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2019 Ottawa Senators Prospect Tiers

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Breaking down the Sens’ prospect pipeline following the 2018-19 season.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we handed out our Sens prospect awards, recognizing the players who had the best of the best seasons. In our second installation of recapping the season for Sens prospects, we’ll be taking a closer look at the prospect pipeline as a whole by separating each player into different tiers.

This post is heavily inspired by a series Corey Pronman wrote last season for the Athletic, going as far as using the same tiers and definitions. His definitions are as follows:

Special prospect: Projects to be one of the very best at their position in the league

Elite prospect: Projects to be top 10 percent of the league at their position.

High-end prospect: Projects as a legit top-line forward who can play on your PP1/top pairing defenseman.

Very good prospect: Projects as a top-six forward/top-four defenseman/starting goaltender.

Legit NHL prospect: Projects to play, probably not in a top role, but is close enough that he could realistically get there.

Have a chance: Probably not an impact guy but could play in the league and has the toolkit to have an outside chance to be a real player. Have a chance refers to probability to be a good player, not his probability to play NHL games.

Depth: Player who doesn’t have the skillset to play high in your lineup but could fill out your roster and/or be an injury call-up option.

We also felt that an additional tier was needed at the bottom, so we added a Prospects to forget tier for players who have a very low chance of playing any games in the NHL.

Before we get to the tiers themselves, we first have to talk about who we still consider a prospect. Not all rookies we covered this year will be included, just those that we still think haven’t fully graduated to the NHL. Our definition is pretty loose, but our list of graduates is as follows:

Graduates: Colin White, Brady Tkachuk, Christian Jaros, Christian Wolanin, Rudolfs Balcers

The only exceptions we made from the typical rookie definition are Max Lajoie and Nick Paul. Neither will technically be rookies next season, but in our minds, they still haven’t done quite enough to make us (or the Sens organization) believe that they’ve fully graduated to the NHL level.

We’ve also excluded three other prospects: Filip Ahl, and Jordan Hollett and Miles Gendron. Ahl and Hollett would need to be signed to an entry-level contract this off-season if the Sens want to keep them in the organization, which seems really unlikely. Gendron has also already signed an AHL deal with Belleville, and is technically no longer part of the Sens organization. We’ve expanded on why we feel this way at the very end of this article.

The final caveat before we start is that these rankings were composed by both Colin and Ary, who assigned each prospect to a tier independently and then extensively discussed their placement with each other. We did not necessarily agree on every placement, but decided on this configuration as a ranking we’re comfortable with right now. Note that each player is listed in alphabetical order and aren’t ranked in numerical fashion. As a site, we’ll still be running the Top 25 Under 25 series after the draft and will be looking for your vote as readers!

As always, let us know what you think of our tiers in the comments and feel free to advocate for your opinions. Let’s jump into the tiers!

Special Prospect

None

Why? Hopefully this doesn’t come as controversial, but we believe there are very few prospects in the world who could be added to this tier, and none of them are on the Sens. Save this spot for when Ottawa potentially drafts a top-five prospect in 2020 (#DernièrePourLafrenière). For now, this tier is empty.

Elite Prospect

Erik Brannstrom

Why? Acquired from Vegas in the Mark Stone trade, we think Erik Brannstrom is already Ottawa’s best prospect. The left-shot defenceman played his rookie season in the AHL last year, and while his results may not have stood out much for someone touted as an offensive defenceman, his usage in Chicago (Vegas’ AHL affiliate) was pretty minimal.

The scouting reports tell a very different story, however, as there’s a reason he was so highly touted in the 2017 draft. His skating is incredible, which allows him to be a very versatile player both offensively and defensively. He’s able to think the game at a high level too, setting up plays and having confidence to carry the puck against stronger and more experienced competition. To make this tier, it means that we expect Brannstrom to be a top 20 defenceman in the NHL. It’s a lofty goal, but if he can translate his raw skills to the NHL, we think that it’s achievable.

