Up until recently it was almost a given that David Rundblad would not only get a long look at camp, but was automatically penciled in for at least third pairing minutes, sheltered ice time and lots of powerplay work. He has an out to go back to Sweden where Cowen can be more readily stored in Binghamton; he supposedly brings much-needed offense to a team that will struggle to score goals; and with expectations low for the season, the team can afford to throw him in to develop and allow him to make mistakes. All of this could still happen, but the framework we’ve all subscribed to is already off the rails.
Rundblad hasn’t played poorly, but has run into exactly the kinds of challenges someone who has never played in the NHL can be expected to encounter: greater size and greater speed. It’s been Ottawa’s other blue chip defensive prospect, Jared Cowen, who has declared himself ready to play, and in retrospect this should be obvious. He’s acclimatized to North American play already. He’s massive. And he’s also done pretty much everything he can at the minor league and AHL level.
More surprising, perhaps, has been Brian Lee, who skated almost 25 minutes (!) during Friday’s game, and had a goal and an assist last Wednesday against Boston. He’s playing big minutes in tough situations, is taking the body and playing sound positional defense, and moving the puck well. And while his low paycheck and the assumption that he’s already reached his ceiling implies that he’s press box-bound, he’s simply playing too well to not get a few games to start the season—probably at Carkner’s expense. After all: Carkner is cheap too, and the more pugilistic facets of his game are supplied by the addition of Konopka. Hard to imagine the coaching staff finally getting what they want out of Lee—who, after all, is only 24—only to sacrifice it to accommodate their logjam on the backend.
So us fans are faced with the decision of keeping intact all of our offseason speculation, all of the forced excitement of imagining not one but TWO Karlssons on our team, and the less-than-sensational prospect that Brian Lee can step in an be an NHL player right now. You can bet on the latter: Murray once gave up a late first round pick for Chris Campoli, an unspectacular defenseman who could nonetheless contribute right away. There’s obviously value in that. If there’s only one spot available, Lee deserves it, based not only on his play this year but also his dues paid in the organization’s system.
So, while it might seem mildly disappointing to think that our supposed Calder-candidate Rundblad might not be able to casually step into the best hockey league in the world and dominate, Sens fans should be overjoyed by Lee’s strong showing, that Cowen is more than ready, and that Karlsson still looks great. The youth movement is still underway, just in slightly different form than expected.