OTTAWA - Jared Cowen is only 23, but the Ottawa Senators expect him to raise his game and offer some veteran stability on the blue-line in his fourth season with the club.
What puts Cowen in a somewhat awkward position is that he's only played 158 NHL games.
Cowen had a solid rookie season, playing all 82 games while scoring five goals and adding 12 assists. The Senators were pleased with his development and saw a promising future.
Things didn't go as planned.
With the lockout the following year Cowen began the season playing for Ottawa's American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, but after just three games required surgery for a torn labrum in his left hip.
He managed to return to play the final seven games of the regular season and Ottawa's 10 playoff games that spring, but it was clear he was still labouring.
Last season Cowen missed the start of training camp due to a contract dispute and struggled most of the season to find consistency in his game.
Cowen finished the season with six goals and 15 points after 68 games.
"I knew it right after games if I didn't play well," Cowen said. "It's a hard league and you can't always flip the switch on and off whenever you want to be better. I think it's all in the preparation and looking at what you did in the last game and what you did well and what you did bad and I think I did that after the season."
Cowen would like to put last season behind him, but he says there are lessons to be learned from hard times.
"You just learn about what kind of player you are and what you need to be better," Cowen said. "When you play bad you realize what you were doing wrong and how much of a difference it makes."
Cowen took a different approach this past summer to his off-season training. He worked with a skating coach, as well as a skills coach, and even took up Pilates.
"The main thing was just getting my body back to normal," Cowen said. "I didn't want to have to worry about it day in and day out. I kind of went off the beaten path and it feels like it's paid off."
Cowen has looked good in training camp and says he's in a good place both mentally and physically.
"I feel good enough to the point where I can just play and not worry about how I feel out there," he said. "That's what I was doing last year. It was a battle between thinking about the game and just trying to skate well. This year I feel like I'm just playing hockey instead of worrying about that stuff."
So far the Senators have been pleased with Cowen's play of late. They have mainly paired him with Cody Ceci, but with Marc Methot sidelined with a back injury Cowen has also found himself playing alongside star defenceman Erik Karlsson.
Senators head coach Paul MacLean said the Cowen-Karlsson pairing could be a possibility, but he is more concerned with Cowen's overall performance rather than who his defence partner is.
"The first thing we'd like to see from (Jared) is health and then to get himself back to where he was two years ago," MacLean said. "Back to the player when he was a physical presence and he made simple plays and he did things. We're just looking for him to get back there and then be consistent. Once he gets consistent maybe then we can raise expectations and say can you get to here and get to here."
MacLean says he's well aware that many might still consider Cowen a young player. Of the Senators top eight defencemen only Ceci is younger, but MacLean says it's time to remove labels.
"I think Jared's one of the players on our team that we have to take the young label off of now, he's a player," said MacLean. "He has to be a player. It's time for him. Right now we just need good players and we need them to be good players and Jared would be one of those."
Notes: The Binghamton Senators left for France Monday and will play three pre-season games during its nine-day trip. Mike Hoffman, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Curtis Lazar, Matt Puempel, Alex Grant, Fredrik Claesson, Buddy Robinson, David Dziurzynsk and Aaron Johnson will remain with the NHL club. Robin Lehner will get the start in Tuesday's pre-season game against Winnipeg and Craig Anderson will play the final 30 minutes of the game.