High-end prospect

Drake Batherson, Logan Brown

Why? It was a tough decision whether to include Drake Batherson in this tier or the one above, but truth be told, there are far more top-level forward prospects than there are defencemen. That shouldn’t detract from Batherson’s fantastic season though, as he took the Belleville Senators by storm at age 20, and made them a competitive team while playing top minutes. He’s similar to Brannstrom in the sense that they’re both excellent decision makers — his vision and ability to map out plays are both top class. His NHL stint also showed us that he should be ready for the pro level next year, with the possibility of even stepping into a top-six role given the team’s lack of forward depth on the right side.

For Logan Brown, scoring has never been an issue for him. Rather, concerns have risen over the amount he’s been injured, and also that the way he plays is unlike anybody else at the pro level. He’s a massive player, standing at 6’6”, but he rarely uses his size to be physical. He has fantastic awareness and playmaking ability, but he’s also had a ton of his points condensed on the power play.

A lot of that was put to rest this season, where he joined the Belleville Senators after a successful junior career, including a Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires. Although he was injured at the beginning of the year, coach Troy Mann didn’t hesitate from giving him ample opportunity, where he started to showcase his value against pro competition. Playing on the first line with Batherson, the two showed great chemistry together at even strength.

Here’s the B-Sens’ chart for forwards, showing on-ice goals for and against per 60 minutes at 5v5. Brown places very well here, as one of Belleville’s top offensive performers (GF/60) and perhaps more surprisingly, their best defensively (GA/60), allowing only 1.49 goals against for every 60 minutes he’s on the ice.

Brown’s long been regarded as a low-floor/high-ceiling player, although this past season has certainly raised the floor. Along with Batherson, we project both of them to be first-line forwards. And while we don’t expect either of them to reach that next season, they certainly have the skills to do so.

Very good prospect

Filip Chlapik, Josh Norris

Why? Centre depth is almost certainly the Sens’ biggest strength when it comes to prospects, as two more fall into a high tier in Filip Chlapik and Josh Norris. The former seems to have slipped under the radar a bit — a second round pick in 2015, Chlapik has continued to impress at the pro level with a very complete toolkit. He did a fantastic job harnessing the role of first line centre before Brown returned from injury, and then continued to score in a slightly more limited role. His final total came in slightly lower than his rookie season as he struggled down the stretch (P/GP of 0.60 vs. 0.62), although he still showed all the same things that make him a great player — a lethal shot, strong skating and some defensive awareness, including regular minutes on the penalty kill. It’s hard to peg any sizeable flaw in Chlapik’s game, which could make him a dark horse candidate to crack the main roster at training camp.

Josh Norris is a slightly different story, as his season was cut short due to an injury suffered at the U20 World Juniors. Originally a top-20 pick by the Sharks in 2017 and sent to Ottawa as part of the package for Erik Karlsson, this was the season where Norris broke out as a prospect really worth watching. As a sophomore for the University of Michigan, he scored 19 points in 17 games, a P/GP rate that was bested only by Chicago’s Evan Barratt for drafted NCAA forwards in their first or second year. His performance at the World Juniors was also attention grabbing, notching three goals and three assists in seven tournament games.

There are a couple key questions surrounding Norris. The first is how well he’ll be able to recover from his injury, which I’m sure the Sens have been monitoring closely. The second is whether he’ll sign with Ottawa, or go back for a third year of college. Pierre Dorion stated it’s his intention to sign Norris, although the seriousness of the injury still puts things into question. He certainly has the skills to play at the pro level, although it may take a bit more acclimation due to not playing for an extensive period.

We believe both players project to have top-six potential — whether they hit that may greatly depend on whether the Sens are able to give them the opportunities. Maybe one or both ends up moving to the wing, or playing in the top nine. But regardless, their career history to date leaves us feeling comfortable placing them in this tier.

Legit NHL prospect

Vitaly Abramov, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Joey Daccord, Jonathan Davidsson, Alex Formenton, Filip Gustavsson, Marcus Hogberg, Max Lajoie

Why? Now is when we start to get into the larger tiers, as we’ve ranked eight players in the “Legit NHL prospect” field. The definition here is a bit more vague, and I think in general, there are three types of players in this category:

  • Players who have excellent potential, but may be impeded from reaching that due to one reason or another.
  • Players who we think have NHL potential, although don’t possess the “wow” factor that would bolster them into a higher tier.
  • Goalies — they have the potential to be great, but could just as quickly flounder into obscurity.

