OTTAWA - Ottawa Senators prospect Patrick Wiercioch is making the most of his opportunities, because he's well aware of how quickly they can slip away.
Wiercioch's career nearly came to an end before it even started when he took a puck to the throat during an American Hockey Legue game in December 2011.
Just over a year later, he is fully recovered and looking to crack the Senators' blue-line corps.
Wiercioch was hit in the throat by a clearing attempt while playing for the AHL's Binghamton Senators last season. He broke a bone in the back of his neck and doctors were unsure if he would ever fully recover, but seven weeks later he was back on the ice with his teammates.
It's a defining moment in the young player's career, but he prefers not to dwell on the incident.
"I became appreciative of a lot of things," Wiercioch said. "It was probably a lot more difficult for my friends and family than it was on me until I was able to take some time away from it and really look at what could have happened that day. I had a lot of people looking out for me.
"I take every day as a blessing and thinking about it less makes it easier."
Wiercioch, drafted 42nd overall in 2008 by the Senators, is expected to be a part of the team's future, but this could be the time to prove he belongs. With injuries to defencemen Jared Cowen and Mike Lundin the Senators are looking to see if one of its young prospects can fill the void.
In an effort to improve his game the 22-year-old worked hard all summer and took on a training regimen based in Ottawa to help add weight and muscle to his six-foot-five frame. Wiercioch is now weighing in at 205 pounds and feeling good about his game. He was paired with veteran Sergei Gonchar for the second straight practice.
"Playing 20-25 minutes a night in Binghamton this year and playing in all situations has really helped my confidence," Wiercioch said. "The first couple of years you're focused on not making mistakes and when you're doing that you're not always making the right play."
Wiercioch had set his sights on cracking the roster and was looking forward to the challenge of training camp before the lockout took place.
"I was more focused this year on creating my own opportunity," Wiercioch said. "I wanted to play well enough to earn a spot or to earn a look in a tryout so I think that's what the start of the year in Binghamton was all about. To get that confidence up and be ready if the season did start to be up here."
Wiercioch had extra incentive to make this year's roster, as he would love nothing more than to play with childhood friend Kyle Turris.
The two B.C. natives played together since they were nine, first for the North Shore Winter Club and then the Jr. A Burnaby Express. The pair continued to train together in the off-season and it was Turris who suggested Wiercioch join him in Ottawa this past summer.
The workouts were gruelling, but made easier by the friendly competition between the two.
"It's really neat to have him here," Turris said. "To be able to open an NHL training camp together and have the opportunity to play together during the season is really special."
Senators general manager Bryan Murray has identified Wiercioch as one of the Senators most intriguing young players in camp.
"We can talk about the other guys, but Patrick two years ago wasn't really strong enough in the American Hockey League and didn't play all the time and last year I talked to him a couple of times and he was concerned about what we were helping him get to," Murray said. "But he made a huge commitment in the off-season, along with Kyle Turris, to come in here and spend a big part of the summer here and he got stronger and he looks much better.
"I think he's ready to play and he's a guy that we really need to play, but he should be a good asset for this hockey club."
Murray fell short of guaranteeing Wiercioch a spot in the lineup, but he did say "he's the one kid that's made the best strides in the last six months."
Prior to being called up for camp Wiercioch had ten goals and nine assists in 32 games with Binghamton and was part of the team's top defence pairing, with AHL veteran Andre Benoit.
Benoit is also hoping to take advantage of the Senators' injuries on defence.
The 29-year-old spent last season playing in Russia's KHL, but with hopes of returning to the NHL Benoit chose to sign with Binghamton . This is his second stint with the Senators organization as he played in Binghamton in 2010-11 and was called up to Ottawa for eight games, where he made his NHL debut.
During the first two days of camp Benoit has found himself paired alongside Mark Borowiecki, another young hopeful looking to crack the lineup.
While he's comfortable with his young players, Murray hasn't ruled out bringing in a more veteran player on the blue-line.
"Our priority right now is to watch our own people,”Murray said. "We have a number of young guys that probably are deserving of a look early on in particular and then we'll have to see."
The Senators anticipate carrying 22 or 23 players to start the season.
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