At the end of last season, the big question surrounding the Belleville Senators was about how they started the year. If it weren’t for a slow start, it’s likely that their incredible second half of the year would have led them to a franchise first playoff berth. Unfortunately, they fell short of their goal by one point in the final game of the season. This year? It’s different.
Just past the halfway point of the 2019-20 season, the Belleville Senators are sitting pretty in first in the North Division. Needless to say, this year’s BSens are different. If you’ve followed along here at Silver Seven Sens, you’ll already know why. Without sounding too much like a cheerleader, their offense is ridiculous. Of course, that’s where this first half review starts off. Buckle up and pour yourself an iced coffee, this is a long one.
Ottawa Senators General Manager Pierre Dorion - and his staff - have done an exceptional job stocking Belleville with quality, offensive minded prospects. At the halfway point of the season, Belleville has Drake Batherson right near the top of the AHL scoring race (T-2nd), Josh Norris leading all rookies and Alex Formenton making his way into the top five of rookie scoring as well.
Batherson, 33 games into his sophomore pro season, has an astounding 13 goals and 28 assists to his name. Currently with the big club, Batherson will certainly see his name slip down the scoring standings while his competition continue to rack up games in the AHL but it’s also important to note that Batherson is currently fourth in the AHL in points per game (1.24) for players who have 20 or more games under their belt. We’ve seen a number of people question whether or not Batherson is ready for the NHL and if you’re still asking that question, you’re not paying attention. He’s ready, he just needs the minutes and linemates to match his skillset.
On any other team, Norris would be the shining star of the season. Fortunately for Belleville, they have an excellent “problem” on their hands in that right after Batherson comes a rookie centre who’s not only leading rookies in scoring with 37 points in 38 games, but he’s also tied for fourth in league scoring. After an outstanding sophomore year with Michigan was cut short by an injury, Norris came into camp without having missed a beat. If it weren’t for the logjam of mid-to-low tier centres in the Senators’ organization, Norris would probably already be with Ottawa based on his play thus far. That being said, I am happy to see him spend the whole year in Belleville to hone his game so that, when the time comes, he’s ready to rock at the NHL level.
The biggest surprise this season for me has been Formenton. Yes, Norris has been a wonderful surprise but seeing Formenton put up relatively mediocre offensive numbers in the OHL in a year where his age and experience should have seen him blow away the competition made me nervous about his offensive ceiling. I’m still not convinced he’s going to be a perennial producer at the NHL level but what we’re seeing from him right now makes me certain that an important role - third line winger who leads the penalty kill - is in his future. With 20 goals and 11 assists in 37 games played - and a hat trick the other night - Formenton has proven to be an important piece on this Belleville team.
The other important aspect to Formenton’s game is that, as a rookie, he’s been trusted with important defensive minutes. His incredible speed allows him to pounce on pucks and disrupt plays while quickly turning up ice for a scoring chance. There’s a reason he’s a regular on the penalty kill and often finds himself out defending the lead.
I could probably write a paragraph about upwards of nine of Belleville’s forwards but I’ll leave this final one as a dedication to the rest of Belleville’s forward group - partially for your sanity, partially for mine. The BSens are lucky to add Vitaly Abramov, Jordan Szwarz and, for now, Logan Brown to the top end of their group. Abramov, coming off what appeared to be a plateau in his performance last season, has contributed 28 points in 27 games for Belleville this year. There are a few members of the media that believed Abramov was close to making the big club out of camp had he not been derailed by an injury. Szwarz is Ottawa’s first swing at a veteran free agent signing that truly benefited the team offensively. A proven AHL goal scorer and leader, Belleville’s captain has been instrumental in their success this season. He’s a player I would love to see wear the B again next year. Finally, Brown is Brown. Having struggled at the NHL level, he was returned to Belleville and picked up right where he left off, compiling 18 points in 13 games. He’s a powerplay master and proven scorer at the AHL level. It’s only a matter of time before we won’t be seeing him in Belleville anymore.
I also can’t review the first half of the season without mentioning Rudolfs Balcers. While he’s up with Ottawa now - likely for good - he was instrumental in Belleville’s success while he was in the AHL. It’s tough for any player to start the season with an injury and come back to play like the injury never happened. For Balcers, it seemed effortless. In the first half of the season, he broke Batherson’s franchise point streak and finished his time with Belleville with 25 points in 19 games.