Starting with the two forwards acquired for Ryan Dzingel, Vitaly Abramov is definitely in the first category, whereas Jonathan Davidsson fits the second. Abramov posted one of the most prolific QMJHL careers of the past decade, but then didn’t blow anybody away in his first AHL season. He thrives on taking advantage of space and his creativity, so with his short stature at 5’9”, the tighter margins in the AHL didn’t really help. Everything else about his game screams a potential game-changer, although he’ll need to make some adjustments if he wants to reach that potential.

Davidsson, meanwhile, is already considered much more NHL-ready, and almost made the Blue Jackets’ roster out of training camp last season. His speed hasn’t been talked about enough, which helped him break out offensively in the SHL. He unfortunately suffered a concussion the day after the Sens acquired him, so hopefully he takes the off-season to fully recover.

Speaking of speedy players, no other prospect in the world embodies pure, lightning-fast speed more than Alex Formenton. He’s already survived training camp twice and received short stints on the NHL roster, before going back to the London Knights and feasting on the opposition with his rockets-for-feet. It took a while for his hands to catch up to his skating, although it’s all starting to come together. He unfortunately missed the World Juniors this year with an injury.

The inclusion of Formenton in this tier and not the one above may be a bit controversial, given how highly the organization has spoken of him. However, for a player returning to the OHL at his level, on a London team surrounded by lots of top talent, we would’ve hoped he’d be able to produce at a higher level. Whenever Formenton hits the ice, it’s impossible not to notice him, but he’s not always using his skillset in an effective manner. He still has a knack for making turnovers, and during his nine-game stint with the Sens, his defensive efforts were lousy at best. We still believe Formenton has the potential to be a great NHL player — his speed alone may be enough to get him by if put in the right role. Although there’s still some work that will need to be done before proving he can stick as an impact NHL player.

Moving to the defencemen, we included both Jacob Bernard-Docker and Max Lajoie in this section — both have shown promise of being NHLers, but their success is far from guaranteed. JBD was unfortunately passed on by Canada for the World Juniors, but could make the roster next year as a 19-year-old. As a freshman, he stood out both offensively and defensively for the University of North Dakota. Max Lajoie is also a two-way player, and even though his sudden rise to the NHL was a fantastic story, it took ~20 games too many for Dorion to realize that the workload may have been too much (playing next to Cody Ceci also didn’t help). With Ottawa’s left side on the blue line pretty filled, and Lajoie bouncing back from a late season injury, it’s expected he’ll start next season back in the AHL.

As for the three goalies, it’s really difficult to rank the three, so grouping them all in here made the task much easier. All of them have had moments where they look like fantastic prospects — Daccord dragged Arizona State to the NCAA playoffs, Hogberg seized the starter’s net in Belleville, and Gustavsson was named top goalie at the 2018 U20 World Juniors. The caveat is that goalie performances can be extremely volatile, so we wouldn’t feel comfortable pegging any of them as a surefire starter down the line (or even a backup). But they’ve all had their turn letting us know they’re legitimate prospects, and should be held firmly in the system.

Have a chance

Angus Crookshank, Parker Kelly, Markus Nurmi, Nick Paul, Jack Rodewald, Jonathan Tychonick, Max Veronneau

Why? This is a group of players who have a ceiling as regular NHLers, but with a fair degree of uncertainty on whether they’ll make it that far.

We’ll start with the grouping of Nick Paul, Jack Rodewald, and Max Veronneau. All three are 23+, and scored around a point-per-game level in their most seasons in Belleville or the NCAA. As the AHL is a tougher league, you could argue that Paul and Rodewald had better seasons and are closer, but we’ve heard the team publicly talk up Veronneau more and he was given regular top-nine minutes to end the season. Regardless, assuming Paul and Rodewald are re-signed (both are RFAs this offseason), 2019-20 is their biggest shot to make the NHL squad, as you can make the argument that some of the younger kids can benefit from more time and minutes at the AHL level.

