OTTAWA - The Ottawa Senators are hoping this will be a bounce-back year for Pascal Leclaire.
The 27-year-old could certainly use one after a forgettable first season in the Canadian capital, one where injuries and poor play hamstrung his attempts to live up to the expectations that he’d finally be the answer to the Senators’long-standing search for a top netminder.
But after having a full off-season to prepare, the native of Repentigny, Que., is back and ready to take another run at proving that he’s capable of being that guy, or at least something close to it.
"I worked hard during the summer and we’ll see what happens," Leclaire said Friday from Scotiabank Place, where the Senators opened their training camp with medicals and fitness testing. "The injuries—you guys are going to have new questions this year because it’s always the same stuff. I’m going to repeat the same thing all the time. Things happen and I can deal with them as best as possible. It’s a new season every year, you always have to start over and this year’s no different."
Unlike a year ago, when he was coming off ankle surgery that had kept him out for the better part of eight months leading up to his Ottawa debut, he’s had a full off-season to prepare and is ready to work with Brian Elliott, the player who took over the Senators’No. 1 role during last season.
"The big thing is to be feeling good on the ice and in the last month or so, speaking for myself, I felt good out there, even if it’s only summer hockey," said Leclaire.
Leclaire was picked up in a trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets in March 2009 and, despite having a history of injury trouble that limited his workload since he broke into the league as a full-time NHLer during the 2005-06 season, the Senators thought they’d found their No. 1 goalie. He carried the size of contract to back up that belief.
But after he went 12-14-2 with a 3.20 goals-against average and .887 save percentage, the fans and media began to have higher hopes for the other goaltender the Senators obtained from Columbus–Swede Robin Lehner, drafted with a second-round pick that was part of the deal for Leclaire in exchange for forward Antoine Vermette.
Leclaire did show flashes of talent on occasion and earned himself some good will when he took over from Elliott during a first-round playoff series loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and played well, stopping a franchise-record 56 shots on his way to winning his first playoff appearance.
The fact that bad luck just seems to follow Leclaire around, however, didn’t help him settle in Ottawa, where he was thrust into the spotlight after being able to play in relative anonymity in Columbus.
He was knocked out of the lineup during one game when a stray puck struck him in the face, fracturing his cheekbone, as he sat on the bench serving as backup. On another occasion, forward Mike Fisher caught him with a shot to the head during practice, an opportunity that gave third-stringer Mike Brodeur and Elliott chances to push Leclaire further out of the picture.
Through it all, however, Leclaire was always willing to face the criticism from media and fans. He supported Elliott and quietly waited for another chance and, when it appeared that coach Cory Clouston had made up his mind to stick with Elliott down the stretch, Leclaire never whined about his diminished role.
"Last year was a little bit new and everything, but I’m not the type of guy who gets sucked into that off-ice stuff," he said. "I take it day-by-day. A lot of things change, pretty much on a day-to-day basis here. You’re good one day, you’re bad the other day then you’re good again on Wednesday.
"You’ve got to get used to it and I think we all know what to expect when you’re coming to Canada it’s always like that and that’s what makes it fun. That’s where you want to be part of. When things work out, there’s no better place to be in than a Canadian city."
With camp opening, Leclaire, who’s in the final year of a contract that will pay him US$4.8 million this season before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, is prepared to push Elliott for playing time and to be pushed back, since it’s not clear who Clouston will start the season with as the main guy.
"Healthy competition is always good," Leclaire said. "Both of us want to play as much as we can and I think it’s good for the team if you can push each other and get some good performances out of both guys.
"You guys talk about all the battles and stuff, but we just want to help the team. You guys write whatever and say whatever, I guess it’s better for TV and will sell more newspapers, but for us, it’s trying to help our team and we’re all focusing on the same goal and to try and win as many hockey games as possible.”
Leclaire’s best NHL season was in 2007-08, when he went 24-17-6 with a 2.25 GAA and .920 save percentage, posting nine shutouts, in 54 games. He hasn’t played more than the 34 games he got in last year in any other season, but a return to that form of three seasons ago would be welcome.
"For me, he’s as skilled as they come, he’s as quick as they come," said new Senators goaltending coach Rick Wamsley, who’s previously worked with Leclaire in Columbus. "He’s got to use what he has to be a consistent goal. That’s what any player’s looking for, no matter what position they play, is consistency and performance and that’s what we’re going to try and get."