It feels like the only thing holding Belleville back from being an absolute powerhouse in this league is their blueline. With injuries and roster moves, the majority of Belleville’s backend has been comprised of players who have little to no NHL future - many of whom aren’t even on contracts that would make them eligible to be recalled to Ottawa. When healthy, and with Erik Brännström back in Belleville, this group can be good. Belleville just hasn’t had all of Christian Jaros, Max Lajoie and Brännström together all at once many times this year.
With a similar story to Brown, Brännström was returned to Belleville recently after playing a number of games with Ottawa but not being able to maintain a regular role with big minutes. Since returning, he’s been lights out offensively. Boasting a goal and nine assists in nine games, the only knock to Brännström’s game thus far from Head Coach Troy Mann has been surrounding his focus on the greater team. Mann has mentioned that Brännström has often been too focused on making the plays himself and not utilizing his teammates and their structure often enough. Granted, Mann has said that improvement in this realm has already begun.
Josh Norris' 17th of the season! His point streak is up to 7 games.— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) January 4, 2020
Nice little rush by Erik Brannstrom before Norris put home the loose puck. Norris has 17 goals and 30 points in 33 GP as an AHL rookie #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/oSNyd1c5WD
Through 23 games, Jaros is on pace to destroy his personal best for offensive production in the AHL. While Jaros tends to be more of a defensive defenseman, it’s great to see him producing at the other end of the ice as well. That’s a sign that his game is becoming more well rounded in Belleville. I expect he’ll be back to his depth blueliner status in Ottawa as soon as next season.
Lajoie, on the other hand, is an interesting story. After a hot start to his professional career, cracking the Ottawa roster in his sophomore year, he’s dropped off the map a bit as a defensive prospect. Thus far in Belleville, he’s been reliable defensively but hasn’t produced the offense expected of a puck moving pivot. With the number of left shot defenders in Ottawa’s pipeline, I worry that Lajoie will fade into irrelevancy sooner rather than later if he doesn’t pick up his play.
Outside of the NHL prospects, Belleville has two other defenders who have noteworthy performances thus far this season. First is Jordan Murray. The 27 year old joined the Senators organization after a solid career with the University of New Brunswick. For the first few years, he was a bit of a one way player having plenty of puck moving skills without a ton of defensive prowess. This year he’s turned into more of a well rounded player and has been rewarded by being only four points behind his personal best, despite having half the season to go. After Murray, we have Jack Dougherty. Dougherty is a virtual unknown for any Sens fan who isn’t closely following Belleville’s season to date. Dougherty is a 23 year old, right shot defender from Minnesota who left the NCAA for a year in the WHL before joining the Predators’ organization. After a few seasons with Milwaukee and Rochester, Dougherty seems to have found a home in Belleville. I doubt that his ceiling will bring him to the NHL for an extended career, but he’s been a reliable, steady player for Coach Mann’s blueline thus far.
The Belleville goaltending situation might be my favourite storyline of the season. If you look back at my year in review last spring, you’ll recall that I predicted Marcus Hogberg would get a decent number of starts in Ottawa after a solid year in the AHL. The timing couldn’t be more perfect that I’m writing this half way piece just days after Hogberg performed exceptionally well in back-to-back starts this past weekend, earning his third start in a row last night. With one of Anders Nilsson and Craig Anderson sitting out with an injury for the better part of the last 6 weeks, Hogberg has had the opportunity to spend time with the big club, getting a few starts and earning his first NHL win.
Without Hogberg in Belleville, the crease has been left to Filip Gustavsson and Joey Daccord. Gustavsson, in his second year of North American professional hockey, has had less than optimal stats thus far, despite the BSens being 9-5-1 with him between the pipes. Fortunately for Gustavsson, Belleville’s offensive firepower makes his record a great distraction for his otherwise mediocre stats. In the AHL, Gustavsson ranks 51st in save percentage (0.884 SV%) amongst goalies who have started a minimum of 720 minutes of playing time (12 games). Funnily, he also ranks 51st in the same group for goals against average (3.54).
