Welcome back to the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators Prospect Awards! We kicked off the virtual gala last week with Marcus Högberg winning the award of Best First Year NHLer, and today we move to one of the most esteemed awards on the table: Most Improved Prospect.
Tracking the Sens’ prospects throughout the past season has seen some interesting developments, with players spending countless hours improving various aspects of their game while getting closer to the NHL. Ary and I made our picks, and the reader vote unanimously agreed that there was one player who stood above the rest...
Most Improved Prospect: Josh Norris
Reader’s Choice: Josh Norris (44% of votes)
Honourable Mentions: Shane Pinto, Vitaly Abramov, Jakov Novak
It wasn’t long ago that the Sens’ acquisition of Josh Norris felt like a secondary asset in the blockbuster Erik Karlsson trade. Drafted 19th overall by the Sharks in 2017 and widely lauded as a reach at the time, Norris’ low-key offensive style mixed with a safer two-way game set the expectations fairly low when he arrived in the Senators’ system.
His journey to Belleville was a rocky one too, sustaining a season-ending injury at the 2019 World Junior Championships, shortening his sophomore NCAA season to only seventeen games. It wasn’t even certain that he’d be turning pro this season until he signed his entry-level contract, officially welcoming him to a Belleville Senators team poised for improvement.
To set the stage for how far Norris has risen, he started on the fourth line in Belleville’s home opener, behind Logan Brown, Jordan Szwarz and Filip Chlapik. It took a little bit of time before he finally turned on the jets, but after a handful of games adjusting to the pro game, it was game over for the competition.
By the season’s interruption, Norris finished with a team-leading 31 goals and 61 points, becoming the first 30-goal scorer in Belleville Senators history — the last time someone scored at least 31 goals for the Sens’ AHL affiliate was Ryan Keller back in 2010-11 with 32. He certainly had some help playing alongside fellow AHL superstar Drake Batherson in the season’s back half (and Balcers and Brännström and Formenton and...), but he took his opportunity as a first line centre and ran with it, ranking fourth in scoring in the entire AHL while also leading all rookies.
The Sens’ plan heading into this season was clear: let the kids develop in the AHL. They went to the lengths of calling up AHL healthy scratch-caliber players in order to keep Norris and the band thriving together, but even then he pushed his way into three games of NHL action with the big club. He’s still looking for his first NHL point, but given his trajectory, it’ll likely come sooner rather than later.
As alluded to earlier, Norris is still very much a two-way centre. While his on-ice numbers show that his increase in offensive output came at a slight sacrifice of defensive responsibility (his relative GF% was just below average, mostly sunk by goals against), he still held solid as a centre playing against players with far more experience. His skating has also come a long way in the last couple of seasons, showing that he has the mobility to navigate the ice with ease to facilitate the plays he’s scheming. He’s far from the most explosive player in the Sens’ system, but he’s proven that he has what it takes to get the job done.
Many of my favourite Norris goals this season were from plays that show just how much chemistry he has with his teammates, such as the one below. It’ll be exciting to eventually watch them all together in the NHL.
Ary and I chose a few runner-ups, and according to the reader poll, the picks may be a bit controversial. Alex Formenton received the second most votes with 14%, and while he certainly improved in the scoring column with a point total beyond our expectations, there’s still some raw elements left to his game that leave me a tad suspicious about his projectability going forward. His speed still leaves my jaw on the floor, with which he seems to have won over many fans. However, he has been battling high expectations throughout his career to date (especially given the praise from Guy Boucher), which leaves him just on the outside of this year’s ballot.
Instead, we have another centreman make the list in Shane Pinto, who of all the Sens prospects has probably had the steepest incline in development. He went from not even playing competitive hockey at age 15 to being a high 2nd round pick at age 18, to now being a key player for one of America’s top NCAA programs. He’s very close to accomplishing what was seemingly an impossible task in living up to being the Sens’ 32nd overall pick, as he’s continued throughout the season to improve in so many areas of his skill set.
Also receiving recognition is Norris’ teammate Vitaly Abramov, who’s had a roller-coaster of a junior career, going from being a CHL superstar to having a rough transition to pro hockey last season. Since being acquired from Columbus, however, he’s found his stride playing against older players, and had to overhaul the way he plays in the process. Now Abramov does a much better job of attacking the net and creating dangerous opportunities. While his point totals didn’t skyrocket into the realm of Norris and Batherson, his points-per-game rate was nearly doubled over what he did last season.
And finally, we wanted to give some recognition to Jakov Novak, a 7th round pick from 2018 who scored 30 points in 35 games in his sophomore NCAA season, en route to being named to the All-Conference First Team. His NHL future is still very much a question mark given that he’s already 21 and plays in a weaker division, but given the low expectations we had of him heading into the season, he was one of the more pleasant stories to follow as he continues to develop.
That’s all for this season’s Most Improved Prospect award! Do you agree with our choices? Who do you think could win the award next season? Leave a comment below, and be on the lookout for the Biggest Disappointment award (?) next week.