Nick Paul has been called up and sent down more than the big forward wishes to count.
He’s hoping the time is right for him to finally stick in the NHL.
Paul has played 56 times for the Ottawa Senators since making his debut in February 2016, but that initial 24-game stint remains the longest of his career.
The Mississauga, Ont., native got into the lineup in 2016-17 just once under then newly hired head coach Guy Boucher — who has a track record of not trusting youngsters — played 11 times the following season and is coming off a campaign where he made 20 appearances for the league’s 31st-place club.
In between, Paul got pretty familiar with the highways of upstate New York and eastern Ontario. He’s played a total of 214 games in the American Hockey League with the Senators’ affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., and Belleville, Ont., and hopes there isn’t a 215th.
“This year is the make-or-break year,” Paul said at last week’s BioSteel camp in Toronto. “Am I an NHL player or am I a good AHL player? That’s the way I think of it.
“I know how to play the professional game now. My consistency, everything I need to work on, I’ve improved on. I’m excited.”
Part of that excitement comes from a fresh start with a new coaching staff. Boucher was fired at the tail end of last season, and D.J. Smith — a former assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs — was tabbed for the top job in May.
“(Smith) just put it straight to me: ‘If you work hard and are ready to go, it’s there. I’m going to be fair,’” said Paul, who has four goals and four assists in the NHL. “That made my summer a lot more exciting and made me work that much harder.
“If I work hard, I’m the best I can be and outplay my competition, then I have a chance.”
There should be spots open in Ottawa’s bottom-6, but that also means plenty of competition, including from his linemates in Belleville last season, Logan Brown and Drake Batherson.
The trio put up good numbers in the AHL, with Paul registering 16 goals and 39 points in 43 games.
But as Boucher stubbornly kept to his belief in veterans, the 24-year-old never really got a chance in Ottawa with just one goal and one assist. He averaged eight minutes 28 seconds of ice time per night in his 20 NHL outings before getting sent down again to help Belleville in what would turn into a futile push for a playoff spot.
“The communication was good,” Paul said of his conversations with Senators general manager Pierre Dorion. “It wasn’t just, ‘Go down.’ They explained that.”
Willing to do What is Necessary
As the rebuilding Senators turn the page towards another season where they’re expected to once again face an uphill climb, Paul is willing to do whatever it takes to stay in the league for good.
And with so many young players, whether he stays or goes will probably come down to the details of his game without the puck.
“You have to be good in the defensive zone,” said Paul, who can play centre or wing. “You have to make sure when you’re on the ice (the coaches) aren’t worried about it being basically a power play because you’re sitting in the circles.”
At six foot four and 230 pounds, Paul has the frame to succeed in the NHL, but with speed now the league’s most important currency, he’s focused on that the last few summers.
“I’m a big guy, but I feel like I can skate,” he said. “I’ve got pretty quick feet that I’ve been working on. I’ve got a little bit of offensive touch. If I can create turnovers and have a good stick and throw my body around on the forecheck, I can make a big impact.”
Part of the package that came the other way when Ottawa traded captain and star centre Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars in July 2014, Paul went from relative obscurity to talking point in a Canadian market before ever donning his new team’s sweater.
He was prepared for the increased attention, but that didn’t make it any easier.
“With social media and everything nowadays, you get a little more heat,” said Paul, the 101st pick in the 2013 draft. “I don’t tune into it anymore. When I’m on the ice it’s hockey. When I’m off, I just tune it out.
“I don’t pay attention to social media because we all know how mental that can be.”
Paul, who won gold with Canada at the 2015 world junior hockey championship, is buoyed by last season’s finish and hopes to carry that momentum into training camp next week as he looks to finally cement stake his NHL claim.
“I want to go into camp with the same mentality, same stride,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press