Welcome to the second annual Ottawa Senators Prospect Awards! We’ve been following the Sens’ pipeline throughout the season, covering the highs, lows and everything in between. Now it’s time to hand out the (virtual) hardware, as we’ve made our decisions on seven awards:
- Most Valuable Prospect
- Best First-Year NHL Pro
- Best Defenceman
- Best Goaltender
- Most Improved Prospect
- Biggest Disappointment
- Best Newcomer/
Each award will have a winner, with honourable mentions. If there’s an award that you think that we should’ve included, feel free to chime in with your perspective in the comments section — including who your winner would be! We’re always open to hearing you out and potentially changing our mind.
Most Valuable Prospect — Drake Batherson
Honourable mentions: Erik Brannstrom, Brady Tkachuk
Every time I watch Batherson play, I can’t help but wonder how the Sens managed to bag him as a fourth round pick. Now having finished his rookie pro season in Ottawa and Belleville, Batherson has lived up to every bit of hype he built from his monstrous QMJHL season in 2017-18, and then surpassed that even more.
At 20 years old, Batherson is a strong contender to win the Red Garrett Memorial Award, given to the AHL’s top rookie. He scored 62 points in 59 games for the Belleville Senators, which lead the team by a wide margin despite missing 20 games with the big club. Those were 20 successful games too, where he didn’t look out of place while scoring nine points (including the game-winning goal in his first NHL games). While the B-Sens ultimately came short of a playoff spot, Batherson was the fuel that stoked their wild second half, which included a scoring streak of ten games.
His performance this season has cemented him as one of the most important players of the Sens’ future, with a ceiling of potentially being a star player. The decision to name him MVP wasn’t an easy one, however, as both Brady Tkachuk and Erik Brannstrom each had incredible seasons that we couldn’t stop talking about. But Batherson was the story of the season amongst players in the Sens’ pipeline, making it a season to remember.
Best First-Year NHL Pro — Brady Tkachuk (Ary)
Honourable mentions: Colin White, Christian Jaros, Maxime Lajoie
On a year where eight rookies played more than 10 NHL games, Brady Tkachuk’s play stands above and beyond all of them, and frankly, he has a good argument for league-wide recognition as a Calder Trophy nominee — like former Sens wingers Daniel Alfredsson and Mark Stone.
As two people who were admittedly disappointed with the pick of Tkachuk over Filip Zadina or Quinn Hughes last June, we’re happy to write here that he proved us wrong in the best way possible. Tkachuk is a bonafide top-six winger who plays an agitating, energetic style of game and is future Captain material. He finished second among all rookies in both goals (22), points (45), points-per-game (0.63), while outpacing the rest in terms of shots on goal (214). Only 10 of his 45 points came on the powerplay, as opposed to 22 of Pettersson’s 66 or 20 of Dahlin’s 44, and I’m sure that number will rise as he solidifies his role as a net-front presence on a top unit.
What’s most impressive is how Tkachuk was able to put up points even after removing Mark Stone from his line. Yes: when that happened, there was an initial down period, and the line struggled to consistently play in the offensive zone compared to earlier in the year, but the fact that Tkachuk came out even on the shot metrics and is a gigantic positive relative to his teammates in both generating offence and preventing shots against are both elements of his game that bode well for his, and the Sens’ future.
Best Defenceman — Erik Brännström (Ary)
Honourable mentions: Christian Wolanin, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Maxime Lajoie
If Brännström pans out, the Sens are going to have a one-two punch on the left side that ranks among the best in the league, and it’s because of that potential that Colin and I ranked the savvy Swedish blueliner as the team’s best defence prospect.
Don’t get us wrong: Wolanin, Bernard-Docker, and Lajoie have all showed flashes of positive elements in their game that give them top-four potential, but the team acquired Brännström hoping that he can become a player that can manage 25+ minutes a night, along with a powerplay unit, because that’s how he was used as a 19-year-old in the AHL this season.
The list of U20 defenceman to score at a rate above 0.50 points-per-game is small, and ends at 16 players (min. 10 GP). For one, the only U20 players that can play in the modern AHL are players who opted out of the college route or were drafted from Europe, as the CHL-NHL agreement prohibits CHLers to make the jump earlier. However, it’s also extremely difficult — the AHL is the second-best league in the world, and is harder than the NHL in some ways with some rinks being smaller and a more physical style of play. Both of those aspects make it especially hard for defencemen to succeed, as forwards are a) aiming to finish their checks, and b) if you haven’t fully developed a standout transition skill to move the puck out of your zone quickly, you’re going to get boxed in.
