No time to waste with an elongated intro; this week’s column is a bigger bite than normal.
Thoughts. Five of them. Now.
Drake Batherson Ripping Up QMJHL
When Cape Breton Screaming Eagles head coach and general manager Marc-André Dumont and head scout Jacques Carrier first met Drake Batherson, he was 16-years-old, a measly 5-foot-7 and severely lacking in physical maturity.
As a 15-year-old, Batherson wasn’t picked in the QMJHL Entry Draft and returned for another season of major midget in the Annapolis Valley region of Nova Scotia. But despite his small frame and the little interest he’d garnered at the 17 other draft tables, Dumont and Carrier knew he possessed an enormous amount of untapped potential and it was only just a matter of time before it was unlocked.
“It’s very simple,” Dumont explained in a phone interview on Wednesday morning. “When you meet a kid at (age) 16 and he doesn’t have facial hair, he’s got a younger looking face and you know that his father was the same at the same age and today his father is a big, tall man and he played pro hockey - there’s probability that the kid is going to grow into something similar.
“We knew that there was almost a certainty that Drake would grow and that’s what happened.”
Just like father Norm - who played five seasons in the AHL, one of them with the Senators’ organization - Batherson hit a growth spurt at age 17 and quickly developed into a well-rounded player.
At the QMJHL draft in June of 2015, he had grown three inches since September and was 5-foot-10. When he showed up to camp two months later, he was 5-foot-11-and-a-half. And when Dumont and company called him up in January for a 10-game stint, he had reached 6-foot-1.
Now, during his second full season with the Screaming Eagles, he is listed at 6-foot-2 and a sturdy 187 lbs.
Like he was at selection No. 121 during this year’s NHL Entry Draft, Batherson was an absolute steal in 2015 for Cape Breton as they nabbed him at No. 97. Now two years later, the team is reaping the giant reward of a beautifully calculated risk. As are the Senators.
Currently leading the QMJHL in goals and points, Batherson has carted 17 goals and 12 assists in a mere 15 games this season. He’s already creeping up on his previous campaign’s goal-scoring total; 22 in 61.
What’s more impressive than the sheer offensive numbers Batherson is putting up is the fact that he’s doing it with such an inexperienced supporting cast. For example, one of his linemates, Ryan Francis, is 15-years-old and stands 5-foot-8.
“We are in a transition (period) right now,” said Dumont of his squad, the second youngest team in the league. “Despite that, we hold our own and we’re very competitive. We’re resilient and right now we’re healthy, which is a key factor.
“We rely on 16 and 17-year-olds, on special units, one of our goalies is 17-years-old. There’s no doubt it’s fun to be a part of and we know that the future looks bright for our team.”
Along with the shortage of veterans, Batherson’s ludicrous start has created a massive production gap on the team. He currently leads the team in points by an astounding 17 and has been one of the three stars in 10 of his first 15 games.
The Fort Wayne, Indiana native is doing everything for Cape Breton this season. A regular on the penalty kill, willing to drop the gloves in a big way and maybe the biggest offensive threat in the league right now, there’s not much Batherson hasn’t shown during the opening month and a half of play.
But Dumont noted that it isn’t just the stats and on-ice play that’s been impressive; the Senators prospect is also beyond his years when he takes the jersey off.
“His leadership is not directly connected to his production. His leadership on our team is simply that he’s there for his teammates at all times. He’s a very level kid. If you ask him, he’ll say ‘well, I’m a country boy and I play hockey.’ So everything positive that has happened to him, whether it’s having a strong finish to last season, being drafted by Ottawa, signing his contract and having a good camp in September - all that stuff, it doesn’t get to him.”
Freddy Claesson’s New Role
“The thing Guy wants me to do most is to be a mean bastard out there.”
Freddy Claesson is embracing an expanded role this season that has him playing more minutes and receiving much tougher deployment.
His all-situations time on ice has increased from 13:07 to 18:14, while his five-on-five offensive zone starts have decreased from 57.7% to 45.1%. And for the first time in his career, he led the team in ice time with 26:51 when the Senators visited the Vancouver Canucks earlier in the month.
“(Boucher) wants me to hit guys and have a great stick, (make) simple plays, be good on the PK,” said Claesson after practice Wednesday afternoon. “If I can get some offense going, that would be awesome, but for now, I’m just trying to focus on the D zone and stay in the lineup.”
Boucher says Claesson has been performing high above expectations ever since the latter stages of the 2016-17 campaign, and therefore, deserves the opportunities thrown his way. Last season, they felt his development has been sped up an entire year.
But it was the beginning of the 2017-18 season when the staff knew he was definitely ready for a larger workload.
“Your normalcy really decides if you’re a consistent NHLer able to log the minutes in the pressure, but also the grind,” Boucher explained during a press conference on Wednesday. “And at the end of the year, it’s the pressure moments where you get high peaks of adrenaline and guys are sometimes able to do it, but when it’s back to normalcy, they can’t sustain that adrenaline to play at that level.