As two players coming off of their rookie seasons, Crookshank and Tychonick are on the other end of the spectrum. Crookshank had the far stronger season of the two, but comes with less pedigree as a fifth round pick, whereas Tychonick was rated by some agencies as a late first-rounder, but had difficulty cracking a weaker North Dakota squad and establishing his game against physically stronger opponents. Both BCHLers had seasons of above a point-per-game in their draft year, and are young enough that they could potentially make the NHL with improvement, but need a little more for us to rank them in the category above.

Parker Kelly was the team’s highest scoring CHLer this season, playing in a top-six role for a Prince Albert Raiders squad that went a CHL-best 54-10-2-2 for 112 points and are currently facing the Vancouver Giants in the WHL Finals. He wasn’t exactly of pillar of their success, however, finishing fourth on the team in points (currently 7th in team playoff scoring). That doesn’t scream NHLer, so it’s why we’re not ranking Kelly higher than where he’s positioned right now, but we’ll see how he transitions to Belleville next season as he’s already signed to an entry-level contract. With a poor season, he could move down to depth where former OHL top scorer Aaron Luchuk is currently sitting.

Finally, Markus Nurmi is a player that we’re frankly uncertain about. After a strong year that saw him finish T10 among teenagers in points-per-game playing against men in Finland’s Liiga, Nurmi’s ice-time increased by 2+ minutes a game, but his production plummeted. He was always thought of in scouting circles as a project with top-nine tools due to being defensively responsible and a lanky frame that could help a team playing a “North American” style of game on the forecheck, but his poor year puts this in jeopardy. He’s in this category because of what his ceiling is as a prospect, and his pedigree after suiting up for strong Finland teams internationally at the U17s, U18s, and U20s.

Depth

Johnny Gruden, Luke Loheit, Aaron Luchuk, Kevin Mandolese, Andrew Sturtz

Why? A notch below the last category, this group of players consist of players where either a) it’s too early to tell where they’ll end up because of where they are in their development as hockey players, or b) they’re currently trending as a periodic NHL call-up at best.

Gruden, Loheit, and Mandolese fall into the first grouping. As we covered on this blog, Gruden has left the Miami Redhawks after their rookie season by opting to sign an entry-level deal with the Senators. He can play in Ottawa, Belleville, or London next year, and at just 19 years old, his new environment will dictate the kind of role he’s given.

Loheit had a disappointing year with Penticton in the BCHL, contracting mononucleosis and missing a fair amount of time in the regular season. He’ll be going to one of college hockey’s strongest programs — the back-to-back national champion Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs — so he clearly has talent in the eyes of their evaluators. The team played four rookies last season, but all were aged 20 or 21, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to secure a regular role for himself. Regardless, he’s at least three years away from signing but we know Scott Sandelin’s group will provide him a good environment to be around.

Mandolese had the best season of the three, finding his groove late in the year and carrying Cape Breton to the second round in the QMJHL with a 91.6% save percentage. As an August 2000 birthday, Mandolese was one of the youngest players drafted last season, and will have a new head coach as he heads into his fourth season in the league. However, with three less-than-stellar QMJHL seasons already in the books, he has yet to have a moment in the spotlight that makes him stand out.

Luchuk and Sturtz fall into the second category, albeit for different reasons. Sturtz only managed to suit up for 15 games in his rookie season (scoring 6 points) as injuries kept him at bay all year. As Penn State’s leading scorer all-time and former winner of every possible award in CCHL history, the high-energy forward will be looking to produce in a big way for Belleville in 2019-20. As he’s already turning 25 before next season starts, so it’s hard to consider Sturtz as a prospect with legitimate potential. But he has the chance to be a good pro and potentially get a decent set of games as a call-up on the right side when needed.

Prospects to forget

JC Beaudin, Todd Burgess, Andreas Englund, Morgan Klimchuk, Jakov Novak, Adam Tambellini

Why? These are players we’re going to continue to follow for the purpose of these updates, but our expectations are low. Burgess and Novak are both top scoring overagers drafted out of the second-tier NAHL, but haven’t been able to translate that into the NCAA despite being older than most of the freshman class. Beaudin, Klimchuk, and Tambellini appear to be solid depth pieces for the AHL — players that fit in a third-line role — which means that it’s very unlikely they see NHL time unless there’s four or five significant injuries at both the NHL and AHL level.