Brännström peers, in order of points-per-game, are: Shawn Anderson, Erik Karlsson, Dave Maloney, John Carlson, Marek Malik, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Erik Brännström, Rasmus Sandin, Rasmus Ristolainen, Henri Jokiharju, Hy Buller, Andrei Zyuzin, Radek Hamr, Michael Volcan, and Justin Faulk. I’ve italicized the players who have done this since 2000, and you can see that all of the players that have achieved this feat, outside of his fellow prospects in Sandin and Jokiharju, have gone on to play top-four minutes in the NHL. Three (Karlsson, Carlson, Ekman-Larson) are bonafide top-tier defencemen in the league today.
As you famously know, Erik split time in Ottawa and Binghamton that year, and put up 26 NHL points before having a 45 point season and then a 78 point, Norris-winning campaign. John Carlson played 22 NHL games the year he put up his best AHL production (scoring 6 points), and then put up 37 with the Capitals the following season. Ekman-Larsson split that year between Phoenix and San Antonio; as did Ristolainen with Rochester and Buffalo.
As Brännström has only played a handful of NHL games, the jury remains out on whether the Sens should start him in the AHL next season before easing him into a split year with the BSens and the big club. With fellow nominee’s Wolanin and Lajoie ahead of him in terms of games played, there’s some wiggle room for the Sens to let Brännström develop at his own pace. By the looks of things? He’s almost ready, and his historical peers indicate that he’s going to be good.
Best Goaltender — Joey Daccord
Honourable mentions: Marcus Hogberg, Filip Gustavsson
The last time I was this confident in the Sens’ goalie prospects was when they had Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner... and now they’re both Vezina nominees.
The two names being watched closely at the beginning of the season were Marcus Hogberg and Filip Gustavsson — Hogberg looking to regain the promise he showed in 2016-17, and Gustavsson the more hyped prospect acquired via trade. Hogberg ended up being victorious in the battle as the AHL starter and had a fantastic season, but off in the NCAA, Joey Daccord started turning heads.
Playing for the underdogs at Arizona State University, Daccord single-handedly dragged them into their first ever playoff appearance, posting a save percentage of 92.6% in front of likely the NCAA’s worst defensive team. Their playoff dreams unfortunately only lasted a single game, as did his time in the NHL after signing an entry-level contract. But at 22 years old, Daccord’s future as an agile, puck-moving goalie is very exciting.
Most Improved Prospect — Joey Daccord
Honourable mentions: Logan Brown, Angus Crookshank, Nick Paul, Jack Rodewald, Marcus Hogberg
There were numerous contenders for the award, but we kept coming back to Daccord as the player who deserved it most. His three years at ASU have been a steady climb — his save percentage went from 89.2% to 90.9% to 92.6%. But in this season’s jump, he changed his status from “shot in the dark goalie prospect” to “one of the best in the world”. He still has lots to prove if he wants to one day be an NHL starter, but of all the possible outcomes of this season, I couldn’t have imagined it going any better.
Going through some of the honourable mentions, the aforementioned Hogberg also deserves praise for his strong season as Belleville’s top rearguard. Nick Paul and Jack Rodewald could also be contending for more NHL time next season after exceeding expectations in the AHL, as could Logan Brown, who overcame a lot of his criticisms in his rookie pro season. Angus Crookshank is also turning out to be an ace in the Sens’ sleeve, as the winger scored at impressive rates in his freshman year for the University of New Hampshire.
Overall, it was great to see plenty of improvement all around the Sens’ prospect system, as we should be expecting of players this young. The ones mentioned went above-and-beyond, and should be recognized.
Biggest Disappointment — Jonathan Tychonick (Ary)
(Dis)honourable mentions: Markus Nurmi, Alex Formenton, Filip Gustavsson, Aaron Luchuk
This was a hard award to vote on, and I’m sure some of the names listed here — like Formenton and Gustavsson — may be a bit controversial. However, I think even Tychonick himself can agree that this wasn’t the season he was hoping for, and it was only contrasted with the great year of his oft-compared peer, Jacob Bernard-Docker.
The duo never really played together for Brad Berry’s Fighting Hawks, but Tychonick starting the year with a long-term injury spelled a poor prognosis for his chance to show his stuff in the early going. While Bernard-Docker was able to establish himself as a legitimate top-four option as the season went on, Tychonick mainly played third-pair minutes, and ended the year with 4 points in 28 games — a far cry from his 47 in 48 in the BCHL last season.
