When the Ottawa Senators hit the ice for the start of what promises to be a very long season Wednesday night, they’ll do so with a 27-year-old rookie who is coming off an eight-point season in the minors and made the team as a long shot after signing a professional tryout contract. If he didn’t know him before, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs certainly knows who Scott Sabourin is now.
Sabourin’s ascension into the NHL will serve as a nice, little heartwarming yarn about a local kid who fought his way through the minors and persevered to get a shot at playing in the best league in the world. But this should concern Senators fans on a couple of fronts. First, that rookie coach D.J. Smith is bucking the obvious trend that the NHL is clearly following by employing a one-dimensional enforcer into his lineup. And Smith can talk all he wants about how hard Sabourin works, but the kid has played 311 games in the minors and has more career fights (50) than goals (37) in the AHL. In the four pre-season games in which he appeared, Sabourin averaged 9:06 in ice time and had zero points on three shots. But he did have two rather spirited fights, one with Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Ben Harpur and another with Max Domi of the Montreal Canadiens. It’s very, very clear why this player is in Ottawa’s lineup.
The other, and more disturbing development, is that Sabourin actually made the decision so easy for Smith to make and justify. And that’s something that should have fans in Ottawa a little concerned. Logan Brown was in his fourth training camp in Ottawa and simply did not show well enough to crack a roster that will undoubtedly one of the most talent-bereft in the NHL. Fellow prospect Alex Formenton didn’t do much either. Drake Batherson, by most accounts, was a disappointment in camp, but managed to stick on the opening-night roster. All told, Brown, Formenton, Batherson and Vitaly Abramov – all top 10 prospects in the organization - had gold-plated invitations to take a roster spot in camp and didn’t accomplish much more than Sabourin did. In a combined 13 pre-season games, that quartet of supposedly offensive players had a grand total of one assist and nine shots on goal.
Sabourin, meanwhile, earned a spot in the lineup by working really hard and answering the bell and standing up for his teammates. So if hockey is actually a meritocracy, then it’s safe to assume Sabourin belongs in the lineup. But it also says a lot more about the Senators than it does about Scott Sabourin.
I’ve never met the young man and I’m sure he’s a wonderful person. I know this because all the guys who beat up people on the ice for a living could not be more diametrically opposed to their on-ice personas. They’re all big teddy bears who are the first to volunteer for charity work and love little kids. And there is little doubt that he has literally fought his way to be where he is now and, like every enforcer who has ever lived, worked diligently to get his chance. But guess what? There are a lot of skill players with character who have worked just as hard, maybe even harder, who will never see an NHL game live unless they purchase a ticket for one. And like a lot of fighters, Sabourin doesn’t always live by “the code” that these tough guys seem to think is so vital to the game. He has been suspended twice in the AHL and once received a 12-game suspension in the OHL for crosschecking an opponent’s head into the glass.
So we’ll see how long this lasts. The Senators signed Sabourin to a one-year contract which will see him make $700,000 (U.S.) in the NHL and $100,000 (Cdn.) in the minors. If he plays the entire season with the Senators, he will be among the lowest-paid players in the league. He will play on the fourth line, receive single-digit minutes in ice time and come out and be the dancing bear when the situation calls for it. For that he’ll be admired and loved by many.
But when a guy of this age and this ability level can make it to the best league in the world, it certainly speaks volumes, both about the culture of the game itself and the organization that employs him.
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