Andreas Englund is likely the most controversial name in this group. Unlike the others, he’s received nine NHL games, was named Troy Mann’s “most improved” player, and is a former second round pick in 2014. All of these factors means that he could easily be placed in the depth section if we wanted. However, if the Ottawa Senators have a stated goal as building a playoff contending team, we don’t think there’s room for a player of Englund’s ilk on the roster, both in terms of style of play, and his development curve. Is it great that he likely started the year as a defenceman who was in-and-out of an AHL lineup, but ended the year getting regular minutes on a team fighting for the playoffs with depth at left defence? Absolutely, and it potentially makes sense to keep him around in the organization if Sweden isn’t calling his name. However, like the other AHLers on this list, we think that makes him organizational depth at best, not a player with NHL potential.

Prospects not included: Won’t be considering them anymore

Filip Ahl, Miles Gendron, Jordan Hollett

Why? The lack of information on these players’ futures, especially given impending signing deadlines and poor seasons (relatively speaking), leads us to believe that these are players on their way out of the organization. Although we haven’t gotten full confirmation from the organization that Filip Ahl and Jordan Hollett will remain unsigned, both had poor years and it would be surprising to see the team give them entry-level deals when they have no shortage of picks that will need signing consideration over the next three drafts.

Ahl is the player that had the most pedigree out of these three, especially after a strong rookie season in 2016-17 with the Regina Pats that saw him score at a point-per-game pace over 54 regular season games and a deep playoff run. We never got clarity as to why he returned to Sweden, but after bouncing around three teams last year, Ahl was mediocre at best for Tingsryds in the second-tier Allsvenskan. Hollett also played in the WHL, but lost his starting position to 2019 draft-eligible goaltender Mads Søgaard, which is never a good sign.

The exception is Miles Gendron, who was signed to an AHL deal upon the conclusion of his four-year collegiate career with the University of Connecticut, and will likely split time between Brampton and Belleville next season. There’s always a chance that an AHL deal can turn into an NHL entry-level contract — it’s what happened with Jack Rodewald — but in our opinion, Gendron has run out of time to make an impression. We haven’t considered Murray (or Boston Leier, Daniel Ciampini, Francois Beauchemin — other players in the organization on AHL deals) as legitimate prospects with NHL potential, so we won’t with Gendron until we’re led to believe otherwise.


What does this mean for the organization heading into 2019-20?

The Sens are going to be a young team next year — they’ve made that much clear. Aside from the young players who have already nabbed roster spots (see: graduates), it should be safe to assume that at least Erik Brannstrom and Drake Batherson will receive significant playing time.

A lot will depend on whether the team re-signs any of their pending UFAs, which includes Oscar Lindberg, Brian Gibbons, Magnus Paajarvi and Anders Nilsson. Dorion has expressed possible interest in signing a veteran UFA, although if none of the first three are re-signed, it would open up some spots at training camp that would certainly be competitive. Brown, Chlapik, Norris, Davidsson, Formenton, Paul, Rodewald and Veronneau could all be in the mix, or maybe someone else unexpectedly stands out a la Max Lajoie.

The team could also be looking for a backup goalie if they let Nilsson walk, and the more experienced Hogberg would likely be first in line. As for defencemen, something may have to give on the left side, as the grouping of Chabot, Wolanin, Borowiecki and Harpur already fills up the available spots before factoring in Brannstrom and/or Lajoie. My guess for Brannstrom is that he’ll start in the AHL, then quickly move his way up to the NHL — exactly how Karlsson and Chabot were treated in their respective rookie years.

The final factor to consider is the new head coach, whoever it may be. Every bench boss has their preferred players, and some roster battles may just come down to coach’s preference. Overall, a lot will depend on what roster moves Dorion makes between now and training camp. With many players looking to crack the NHL, this has the potential to be one of the most competitive Sens training camps in a while.