Markus Nurmi being mentioned here is disappointing, as Colin and I have been big fans of his on this blog, and he looked set to grow with a bigger role on a stronger TPS team this season. However, despite playing ~16 minutes a night, Nurmi saw his point totals drop from 21 to 12, and as an unsigned prospect, this could potentially be the last we hear of him.
Formenton’s mentioned here because he didn’t dominate like you expect a returning CHL player to do, especially as London’s top dog on a team with first-rounders Evan Bouchard and Adam Boqvist on the back-end. With 18 points in 11 games, his playoff performance certainly helped his case, but it’s strange he’s often mentioned with the likes of Logan Brown and Drake Batherson as a Sens top prospect when the latter two were able to put up seasons of 1.5+ points-per-game in junior when his best is 1.09. Don’t get us wrong: he certainly has elite speed and a great shot, which is more than enough to give him top-nine NHL pedigree, but we were just disappointed that we didn’t see more out of Formenton to match our expectations of him, and his presence as a top Sens prospect.
It’s maybe a bit unfair to mention Gustavsson here as he was thrown into the fire due to injuries in Belleville this year, and struggled with another sub-0.900 AHL season. That being said, there were only four other U21 goaltenders to play more than 10 games in the league this season, and although Gus performed the worst of the group (hence his mention here), he’s still very young and has time to round out his game. I’d hope that the Sens let him and Joey Daccord split the crease in Belleville next year instead of bringing in a vet to force one into ECHL time; I think facing AHL shooters in a rotation sort-of-system could be an interesting set-up and may breed positive competition.
A former OHL scoring champion, Luchuk split the year between Belleville and Brampton, which probably wasn’t what anyone was expecting heading into the year — hence his mention. Some of that isn’t under his control; Belleville had so many rookies starting in big roles this season and Troy Mann probably wanted to balance out the bottom of the lineup with some reliable veteran types like Chase Balisy, Joe Labate, and Adam Tambellini. However, I guess you’d think that a scorer like Luchuk could find a way to carve a regular role for himself. That’s likely his game plan heading into next season as a second-year pro, and I don’t think it’s all over for Luchuk in a Sens uniform. We just have to temper our expectations of him becoming an NHL player — a good AHL pro is still a solid outcome for an undrafted overager — and he could surprise us with a big season in 2019-20.
Top Newcomer — Erik Brännström (Ary)
Honourable mentions: Max Veronneau, Vitaly Abramov, Jonathan Davidsson
I think we’ve touched enough on why we like Brännström in his section, so let’s briefly mention the other nominees.
Veronneau started his career with a bang, but slowed as the games went on. As a collegiate player for four seasons, he’s conditioned to play a shorter season, so jumping straight into an NHL schedule and pace of play against some teams vying for a playoff spot is a tough task for anyone. What he did show was good, and he appears to be a rare, right-shot right-winger who uses his speed and playmaking ability to craft offensive chances for himself and his linemates. Given his age, we’d expect Veronneau to get a long look to make the Sens out of camp and to try and earn a contract extension at this level.
Abramov is sort-of like the new Francis Perron among these parts. A former QMJHL star (who admittedly scored higher than Perron), he finished his rookie season with 29 points in 70 games — extremely close to Perron’s 26 in 68 back in 2016-17. The way Perron’s career has gone reminded us of former Sens winger Mike Hoffman, and the year that the Sens gave up on him as a throw-in with the Karlsson trade turned out to be his best year, as he responded with 47 points in 63 games with the San Jose Barracuda. The team expected bigger things out of Perron’s second season (15 points in a 44-game injury-riddled year), and will expect more out of Abramov, who will look to consistently feature in Belleville’s top-six and powerplay units next season.
Davidsson is probably the biggest sleeper prospect in the system right now because he’s a) a newcomer (duh!), b) played in Sweden, and c) got a concussion the game after becoming a Sens prospect. All eyes will be on his health — this is Davidsson’s second concussion in the last 12 months — but if he’s healthy, expect him to challenge for a spot at Sens camp after nearly making the Blue Jackets last season. He’s been called a top-tier SHL player by his coach, and fills a need as a reliable, two-way energy player who can take the puck to the net with frequency.
Who would be your picks for these awards? Let us know in the comments!