On the other side, Daccord’s first stint in the AHL has gone much better. The above qualifier ends up excluding Daccord from the rankings (he’s 11 minutes of playing time short) but his 0.914 SV% and 2.52 GAA would rank him 14th and 13th respectively. What we’ve quickly seen with the 24 year old college stud is that his time with Arizona State was no fluke. He’s calm, poised and rarely gives up the easy goal thanks to his great positioning. Sometimes, like every goalie, he needs to make that spectacular save and, as you can see below, he’s always up for that challenge.
The interesting piece to the puzzle here will be opportunity. Currently, Daccord is taking full advantage of the opportunity presented to him through the trickle down impact of an injury at the NHL level. I think Daccord is just as much in the conversation about Ottawa’s future starter than any of his counterparts. The fascinating battle for the crease continues.
There was a time when Ottawa’s AHL affiliate was a place for AHL veterans to lead the way in ice time. With the lineup of veterans available to Coach Mann, I wouldn’t necessarily blame him if he did ride players like Jordan Szwarz and Morgan Klimchuk instead of rookies like Norris and Formenton. The great thing about Mann is that he’s proved for a second year in a row to truly deploy his players based on what they can do for him on the ice that game - not how many games they’ve played or how many times the earth has circled the sun since their birth. If you want proof, you will see it every time Belleville is protecting a small lead or looking for a late game tying goal. Yes, you’re seeing guys like Szwarz out on the ice - he’s your captain, he should be out there for those moments. But you’re also seeing Norris taking defensive zone draws with a minute left defending a one goal lead. You’re seeing Formenton scoring empty net goal after empty net goal. Why? Because the coach trusts a rookie to be out there with the game on the line. This is the kind of coach you want developing your prospects. The Senators are very fortunate to have him.
Now, there’s the other side of coaching that we need to talk about. Mann is doing his job related to player development while simultaneously coaching Belleville to a fantastic season in the standings but nobody is perfect. At the halfway point of the season, Belleville ranks first in the North Division in overall points but their powerplay and penalty kill are fifth and seventh in the division respectively. League wide, Mann’s coaching staff have Belleville ranking 15th on the powerplay and 26th on the penalty kill. While they’re likely destined for a playoff spot, it’s not going to be easy to go on a deep run with average or far below average special teams. This should be the primary focus for Mann and his crew as they embark on the second half and look to lock down a ticket to the big dance.
Outside of special teams, there aren’t a ton of holes in this current roster. The depth up front is likely at the top of the league and Brännström’s return to Belleville has filled the top pair spot that had been missing for much of 2019. Add to that a three headed monster in net and you’ve got yourself a fairly solid chance at winning some games in the spring.
The elephant in the room is what happens in March. With the trade deadline looming, it’s an almost certainty that multiple spots will open up in Ottawa. As a Sens fan, I’d love to see guys like Abramov, Brown, Formenton and Norris get a shot to replace whomever gets traded. The big question for Dorion will be what he values most - developing a winning culture in Belleville or giving his top prospects a taste of the big leagues. Quite frankly, if the top 9/top 4 stays in tact as it is today, I see no reason why Belleville can’t contend for the Calder Cup. That means instead of calling up the aforementioned prospects, Dorion will be giving guys like JC Beaudin, Klimchuk and Englund time in Ottawa. If you’re a fan of The Tank™, that might not be a bad thing either. The moral of this particular story is that whatever happens between now and February 24th is likely to wildly impact this Belleville roster.
The final question I pose to you, the readers, is what happened to the “other” prospects. The ones we haven’t talked about so far in this review. Why didn’t Max Veronneau get mentioned and what is Jonathan Davidsson’s true ceiling as an NHL player? For Veronneau, he turned a cup of coffee in the NHL last season into 10 points in 31 games in the AHL this year. For Davidsson, he came over after playing multiple seasons as a young 20-something in Sweden’s top league. Now he has a handful of points in a small amount of games in the AHL due to some recalls and a few injuries. I think with both of these players, it’s likely due to their opportunity. Would guys like Veronneau and Davidsson have produced more if they weren’t outplayed by more offensively gifted prospects or are these players Ottawa might want to look at moving while their potential can be sold as “not yet realized”? Let me know what you think in the comments and, of course, let’s get excited.
Playoffs are coming.