Norris knows Sens camp will be competitive: I'm looking forward to the challenge
On his very first day at an NHL training camp, Josh Norris decided to have a little bit of fun with the media.
“Bonjour,” Norris said loudly as he walked onto the podium to greet cameras and reporters.
His French greeting certainly caught the attention of the media in a bilingual market.
“I’d better stop there,” Norris quickly said with a laugh. “That’s the only word I know.”
Norris appeared at ease in the spotlight on Day 1 of Senators training camp, which is probably a good thing for the 20-year-old because he’s likely going to be attracting a lot of attention in the weeks ahead.
Exactly one year ago – on Sept. 13, 2018 – Norris was one of the centrepieces coming back to Ottawa from San Jose in the blockbuster trade for Erik Karlsson.
A first-round pick by the Sharks in 2017, Norris decided to forgo his final two seasons at the University of Michigan in May because he saw a legitimate opportunity to make the Senators opening-night roster this fall. Now that opening is sitting right in front of him, as there appears to be a need for a high-end centreman in Ottawa.
“I thought, if I’m leaving I’m going to do my best to make the Ottawa Senators roster this season and stick,” Norris said. “That’s just kind of how I’m wired.”
But Norris isn’t the only former first-round pick looking to make the NHL club as a centre in training camp. Logan Brown – who the Senators traded up for to take 11th overall in the 2016 draft – also believes he’s on the cusp of making the final cut.
“I have to beat somebody out of their job – that’s kind of my mindset,” explained Brown. “Showing them that I’m ready to go now, rather than halfway through the year.”
Realistically, there appears to only be room for one of these talented young centres to start the season in the NHL – and there is a scenario where they could both be in Belleville.
Colin White, freshly signed to a six-year contract extension, certainly has the inside track as one of the top two centres to start the season. The fact that White was paired with Brady Tkachuk and Connor Brown on the first day of training camp was a clear indication of his place on the depth chart.
Beyond that, it appears as though Artem Anisimov, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Chris Tierney would slot into roles as centres – although nothing has been promised to anybody under new head coach D.J. Smith.
When asked about the competition around the No. 1 centre job in training camp, the 31-year-old Anisimov indicated that he felt the position was completely up for grabs.
“The spot is available and it’s going to be a fight for it during training camp,” Anisimov said. “Whoever plays the best is going to take over that spot.”
It’s clear that if Norris or Brown elevates their game in training camp, a spot will be made available for them as the organization embraces a commitment to a younger roster.
“That’s something that the staff has mentioned, that there’s lots of opportunity here. You definitely want to take advantage of it,” says Norris. “There are a lot of great players going for the same spot, so it’s going to get competitive. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
“I think if you look at it, there are four established NHL centres there,” added Brown. “For me, it’s coming and proving to the coaching staff that I deserve one of those spots.”
For the 21-year-old Brown, the coming season is a crucial one in his development. The Senators brass has been extremely patient with the towering 6-foot-6 centre as he toggles the fine line between a bona-fide prospect and a long-term project.
Brown is viewed has having all the raw skills – size, vision and soft hands – that are often required of a legitimate No. 1 centreman. However, injuries and inconsistency have been the hallmark of his time in the Ottawa organization, leaving some to question if he will ever put it all together.
If Brown does have one advantage over Norris in this situation, it’s that he already has one year of professional hockey under his belt. He collected 42 points in 56 games with Belleville in the American Hockey League last season.
“My game grew a lot,” Brown said of his rookie season in the AHL. “I learned how to be successful at the pro level and my confidence really grew there. Coming in here, it’s the most confident I’ve been in making the NHL.”
Brown centred Belleville’s top line with Drake Batherson and Nick Paul for a large portion of the second half of the 2018-19 AHL campaign. The trio was the club’s most lethal combination and Brown was reunited on a line with Paul on the first day of Sens training camp on Friday, although it was Max Veronneau on his right wing instead of Batherson.
Brown is hoping there is a chance the line could rekindle its AHL magic at the NHL level at some point this season.
“I think that would be cool if we got that chance. I loved playing with Drake and Paulie,” Brown said. “I think we all complement each other well. It was the American League where we had all of our success, but if we keep playing together, we can do a lot more.”
While Brown has battled injuries in the three years since he’s been drafted by Ottawa, Norris suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championships that required surgery and cut his sophomore season at Michigan short.
“It’s never easy getting hurt. I watched a lot of hockey games in the second half of the year, but at the same time I learned a lot. I benefited in some way from watching,” Norris said. “Obviously, it’s a process with rehab and trying to get back into shape. I think I did a good job of that this summer and came back into camp in really good shape and tested well. Now I just have to go out and play.”