Senators find right mix of youth, leadership

by Nicole Del Villano || AHL On The Beat Archive

This year’s Binghamton Senators have a healthy mix of young and seasoned players. Second-year head coach Luke Richardson learned last year that this combination benefits both parties. Two months into the season, Richardson sees how the young guys bring a welcomed tempo to the ice.

“Youth brings excitement and energy,” Richardson said. “I tried to use that as a philosophy here and I think it worked well.”

Richardson’s philosophy spoke for itself as he brought his 2012-13 team to a 44-24-1-7 record and the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs before being eliminated by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Going into his second year as head coach, Richardson was once again ready to work with one of the youngest teams in the league.

With an average age of 23.1 years old, the B-Sens are the youngest club in the East Division.

“The big key is a few of those guys had a chance to come in and play a few games at the end of last year and it was a huge experience,” Richardson said. “It helped them for this year. I think they feel more comfortable; they almost seem like veterans.”

A couple players included in that group are the youngest on the team — forward Matt Puempel, 20, and defenseman Cody Ceci, 19. Both players saw time with the Senators at the end of the 2012-13 season, and now the rookies are two of only four skaters to appear in each of Binghamton’s first 22 games this season.

“It’s much different from two years ago when you’re 18 until now when you’re 20,” Puempel said. “We learned from these guys and to get the opportunity last year helped a lot. To start off the year we are excited to learn a lot and looking forward to that dream of playing in the National Hockey League.”

Both rookies’ first full seasons in Binghamton have been successful so far on the ice.

Puempel’s 11 points (six goals, five assists) have him eighth among the B-Sens’ scorers. Ceci continues making a strong impression, holding the third spot for the Senators at 15 points with two goals and 13 assists and ranking third among all AHL rookie defensemen in scoring.

With a successful start to the season, the youngest players try not spend too much of their time paying attention to statistics.

“Ottawa sends us here in order to develop and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Puempel said. “For the most part we are trying to focus on different areas to improve and have fun with that and try not to put too much pressure on ourselves.”

The Binghamton Senators currently have six players 21 years old and under on their roster, and only three 25 or older. Having a team so close in age is something Ceci found to help with his transition to the B-Sens.

“It helps to have a young team, so we don’t really stand out as the youngest guys,” Ceci said. “It’s fortunate for us to only have guys a year older so it makes you feel more comfortable. It works well that we have a young, hard-working team and it gives us tons of opportunities.”

Off the ice the age of the team has also brought different experiences. Veteran goalie Nathan Lawson is one of the few players who are married with a family at home. One of the off-ice adventures was bringing his 10-month-old daughter, Presleigh, around the team.

“They are very good with her; I was a little nervous at first,” Lawson said. “It’s pretty neat to see these guys, like some rugged guys, and then this little baby and they are very gentle and caring for her. It’s awesome.”

Another veteran, 27-year-old Tyler Eckford, has been able to help the rest of the team adjust to life in Binghamton. Eckford is another married player on the team, but does not find that to be a barrier between him and the rookies coming in.

“We had Canadian Thanksgiving dinner at our house,” Eckford said. “Our team is really good; we all kind of hang out together. It’s not like a few guys here and a few guys there. My wife is pretty much the same age as them so we all integrate.”

Being a part of the AHL since 2008, Eckford has been able to work with different teams and gain experience. The energy and excitement from being around a younger team stands out the most in his time with Binghamton.

“We have a lot of leadership in our younger guys in that locker room, so I think they’ve taken it upon themselves and it shows,” Eckford said. “I’ve been on a couple teams with a lot of older guys and sometimes it’s dark and gloomy coming to the rink, but with such a young crew of guys in there they are excited to be at the rink everyday and they are excited to win. They want to win.”

Also in the AHL since 2008, Lawson has found a similar feeling from the youthfulness on Binghamton’s teams both past and present.

“Last year, with playing with [Robin] Lehner — he was young and obviously an up-and-coming star,” Lawson said. “He was always so passionate and had that fire and I think it kind of rubbed off on me.”

A grinding work ethic coupled with some well-timed fun complement a young team that hungers for more, Lawson said.

With a unified strong work ethic in place, age becomes a number once players lace up and take to the ice, Richardson said. “When you get in the dressing room, get on the ice there really is no age just experience. To have the experience is good; to have the youthfulness around you is really good. I think it keeps everyone feeling young. It’s a good, positive energy.”

The positive energy has worked so far for the Senators, who currently sit tied for first place in the East Division and hold a 14-7-0-1 record.