OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators are rebuilding and it’s two projects that are playing a big part in the retooling right now.
When the season began forwards Colin Greening and Erik Condra, a pair of seventh-round draft choices from 2005 and 2006, respectively, weren't expected to make the breakthrough to regulars in the Senators’lineup.
However, after a year of much gloom in Ottawa, they’ve emerged as bright lights at a time when the club is making plans for its future.
“The opportunity that we’ve gotten is one you didn’t expect but you’ve got to take advantage of it,”Condra said Wednesday.
Greening and Condra were both recalled from Binghamton of the American Hockey League last month as the exodus of veterans and big contracts began.
With the Senators out of the playoff picture, veteran forwards Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu and Alex Kovalev were among those offloaded for draft picks as the team decided a rebuild was in order.
Add in a season-ending shoulder injury to Peter Regin and chronic back problem that’s likely sidelined captain Daniel Alfredsson for the rest of the year and the door was opened for Greening and Condra to step through.
The Senators have since shuttled players back and forth from Binghamton, but the youngsters have been mainstays since and are proving they belong at the NHL level.
They're among the players that had owner Eugene Melnyk stating Tuesday a turnaround in Ottawa may not take as long as initially feared by those who've watched the Senators tumble to the Eastern Conference basement.
“It’s a great opportunity for a bunch of us young guys,”Condra said.“I know there’s not going to be as many spots next year as there are right now, but hopefully some of us have put ourselves in a position where they have to take a serious look at us for next year.”
Condra, a 24-year-old native of Trenton, Mich., was the 211th player selected in the 2006 draft after his freshman season at Notre Dame. He spent three more years with the Fighting Irish before moving on to Binghamton last season.
The six-foot, 188-pound right-winger made his NHL debut Feb. 15 against the New York Islanders with an assist and in 14 games, he’s recorded four goals, including two game-winners, and two assists. A hard-worker with good hockey sense, he’s recently been playing 16-to-18 minutes a night.
“You’re so nervous when you come up here for the first time, but getting that shot to play a few games really boosts your confidence,”Condra said as the Senators prepared to face the New Jersey Devils on Thursday night.
Condra had both goals in a 2-1 win at Newark last week to seriously dent the Devils’late-season push for a playoff spot.
“I think I fit in well up here just because the players here are smarter, they know where to be more and that helps my game and complements my game,”he said.“Overall, I think we bring energy and we’re excited.
"We’re not the 20-year-old kids, inexperienced, immature rookies. We’ve gone to college, I’m 24 years old and we’ve been through a little bit more, but we’re still excited and we’ve still got that youth and excitement about playing up here.”
Greening, a 25-year-old from St. John’s, N.L., has played a prominent role since becoming a regular. He skates at left wing on the top line alongside star centre Jason Spezza and fellow call-up Bobby Butler.
The Senators selected him 204th overall in 2005 out of Upper Canada College. He played four seasons with Cornell before joining Binghamton in the fall.
He made his NHL debut at New Jersey on Feb. 1, then returned Feb. 18 and has been a mainstay since. In 14 games with Ottawa, Greening has two goals and four assists.
“It’s been a real positive experience and I’m fortunate enough to get on a line with Jason Spezza,”Greening said.“He’s given me a lot of advice and that’s really helpful, especially when you’re new on a team.”
The six-foot-three, 211-pound Greening made a big impression during the Senators’annual skills competition last month when he set a team record for fastest skater. Greening then finished second to defenceman Matt Carkner for the team’s hardest shot.
“He’s a big guy and likes to get in on the forecheck, so I put pucks in his corners a little bit more and let him do the work there,”Spezza said.
Even Greening has been surprised by his development since realizing in training camp he needed to improve his speed, both with his skates and decision-making.
After starting the year on Binghamton’s fourth line, he’s now on Ottawa’s first.
“To be able to get some games up here was the furthest thing on my mind,”he said.“I’m really surprised and very happy with how the year has gone.
“I had high expectations for myself and when I came to camp, I realized I had a lot to learn. Even when I was down in the AHL, I remember I had a good couple of exhibition games in Newfoundland with Binghamton and I felt,‘Oh wow, I think I can be a player down in the AHL.’But when I got back to Binghamton and they sent all of the guys down, I was on the fourth line and I realized that,‘Wow, there’s a lot of skilled guys and they’re down in the AHL.’
“At that point, I just wanted to make sure I stayed on the Binghamton Senators.”
NOTES—Goalie Craig Anderson didn’t practise Wednesday and coach Cory Clouston said he may not be able to play Thursday night because of an undisclosed injury . . . The Senators returned defenceman Andre Benoit and centre Jim O’Brien to Binghamton on Wednesday.