“In Claesson’s case, that’s what we didn’t know. We loved him, and we could see where he could be eventually, but to say that because he showed us some games, he could be this way, we didn’t know if it was going to be realistic to have him like that at the beginning of the year. But he’s been like that. This has really changed the portrait of our defense corps, to be honest with you, because now you’ve got a guy that is now a legitimate top-six, consistent (defender) and kind of does it all out there.”
Claesson is still looking for that elusive first point of the season - he recorded 11 in 33 games last season - but that couldn’t matter less to the coaching staff. The 24-year-old is performing well in the right areas; anything added down at the other end of the rink would simply be a pleasant reward.
Mark Stone’s Fantastic Celebrations
It’s a running joke within the Senators fanbase and throughout all social media outlets that there’s no one across the league who gets more excited and animated after scoring a goal than Mark Stone (or when his teammates score, for that matter).
But are his teammates in the loop?
“It’s pretty funny,” said Ryan Dzingel with a laugh on Monday. “That was a big goal the other night, but he’s got some funny, funny facial expressions.”
The goal Dzingel is referencing was Stone’s massive 4-2 tally against the Toronto Maple Leafs at home after the buds had scored two quick ones in the third period. As he always does when the puck finds the back of the net off his stick, Stone motioned to the crowd to blow the roof off the place, and broke out the fist pumps and Jim-Carrey-like faces filled with exhilaration and passion.
“Hey, you never know when you’re going to score again,” Dzingel joked. “You’ve really got to cherish them, so I might have to start doing it, too.”
Stone, on the other hand, is less mindful of his exuberant celebrations.
“I mean, it’s fun to score.”
Ottawa’s Overtime Strategy
On Wednesday, following a 3-2 shootout loss to the L.A. Kings, Boucher fielded a question from a reporter, who will remain nameless (it was me), on whether he would change up his strategy in overtime and opt for more aggressive tactics if the team’s shootout record got worse.
The question was either poorly worded or completely missed the point from the beginning (I’ll take the latter) because the head coach had no idea what I- err, the reporter, was talking about. Plus, the exchange didn’t make it into the Senators’ online version of the press conference. So there’s that.
However, Boucher explained that his approach to three-on-three overtime changes every single time the game is tied after three frames, and has to do with the players healthy on their bench and the opposing team.
We saw it a lot last year, but the most recent examples of the Senators’ seemingly passive attitude towards regular season overtime came during their previous two opportunities. Last Thursday, when the New Jersey Devils were in town, Boucher, in order to shutdown the Hall line, started the trio of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Tom Pyatt and Cody Ceci at the beginning of period No. 4, while nearly every true offensive weapon was ready and willing on the bench. We know the end of that story, as it was thoroughly dissected on talk radio the following days non-stop. And rightfully so.
But that’s not the most evident aspect of Ottawa’s cautious system in overtime - that came on Tuesday when the Kings paid a visit to the nation’s capital.
The Senators had continuous control of the puck - the Kings might’ve had possession for a minute total - but they waited in their own end for copious amounts of time and whenever they gained the zone, but were pressured and slightly backed up to the blue line, they’d scurry back to safety in the neutral zone and change lines.
Everyone’s aware of the result in both instances, but the question remains. Why, with a plethora of speedy, talented players at their disposal, do the Senators not choose to consistently push the pace in overtime?
Erik Karlsson should be a good enough reason on his own, but the Senators are also showing they can score at any strength, and are doing the opposite in the shootout.
When regulation ends and the game is still tied, let the players loose. There’s a heck of a lot of chemistry, skill and power that is gone to waste when you play simply to prolong the game and live to die in the (crap)shootout.
Atlantic Division Weaker Than Expected
With a handful of Atlantic teams taking major steps forward last season, mixed with the fact that a couple playoff contenders dealt with numerous devastating injuries, the race for the postseason was looking to be a vicious battle ‘til the 82nd game within hockey’s most popular division.
And it may very well end up a close, entertaining fight to the finish, but it’s been quite the underwhelming few weeks.
The Canadiens’ 2-7-1 start is by far the most alarming, but we were also supposed to see improvement from the Sabres with a healthy Jack Eichel and a better Panthers squad push for the top three spots.
It’s early, but the Atlantic has looked like the worst of the four divisions.
How long will it last, though?
While the Lightning are showing no signs of slowing down, the Leafs have to work on their defensive zone coverage and get moderately better goaltending, and then you’ve got two elite teams primed for home ice advantage come mid-April. How long does anyone truly expect Carey Price to hold a save percentage rating of 88.7? The same goes for Tuukka Rask and his 88.2 rating. And with the Panthers only at 4-5-0 and coming off an 8-3 win over the Ducks, how quickly can they figure things out and get on the right side of .500 hockey?
Yes, a win in October is worth the same in March, but for the Senators, maybe it’s even more important that they’re banking points early on, seeing as the quality of play in the division can only go up. And it might go up in a hurry.