The Ottawa Senators have staged an incredible resurrection in the second half of the season, putting the squad on the precipice of a near-miracle playoff spot. And while goaltender Andrew Hammond has deserved every bit of praise he has received, he's not the only diamond in the rough that has been shining in Canada's capital.
Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman were both late-round draft picks by Ottawa but both have infused the lineup with crucial offense. Stone was a sixth-rounder back in 2010, while Hoffman was actually passed over twice before the Sens took a shot in 2009 with a fifth-round selection. And it's not that the other 29 teams missed something; both players had flaws. But through their own will and the team's patience, Stone and Hoffman got to The Show and now they're playing starring roles.
Stone, who has 24 goals and 62 points in 79 games, has never had trouble producing offense, going back to his days with WHL Brandon. But he didn't have the best wheels out there and that held his draft stock up.
“We knew skating was an issue, but he was a bigger-framed body with a high skill level and good hockey sense,” said Ottawa director of player personnel GM Pierre Dorion. “He wasn't gritty or physical at the time, but he worked at it. He had a dimension that we thought we could work with.” To Stone's credit, he committed to himself after getting drafted. He worked on his leg strength and his skating in Ottawa with Sens coaches and by 19, he had his first NHL playoff point – an assist. He also earned a slot on Canada's world junior team, which rewarded the Sens' faith in their pick.
“That's such a high-paced, intense competition,” Dorion said. “It really showed something.” And Stone produced, putting up 10 points in six games, earning a bronze medal in the process. Dorion credits Western scout Bob Lowes (now the team's chief amateur scout) with believing in Stone all the way, but it was Dorion himself that caught on to Hoffman's potential.
Believe it or not, Hoffman suited up for two games in the OHL with his hometown Kitchener Rangers, but couldn't make a dent in Ontario. So he headed out to the Quebec League and caught on with Gatineau. But it wasn't until he played for Drummondville that the potential became apparent. Dorion recalls a scouting mission to Lewiston, where he saw Hoffman's Voltigeurs take on the since-departed Maineacs.
“He was the best player on the ice,” he said. “Speed, skill and good hockey sense. He wasn't perfect and he wasn't the biggest, but he was a good player.” While Dorion sees Stone as a player who figures things out quickly, Hoffman is the type of player who needs time to adjust. That was obvious in the 'Q' and also when he turned pro. The left winger actually spent some time in the ECHL before it finally clicked for him. Dorion said that he needed to learn how to be a pro, but once he did, Hoffman lacerated the AHL for 30 goals in 51 games last season.
“When you're 24 and that dominant in the AHL,” Dorion said, “you're going to be a good NHLer.” And Hoffman has been good this season. He repped the Senators at the All-Star Game in Columbus as one of the Young Stars and has put up an emphatic 27 goals and 48 points in 78 games. Some credit for the development of youngsters such as Stone, Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, Curtis Lazar and others has to go to coach Dave Cameron, who took over for the fired Paul MacLean.
Cameron has used the kids more and though that's partially due to veteran injuries, it's also because of trust. “Dave's had faith in the younger guys,” Dorion said. “And a lot of these young guys have great character – look at Curtis Lazar and how he's playing as a 19-year-old.” Cameron has the youngsters do extra work after practice and it's clearly paying off. The kids have been huge for the Sens as they made up an insane amount of ground on Pittsburgh and other Eastern teams in the past month.
And whether or not Ottawa makes the playoffs in the end, the Sens are going to be scary next year with players like Stone and Hoffman on the rise.