It was the first day of training camp and Ottawa Senators general manager (GM) Pierre Dorion was still receiving ‘attaboys’ for his summertime additions to the team roster.
The mood was light. And then, as I recall, Dorion cupped a hand to his mouth and half-whispered, “now, no injuries.”
In fact, the Senators were cruising along pretty well for most of training camp. Other than injuries to young prospects Zack Ostapchuk and Ridly Greig, who came to camp hurt, there hadn’t been much beyond a few bumps and bruises and what was said to be a minor injury to new goaltender Cam Talbot.
Monday, Oct. 3 came the grim news -- Talbot, 35, acquired from the Minnesota Wild in July for goalie prospect Filip Gustavsson, will be out five to seven weeks with an upper-body injury that is believed to be a cracked rib.
The news was announced the same day the Sens claimed Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken. Hellberg, 31, is a journeyman in the truest sense of the word, having played for more than a dozen professional teams. In just five career NHL games, Hellberg has a 2.81 goals-against average and .869 save percentage. He appeared in one game for the Detroit Red Wings last season.
The news on Talbot is a tough blow for an organization that vows to avoid the slow starts that plagued the past two seasons. While it was up in the air which of Talbot or Anton Forsberg would be the Senators starter -- head coach D.J. Smith called it a “1A 1B’ situation -- it’s all on Forsberg for now.
“It’s unfortunate,” Smith says of the injury to Talbot. “I was under the impression it would be a couple of days, maybe a practice, two practices, and then to hear he’s out for that amount of time, affects us obviously. It’s going to really up Forsberg’s workload, which is why Pierre went out and got a guy (Hellberg).”
The injury occurred during one of the two exhibition games against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Smith said. Talbot received a shot up high, under his pad, and had been managing the injury and continued to ride a bike. An X-ray confirmed something more serious.
On the positive side, Smith said Talbot is hungry to return and that “if there’s a guy who’s going to beat the (prognosis) timeline, I think it’d be him.”
Prospect Mads Sogaard could be considered for the backup role but the organization would like to see him get more minutes in the AHL with Belleville.
The Senators skated in Ottawa on Tuesday morning, prior to taking the train to Montreal for a game Tuesday night against the Canadiens. Forsberg is expected to start for the Senators, with Sogaard backing him up.
Forsberg was terrific for Ottawa last season. At age 29, he earned a three-year, $8.25-million contract off his work in an emergency role as starter Matt Murray was consistently injured. Forsberg, 22-17-4 with a 2.82 goals-against and .917 save percentage for a non-contending Senators team last season, had been a well-travelled, much-waivered goalie to that point. He thrived on the opportunity afforded him by Murray.
Now, he will have to do it again, minus Talbot at least for the first month or so of the season.
The difference now is that Forsberg is THE guy right out of the gate to start the season, a start that is magnified in importance for a Senators team trying to stay competitive early on, in order to contend later in the season.
“I think everyone in our locker room believes in Forsy and knows how hard he works,” Smith said. “And the guys love him. They’re going to play for him and I’m sure when we start, he’ll be ready.”
The incoming Hellberg will join the Senators in time for their East Coast trip this weekend. Hellberg had great numbers in five seasons in the KHL. Hellberg, six-foot-six, 209 pounds, played on the same St. Petersburg KHL team as Senators defenceman Artem Zub from 2018-2020. The big goalie was drafted by Nashville 38th overall in 2011 out of the Frolunda Hockey Club, the former Swedish team of Daniel Alfredsson.
In 2018-19, Hellberg was 24-7-3 with St. Petersburg with a .940 save percentage and 1.32 GAA. In 2021-21 he was 14-4-1, .930 and 1.89.
Watson played with Hellberg
Fourth-line winger Austin Watson played with Hellberg in the minors with Milwaukee of the AHL, Nashville’s farm team. Big guy, good guy, Watson says.
“He’s tall, he’s super athletic,” Watson said. “He’s a competitor. He works. So, we'll love him here. I know I get along with him great. I’m excited for him to get here. You know, it’s a good opportunity for him.”
Watson recalls a playoff series against Texas where Hellberg stood on his head to steal a victory for Milwaukee. Moreover, he credits Hellberg for persevering, returning to North America again to give pro hockey a shot in 2022 after several years in the KHL.
“To come over here at 30, 31, however old he is, and give it another chance definitely takes a lot of determination,” Watson said. “You give the guy credit for that.”