Any team aspiring to play competitive hockey at the NHL level understands that the length of the journey underscores the overall aim of lasting promise. Consider the Ottawa Senators, who reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17 with a veteran-laden club.
But the success proved short-lived as the Senators underwent a rebuilding effort, opting to build around their youth. Three years later, the roster scantly resembles the same team with just four players remaining from a club that was an overtime goal away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.
Amid their recent roster reconstruction, it was the play of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a holdover from those teams, that provides the Senators with a much desired veteran presence. The 27- year-old is a revelation in his eighth professional season, leading the team with 11 goals in his first 18 games and 15 points. Stout line chemistry and a deft scoring touch helped Pageau to become one of the league’s early surprises.
“It’s nothing special right now other than the bounces I have been getting with the puck,” Pageau explains. “It could have been anybody on the line because they never stop working, but their efforts have opened up some chances for me, and we have been trying to build a culture and an identity that we are a hard team to beat every night.”
“Pageau is a smart player. He stays above you and lets you make a mistake, and then he capitalizes,” Senators head coach D.J. Smith said. “He doesn’t force things offensively, and lets you make the mistakes.”
Throughout his career, Pageau profiled as a steady role player that can contribute as a top-six forward on both ends of the ice, but was not a primary scoring option. He averaged 11 goals and 31 points since the 2014-2015 season, but never produced at his present rate. A factor in his recent aberration is a shooting percentage that stands near the top of the league at 24.4 percent and more than doubling his career norm.
“Sometimes the pucks go the other way, but they have been going my way of late, and hopefully it keeps going this way,” Pageau said. “We have all been trying to do the same things shooting the puck and crashing the backdoor of the net, and it’s been huge because we keep creating traffic that leads to chances.”
His most significant stretch of sustained production is in the month of November, where he collected eight goals in seven games, including his first career regular season hat trick against the New Jersey Devils on November 13. Pageau credits the play of his linemates for their developing rapport in recent weeks for his performance uptick and the unit’s budding cohesion.
“I think my linemates have been awesome,” he said. “They work so hard every day and make it easy for me because we have good chemistry on the ice. We spend a lot of time off the ice together and do a lot of video work. I think all of us are hard-working players that keep play simple, and that’s what is working so well right now.”
“We had a really good group effort that had us believing in ourselves,” Pageau said about the hat trick. “Even when trailing, we knew we could come back and push things, and it worked to our advantage. Over the last few weeks, I have been able to play with Nick Paul, and we have played well together. I feel like we are all the same types of players.”
Pageau’s blistering start leaves the Senators in an interesting position when it comes to his future. He is the final year of a three-year, $9.3 million contract with the chance to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career. In the midst of their rebuilding effort, the Senators identified a core for development. They recently tendered long-term deals to Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, and Colin White with an eye towards the coming years.
The Senators know with a young roster that leadership and a veteran presence can have a significant influence on the direction of the franchise when the time comes to contend in the distant future. Players such as Pageau and veteran netminder Craig Anderson help ease the transition with their play on the ice and their presence in the dressing room.
“I think we have to trust the process,” Anderson said. “The biggest asset I can bring is that I’m the hardest working guy here. Make sure that I’m pushing these guys to get better by bringing my practice habits and my work habits. Guys want to score goals and points. That’s what’s fun about hockey; scoring goals and getting points. It starts with structure and discipline. Overall, if we can get the percentage up of how we play, it will be great for our confidence moving forward.”