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Coaching & Hockey Ops - Belleville Year In Review

Led by Troy Mann, the Belleville Senators made huge strides in their systems and overall performance.

Jason Scourse

Welcome to the third instalment of the Belleville Year In Review. On Monday, we worked through the forwards and Wednesday was all about the blueline and goaltenders. Today, we’re taking a look at the coaching staff and transactions that were made this season.

It’s safe to say that, for me, the bar was set incredibly low for Belleville’s head coach Troy Mann. After watching Kurt Kleinendorst lean on incapable veterans while the skilled prospects in his lineup rode the pine, all Mann had to do was more optimally deploy his lines and implement a more potent structure to his special teams.

Player Deployment

The first thing Coach Mann did to win me over was provide his most talented players with a chance to succeed regardless of their tenure as professionals. What we regularly saw in Belleville was first or second year pros playing big minutes in important situations with players who could match their skill level.

The top trio of Drake Batherson, Logan Brown and Nick Paul was, as I’ve said before, arguably the best line in the AHL for the better part of three straight months. This is a line that would likely never existed under the previous coaching staff considering the lack of pro experience between the three. Of course, this group had to earn the opportunity to play together. Like any good coach, Mann didn’t just throw these prospects onto the top line based on their junior resumes. This was a line that came together about halfway through the season, after Mann had Batherson and Brown playing with various linemates - together and apart.

After this top group, we regularly saw Filip Chlapik and Jack Rodewald make up two thirds of the second line - especially during Belleville’s most successful stretch. They saw a rotation of wingers join them from Vitaly Abramov to Darren Archibald to Adam Tambellini. Chlapik did bounce between the second and third line, depending on his level of play.

On the back end, Mann ended the season with a pretty strong stable of defenders to deploy. With Stefan Elliot and Cody Goloubef on the right and some rotation of Erik Brannstrom, Christian Wolanin and Erik Burgdoerfer on the left, it was tough for Mann to make the wrong choice on most nights. The important part of his deployment choices for defenders came on the powerplay - where he leaned on Wolanin and Brannstrom when they were available whereas the previous coaching staff likely would have put more veteran defenders out on the man advantage.

Special Teams

This was a year of improvement for Belleville’s special teams. There are a number of factors here and I wouldn’t give Coach Mann all the credit. While his structure to special teams, especially the man advantage, was clearly better than his predecessor, he also had a clearly better lineup to work with.

On the powerplay, the BSens improved from dead last in the league (13.4%) to a modest middle of the pack ranking under Mann (18.3%). You can attribute this to three things. First, as mentioned, Mann had more talented players to work with. Kleinendorst didn’t have Brown, Batherson or Wolanin to run on his top unit. But, and this is the second piece to the puzzle, even if he did, he wouldn’t have used them. The previous coaching staff deployed a man advantage consisting of veteran AHL players like Max McCormick and Jim O’Brien in the first unit. While McCormick did spend time on the powerplay under Mann while he was a member of the Senators, it was the group of Batherson, Brown, Chlapik and Paul that regularly saw first powerplay opportunities. The final piece is related to some successfully executed drawn up plays. In the realm of strategy, you do need the right players to make it work. I’m not convinced Mann and his staff would have seen the same success on the powerplay with Kleinendorst’s roster but the effort and strategy was there.

One of the plays in question can be found below.

If you comb through the game tape of Belleville’s powerplay throughout their second half hot streak, you’ll see this play attempted a number of times. Worst case scenario, it was a dangerous scoring chance from the slot. Best case, of course, was a goal.

On the penalty kill, we actually saw a drop in performance from Belleville’s inaugural season to today. Last year, Belleville ranked 28th (77.7%) compared to this year’s last place finish (75.7%). Last year’s Senators had ample opportunity to practice their penalty kill after a league leading 1,249 penalty minutes. The BSens of 2018-19 were quite disciplined, ranking 24th in penalty minutes taken. You can likely attribute that to the departures of players like Patrick Sieloff, Max McCormick and Mike Blunden who regularly put their team on the disadvantage.

The Ottawa Senators rank similarly when it comes to their lack of success on the penalty kill and, as has been talked about frequently, Marc Crawford was the communication line between the two teams and there was an effort to ensure that both teams were playing similar systems so that call ups would have an easier time adapting.

Unfortunately, information like even strength vs. short handed SV% isn’t readily available for AHL goaltenders (that I know of) because I would be interested to see how that factors into things. Is it a structure thing or is it a case of Marcus Hogberg and Filip Gustavsson struggling to make saves on the penalty kill? I would be very interested to know how much that factors in.

One of the biggest obstacles that Mann successfully manuevred in his first year as Belleville’s bench boss was dealing with a large flux of player transactions. According to Joel Vanderlaan, Mann dealt with an unprecedented number of transactions and players on his roster. Over the course of the season, Mann had a total of 48 different players while the organization made an insane 198 transactions relating to Belleville’s roster.

