2019-20 Ottawa Senators Prospect Awards: Best First-Year NHLer

We kick off our annual prospect awards season with a look at the players who spent significant time in the NHL

Welcome to the third annual Ottawa Senators Prospect Awards! We’ve been keeping track of Sens prospects throughout the season across the CHL, NCAA, Europe, and pro hockey, keeping you updated on the biggest standouts, disappointments, injuries, and more. While there’s still a possibility that the season can continue at the NHL and AHL levels, we thought the fact that COVID-related cancellations have affected all of the other leagues means that it’s a good time to reflect on the prospects’ years-to-date and hand out some end-of-season awards as we would usually during this time [2017-18, 2018-19].

As Colin introduced last week, we’re changing up how we’re rolling out this series this year. First, we’ll be writing a separate post for each award. Second, we’ll have a Readers Choice pick to go alongside who Colin and I chose. There were a number of differences, and we hope that’ll fuel a fiery (but not disrespectful!) comments section.

Here are the nominees for the our picks for the Best First-Year NHL Pro, awarded to the prospect who had the best break into the NHL in 2019-20.

Best First-Year NHL Pro — Marcus Högberg

Reader’s Choice: Marcus Högberg

Honourable mentions: Filip Chlapik, Logan Brown, Drake Batherson

The prospect who spent the most time with the Ottawa Senators this season, Högberg quelled many fears about the team’s immediate goaltending situation post-Craig Anderson. Barring trades, it’ll be a Swedish tandem in net, with Anders Nilsson splitting starts with the 25-year-old netminder who showed, on occasion, that he might have the ability to be more than just a backup goaltender at this level.

After starting the year in Belleville, Högberg was recalled in early December due to injury troubles, and didn’t get sent back down once. Yes: it helped that both Anderson and Nilsson missed significant time with injury, but the discussion was always “Uh oh, how are they going to manage to send Högberg down after that performance” or “Well, Högberg would have to go back down because of his contract” — a far cry from a goaltender floundering against pro-level shooters, playing behind a defence with only three NHL-calibre bodies at a time.

The numbers weren’t great for any of the team’s goaltenders this season, with all three in the bottom-third league-wide. It’s a performance you’d expect for a team ranked in the bottom-three in standings points for the third-straight season. The positive, though, for Högberg, is that he showed that he was a viable option — placing firmly between Nilsson and Anderson in save-percentage, and the best option when looking at expected goals saved above average (GSAx), a statistic that helps ascertain how many more goals a goaltender has saved (or let in) than what would’ve been expected given the quality of shots he faced. The negative number means that Högberg, like Anderson and Nilsson, let in more goals than one would’ve expected, but he fared better than his counterparts behind a similar quality of team, and that’s worth something to us, too.

He plays an unorthodox style in net, sometimes never really looking “set” to the average eye, but remember, this is a goaltender who has played against men since he was 20 and had years of a 0.917 sv% and 0.932 sv% in the SHL — top marks for his age. He really appeared to elevate his game when the stakes increased, never really looking out of it when having to extend his full frame in odd-player situations or in 3-on-3 overtime. The sequence we’ll remember most is against the Detroit Red Wings, where he made multiple highlight reel stops to prevent a goal against:

While being calm under fire has been a strength of his ever since draft day, and why he’s performed relatively well even behind some poor defences in the AHL, Högberg showed growth in terms of his weaknesses — a soft glove hand, and poor rebound control (and placement) on the smaller ice surface.

There were 16 goaltenders under the age of 26 who were started more than 10 games for their NHL clubs this season. While Högberg doesn’t appear to be in the same class as Igor Shestyorkin, Elvis Merzlikins, Andrei Vasilevsky, Mackenzie Blackwood, or Carter Hart, his age and performance ranks similar to Joonas Korpisalo and Thatcher Demko. That’s nothing to scoff at in a season where the team really didn’t have any of their “top prospects” break through.

Our primary runner-up, Filip Chlapik, spent the second-most time with the Sens this season — 31 games like Erik Brännström — but appeared to be able to contribute in a bottom-six role, especially when you look at his on-ice metrics outside of point production. He’s a capable, skilled player who has the hockey sense to potentially feature on the penalty kill, and someone who D.J. Smith should give more time to next season.

Drake Batherson was the readers’ second choice (15% of the vote), and certainly looked NHL calibre in his second, longer recall later in the season after he faltered out of camp. He dominated the AHL in a way a Sens prospect hasn’t in quite some time, and immediately gave life to a putrid powerplay with his vision on the right half-boards. We fully expect Batherson to be a full-time NHLer next year, both in minutes, and in contribution.

So, there you have it! Our first prospect award of the season. What were the most memorable moments of Högberg’s year for you? How do you see the goaltending situation playing out next season? Do you think he’s shown enough to be an NHL-calibre starter? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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