One of the hottest topics at Senators training camp this year is the vacancy at the second line center position. There are a number of strong, albeit young, candidates vying for the job. Peter Regin, Mika Zibanejad and Stephane Da Costa are all in the mix. It’s an interesting situation since Peter Regin is coming off a disastrous season and blue chip prospect Mika Zibanejad is eager to make a name for himself in camp. Stephane Da Costa is a real wild card since his brief NHL stint last season was underwhelming at best. He has already shown his ability to dominate against much younger competition at the recent rookie tournament and needs to carry his strong play into main camp. With Bryan Murray having indicated his personal preference of using Zach Smith in the third line center spot during an interview on the Fan 590, the Senators have three men for one vacant center spot. The Senators have options with these players which may make their decision that much easier. Mika is eligible to return to the Swedish Elite League and Da Costa is eligible to play in the AHL. Peter Regin is the lone center with NHL experience and appears to have the backing of management. On paper, it looks like the choice is obvious. That does not mean it won’t get interesting.
To make my case I have decided to examine the career paths of five undrafted forwards who have had a variety of success since being inked from the NCAA . For the purpose of projecting the career path of Da Costa in this article we’ll be looking at the first two years of their respective professional hockey careers to identify the timeline required by highly touted collegiate players to make the jump to the NHL.
Tyler Bozak, Toronto Maple Leafs
|2008-09||U. of Denver||WCHA||19||8||15||23||10|
|2009-10||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||37||8||19||27||6||-5|
|2010-11||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||82||15||17||32||14||-29|
After his sophomore season with University of Denver, Bozak signed a two-year deal in 2009. After suffering an injury earlier in the year, Bozak did not play in any games at the end of the season and opted instead to spend the time recovering from the injury. He was cut from training camp in 2009 and began his professional career in the AHL with the Marlies before being recalled for spot duty in October and was immediately returned following the game. In January of the same season, he was recalled and has stuck with the NHL team since.
It took Bozak a mere 32 games in the AHL to crack the NHL as a 23 year old.
Bobby Butler, Ottawa Senators
|2009-10||U. of New Hampshire||H-East||39||29||24||53||20|
As a heavily recruited free agent in 2010, Butler signed a two-year contract with the Senators. He was promptly called to duty with the Senators at the end of the 2009-2010 season at the age of 22. Butler attended training camp in 2010 and was assigned to Binghamton in the AHL. Butler had a stellar start to the AHL season in 2010-2011 which saw him named to the AHL All-Star game in his rookie year. Shortly after he would be recalled and finish out the year in Ottawa getting stronger as he gained NHL experience.
Butler was recalled by the floundering Senators at age 23 after playing in 47 AHL games and finished the season on the Senators roster.
Christian Hanson, Signed by Toronto
|2008-09||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||5||1||1||2||2||-1|
|2009-10||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||31||2||5||7||16||-2|
|2010-11||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||6||0||0||0||4||0|
Hanson played his collegiate hockey at Notre Dame and was not as heavily recruited as the others listed above. A big boy and more famous for his father’s cult status than his hockey skill, he was signed as a free agent at the end of the 2008-2009 season to a two-year deal. Hanson suited up for his first NHL game three days later in April of 2009. At age 23, Hanson split the 2009-2010 season between the AHL and the NHL. It was a year of mixed results for Hanson which saw him score at almost a point a game in the AHL and produced moderate results in the NHL over 31 games. The following season, Hanson spent the majority of his time in the AHL where he produced roughly the same amount of points as the season prior while playing in 20 more games. He got a short cup of coffee in the NHL with Toronto in 2010-2011 and was not resigned by the team. He is currently under contract with Washington.
Some might say we’re still waiting for Christian Hanson to arrive. Although he played the bulk of his NHL games at age 23 it is clear that at this point Hanson’s career is on the downswing. Unlike Butler and Bozak, Hanson has incredible size which surely expedited his NHL call-up. However his career path does somewhat mirror Butler and Bozak’s as he received playing time shortly after his contract was signed before biding his time in the minors for almost half a season.
Andy McDonald, Signed by Anaheim
|2000-01||Anaheim Mighty Ducks||NHL||16||1||0||1||6||0|
|2000-01||Cincinnati Mighty Ducks||AHL||46||15||25||40||21||9|
|2001-02||Anaheim Mighty Ducks||NHL||53||7||21||28||10||2|
|2001-02||Cincinnati Mighty Ducks||AHL||21||7||25||32||6||13|
|2002-03||Anaheim Mighty Ducks||NHL||46||10||11||21||14||-1|
After a standout career with Colgate University, the undersized McDonald was signed by Anaheim in 2000 to a two-year contract. After signing in April, McDonald made his NHL debut in November of 2000. He played 16 games with the Ducks in the 2000-2001 season and played 46 games in the AHL where he found his scoring touch. In the 2001-2002 season he earned more NHL ice time and saw a modest increase in point production from the past season and lit up the AHL with 32 points in 21 games. He would solidify a spot on the Anaheim roster in 2002-2003 season before being sidelined with the first of many concussion related issues. Despite the injuries Andy continues to enjoy a successful NHL career.
After spending two seasons between the AHL and NHL he would becomes a full time regular in the 2002-2003 season at the age of 25 but was an effective contributor through the bulk of the 2001-2002 season at 24 years-old. This is an interesting comparison as both had stellar senior seasons in the NCAA and are almost exactly the same size (McDonald is 5’10, 185lbs and Da Costa is 5’11, 180lbs). McDonald’s career path, despite his size, bodes well for Da Costa in the future and should not be seen as a deterrent to his professional success.
Rene Bourque, Signed by Chicago
|2003-04||U. of Wisconsin||WCHA||42||16||20||36||74|
Bourque was signed as an undrafted free agent in the summer of 2004 after his university graduation. He was immediately assigned to Norfolk in the AHL as a 23 year-old where he posted impressive numbers in his first professional season. Bourque has the added benefit of a bigger body which surely aided his rapid rise to the NHL ranks. In 2005 he made the Blackhawks out of training camp and displayed a knack for burying the puck and scored a modest 16 goals in his first NHL season. Bourque has since shown he is more than capable of producing at the NHL level.
Bourque cracked the Hawks lineup at 24 after one full season honing his craft in the AHL.
Stephane Da Costa, Ottawa Senators
Da Costa was one of the most coveted undrafted free agents last season and signed a two-year deal with the Senators on March 30, 2011. He would make his NHL debut days later and played in four games at the end of the season. As a highly skilled and slightly undersized forward Da Costa has been able to contribute offensively at every level. He is currently in the mix to grab a roster spot while participating in his first NHL training camp.
Based on the career paths of the five other players I have profiled, it is not unreasonable to assume that Da Costa will spend some amount of time in the AHL this season. Like with the other high profile free agents, he will need to demonstrate his skill in the minors before being rewarded with a regular shift in the NHL. Da Costa has the added benefit of playing for a offensively starved Ottawa roster currently auditioning players for the second line center position with the big club. As an offensive threat Da Costa will surely receive a fair shake at camp. It is my personal opinion that based on historical events that Da Costa, no matter how strong a camp, will begin the season in the AHL. His NHL call-up should come at some point this season failing a complete disaster and he should look to solidify a full-time spot with the Senators after camp in 2012.