Overall, the most important job for an AHL coach is to provide developmental opportunities for the players who can provide the most value to the NHL affiliate in the long term. Mann undoubtedly did this for players like Brown, Batherson, Brannstrom and Wolanin. It’s also important to remember that creating a winning environment is huge part of developing players. Mann’s Senators were 18 wins and 19 points better than the year before and were playing, and winning, in playoff-like games from the beginning of February to the final moment of the season. That kind of experience is invaluable for young players like Batherson and Brown but also for veterans like Jack Rodewald and Nick Paul who are likely looking at their last opportunities to become full-time NHLers in the near future.

It’s not surprising to hear that Mann was one of the final candidates for the head coaching job in Ottawa - but I’m definitely glad that we’ll be seeing him behind the bench in Belleville next year instead. The role of AHL Head Coach is imperative in an NHL organization and I don’t think there’s a better Mann for the job (sorry, I had to).

Signings

Every July 1st, big splashes are made. Under the radar, NHL teams are also working on shoring up their AHL teams by trading for and signing players to two way deals.

When free agency opened, the Senators signed Mike McKenna and Paul Carey to two way deals. For McKenna, I see the logic. The Senators were going to go into the year with two inexperienced goaltenders in Belleville and Dorion wanted to provide mentorship and leadership. As for Carey, he would have qualified as one of the best AHL free agents of the summer given that he played the majority of last season in the NHL with the New York Rangers. He came in and put up 27 points in 29 games before being moved for Cody Goloubef - a trade I’ve already mentioned worked out well in the end for Belleville.

Later in the summer, the Senators added Chase Balisy, Joseph LaBate and Adam Tambellini. I would argue one of these three players (Tambellini) ended up being worth the contract but they were necessary to fill the roster and ensure Belleville could balance the flood of rookies with players who have pro experience.

In the end, I think the team did quite well in signing players for the AHL club over the summer and would expect they’ll have a similar experience in the months to come.

Trades

With a lack of an official GM in Belleville, given the legal situation with Randy Lee, I was concerned that not enough attention would be paid to Belleville this season. I think it can be easily argued that the biggest impacts the Senators had on their rosters this year were at the AHL level.

We’ve talked enough about Brannstrom, Goloubef, Elliot, Balcers and Vitaly Abramov in this series, so we don’t need to dive too deep into those moves. But there are other moves that I haven’t yet dove into that had huge impacts on Belleville’s success this season.

If you’re a Sens Twitter person like myself, you’ll recall the excitement in the air when the Ottawa Senators finally parted ways with Tom Pyatt on January 2nd. The impact of that move on Belleville was two fold. First, it brought back a veteran in Darren Archibald who, unlike many veterans of BSens past, brought grit and leadership to the group while also contributing regularly on the scoresheet. Second, it made space in the Belleville crease. While I understand the idea that you want a goaltender with the experience of Mike McKenna in the organization to mentor your prospects, he did stand (literally) in the way of Hogberg and Filip Gustavsson getting regular starts at the highest level they could. We wouldn’t have seen the finish to the season we did if McKenna was still the starter in February.

Later that month, the Senators decided to move on from their inaugural AHL All Star Gabriel Gagne. Following a 20-goal campaign, Gagne contributed just four goals in 30 games with the Senators this season. In return, the Senators welcomed Morgan Klimchuk to the team. In a similar situation, Klimchuk was struggling to follow up on a solid season so the Toronto Marlies and Senators made a deal to provide new scenery for these two struggling players. Klimchuk came in and immediately made an impact, scoring four goals and an assist in eight games. Unfortunately, eight games is all the BSens got from Klimchuk before his season ended with an injury. Nevertheless, it was a solid move that needed to occur and would likely have paid major dividends had Klimchuk finished the season healthy.

Overall, it’s tough to look at the additions through acquisition for Belleville and not be happy with the outcome.

The Questions

I would say there are less questions for me regarding the coaching and hockey operations side of the equation for Belleville than I had about the players. Mainly, will Dorion and his team continue what they started this season in building a stronger AHL club than they’ve had in previous years? I think Dorion and Trent Mann have much stronger success in their amateur player evaluations so we can expect the younger players who will be coming through the draft to continue to add skill and speed at the AHL level. It will be important that they have a successful summer in bringing in a few of the veteran AHL players to fill out the rest of the roster - and determine which existing players they’d like to bring back.

As for Mann, the only question is how successful will he be when he doesn’t have the likes of Batherson, Brown, Wolanin and Brannstrom at the top of his lineup. I think it’s safe to say, given where the Senators are in their rebuild, that most of these players won’t finish next season in Belleville. Mann has shown that he’s able to deal with adversity in his lineup, given how many players he had in his roster this year. I have confidence that he’ll continue to create a winning atmosphere where prospects can develop in true pros.

Our final piece of the series will be up next week where I’ll run through some predications and a few of the things I would have on my to-do list this summer, were I running the show in Belleville.