LONDON, Ont. - Jared Cowen is a six-foot-five tower of strength—virtually an immovable object on the ice.
But the top-ranked Ottawa Senators prospect currently finds himself in a state of limbo off the ice between a junior team that is moving on without him and an NHL squad that must determine if he's ready to contribute.
As the Senators prepare to break training camp this weekend, Cowen's immediate future is one of the most pressing decisions facing the organization.
It was a major topic of discussion as a group of the team's prospects participated in a rookie tournament in London this week.
"I think when you watch us play and you watch our blue-line, he is the one guy that just kind of jumps out at you," said Kurt Kleinendorst, who ran the Senators team in London. "He's probably the closest to being ready (for the NHL), but is he ready? He's a young kid."
Kleinendorst was hired to coach the AHL's Binghamton Senators over the summer and won't be seeing the 19-year-old defenceman this season no matter what decision is made. It boils down to an either/or situation with Cowen—he'll either play for the Senators or return to the Spokane Chiefs for a fourth season in the Western Hockey League.
The Chiefs aren't counting on it.
Assistant coach Jon Klemm, who played nearly 800 NHL games before retiring in 2009, says the WHL team doesn't expect to get its captain back. He believes Cowen already possesses the attributes needed to play in the NHL.
"He's a big, physical presence out there," said Klemm. "He can change the game at any time with a big hit or a great defensive play. That's kind of the player he is. ...
"He handles himself very well not only on the ice but off the ice—he's great in the locker-room, he works extremely hard. It was a pleasure to work with him last year."
It's little wonder why Ottawa used the ninth overall selection in 2009 to draft Cowen. The organization even rewarded him at the end of last season by getting him into an NHL game in Tampa Bay ("The first shift I got kind of nervous," says Cowen).
The Senators head to training camp with six defencemen expected to have a spot locked down: Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba, Erik Karlsson, Chris Campoli and Matt Carkner. Cowen will likely have to beat out Brian Lee and fellow prospect Patrick Weircioch.
In part, the decision will no doubt come down to what path is best for his long-term growth. Cowen isn't shy about expressing his opinion on that issue.
"This is where I think I can improve the most," he said. "If I went back to junior, it would be a step back. If I stayed here, I'd obviously get a lot better and become a better player. Going back to junior, it would be a familiar spot—Spokane's a nice place to play, I love the guys on the team, love the coaching staff and everything.
"But this is a step forward. This is where I want to start."
The native of Allan, Sask., is clearly itching to make the next step—joking that he's had "plenty of time to think about these things" while sitting out several months with a right knee injury in 2009 and taking time away from training this summer because of mononucelosis.
Neither ailment seems to have had a serious impact on his performance.
Kleinendorst is new to the Senators organization and said all of the prospects started the rookie tournament with a clean slate in his eyes. By the end of the four days, he was raving about Cowen.
"He's the real deal," said Kleinendorst. "He's got a lot of good things going for him."
Cowen is even starting to look more like an established NHL player—showing up in London with a traditional No. 2 sweater rather than the No. 48 he wore for the Senators last season.
His future will become more clear over the next couple weeks. While Klemm believes there are still things he could help teach Cowen in junior, he's not counting on getting that chance.
"You look at his size and his maturity level, definitely I think he's got a shot at the NHL (this season)," said Klemm. "You know the Senators are going to give him every opportunity to make the team. ...
"It's going to be up to him at training camp."