not really going to change anything,” he said Friday. “(The media) is a little bigger in numbers than I’ve had to deal with in the past, but I’ll take it day by day. For me, I forget pretty quickly. We’re not going to have 82 perfect games, there’s always highs and lows in a season and you try to keep those lows as short as possible. That’s the mentality we should have.”
Leclaire’s best season so far came in 2007-08 when he appeared in a career-high 54 games, going 24-17-6 with a 2.25 goals-against average and .919 save percentage.
He insists he’s fully recovered and, having had the luxury of being able to spend the end of last season and the summer getting settled in, he’ll try to prove he’s worthy of being the mainstay between the posts in Ottawa.
“It’s good to get into a rhythm if you can play a lot. It’s almost like stopping pucks becomes automatic a but you’ve got to earn those minutes,” he said. “The most important thing for me is to be as consistent as possible. All the good goalies do that in the league. Night after night, they’re solid and give their team a chance to win and that’s what I’m going to try to do here.”