Newly-signed Senators D Tyler Kleven could be a big hit in Ottawa

The Ottawa Senators are nearly finished with the building process, as far as their roster goes. 

The forward group is young and deep, and with the addition of Jakob Chychrun at the trade deadline, the defence corps is solid. The potential of having one of Chychrun, Jake Sanderson and Thomas Chabot on each pairing, if a coach so chooses? Not too shabby (or Chabby, if you prefer). 

The one element missing from the group is that big, mean defenceman who can clear the front of the net. Think Zdeno Chara or Jacob Trouba. 

Well, the Senators just signed a kid they think can provide that missing ingredient on their D. His name is Tyler Kleven. He is six-foot-five, 213 pounds and he is nasty (as a player, not as a person). 

Selected by the Sens in the second round (44th overall) of the 2020 draft, Kleven is the latest in a line of prospects from the University of North Dakota. You probably already know Sanderson, centre Shane Pinto and defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker. 

“He’s a unique player, in our estimation,” said Senators general manager Pierre Dorion, after the signing was announced Thursday morning. “He’s big, he skates, he’s rangy, he defends. 

“I think people will be very appreciative of his skill set, because he can really shoot the puck. He’s someone that is not the type of defenceman we have right now, in our pool of prospects, or on our team. So, he’s someone that we’re really excited to come to terms with.”

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Kleven signed a three-year, entry level deal that will pay him $925,000 per season at the NHL level, and $80,000 in the minors. Dorion said he believes Kleven will contend for a spot with the Senators at training camp. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old native of Fargo, ND was scheduled to arrive in Ottawa on Thursday evening and will skate with the club on Friday. 

He is expected to see some game action before the end of the season, although Dorion said that Kleven was not promised any games as an incentive to sign. 

As the GM noted, the Senators are not in the same position they were in a few years ago, when players like Pinto and Bernard-Docker signed and got into NHL games in the spring. Ottawa was already out of playoff contention by that point. 

Still in the wild-card race by a thread, the Sens will likely work Kleven into the lineup if and when the team is eliminated from playoff contention. 

“We foresee most likely he will be playing some games before the end of the year,” Dorion said. 

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Even if Kleven doesn’t play right away, the organization likes the idea of him being around the team during this final push to continue to play meaningful games. With 11 games left and a lot of ground to make up, a loss or two could change things quickly. But for now, the games matter and Kleven will be a part of that atmosphere. 

“That’s a growth experience that I don’t know if he will be able to achieve until we get to that position (playoff contention) again,” Dorion said. 

A year ago, Dorion says, he thought Kleven might need a year of seasoning in the AHL. But after another year at North Dakota, playing big minutes in all situations, the Senators have seen a lot of growth and maturity in the player. Development coaches Wade Redden, Shean Donovan and Jesse Winchester have all scouted Kleven. 

Kleven was on the USA world junior team in 2021 and 2022 and won gold alongside Sanderson in Edmonton two years ago. 

As evidence of Kleven’s big shot from the point, he actually has more goals (20) than assists (15) in 95 college games. 

What about the glut of left-shooting D, now that Chychrun and Kleven have joined a group that already includes Sanderson, Chabot and Erik Brannstrom?

No biggie, according to Dorion, noting that he believes Brannstrom, Chychrun, Sanderson and Chabot could all play the right side. 

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“I think Chabot can play the right side?” Dorion said, quizzically. “ I’d like to see it, that might be something D.J. (Smith) tries. 

“To me it’s not a big deal. I think we make a way bigger deal out of it than what it is.”

Head coach Smith believes Kleven fits the bill for what a Cup-winning team needs on their blueline. 

He uses the Tampa Bay Lightning as an example. 

“You look at their D and how big they are, this is a kid that fits into that mold,” Smith said. 

UND reunion for Sanderson, Pinto

Naturally, ex-UND players Sanderson and Pinto were excited that their former teammate had signed with the Senators and was joining the club. 

Their scouting report didn’t hold any surprises. 

“He’s a big dude, a really good defender, heavy, heavy shot,” Sanderson said. “Fans will be excited about that.”

Opponents will learn to keep their heads up when Kleven is on the ice, Sanderson said, a reference to his physical play. 

“He’s a shutdown defenceman,” Pinto added. “He has a long stick. He’s rangy and he’s pretty skillful at hitting. I think that’s a skill and he does a really good job at it. He’s going to be an impact player.”

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As a person, Pinto described Kleven as quietly confident. 

“He doesn’t say too much but he’s serious about hockey,” Pinto said. “He came in as a freshman and was already pretty serious. That’s pretty special.”

Merilainen arrives, too

Dorion also announced that goalie prospect Leevi Merilainen is in Ottawa, following his excellent season with Karpat in Finland. Merilainen, 20, is expected to be in Belleville this weekend and could make an appearance with the AHL B-Sens. Merilainen spent the 2021-22 season with the OHL Kingston Frontenacs. 

Talbot, Joseph back skating

The GM provided an injury update. 

Centre Josh Norris, who had shoulder surgery will remain out for the rest of this season. No surprise there. 

Goaltender Anton Forsberg, who suffered MCL tears to both knees, has been ruled out for the rest of the “regular season.” In this way, Dorion left the door open a crack if the Sens were to play beyond game 82 on April 13. Forsberg is progressing well and could be on the ice in a week or two. 

Forward Parker Kelly has a broken kneecap and will be out, as well, for the “regular season.”

Goalie Cam Talbot and winger Mathieu Joseph have both skated on their own in the past few days and could join team practice as early as next week. Joseph should return to the lineup “sooner rather than later,” Dorion said. 

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