Over the last couple of seasons, I’ve learned to appreciate that an NHL team rebuilding from scratch has some opportunities to experiment with the roster in ways we don’t see from a team with play-off aspirations. While we didn’t have much to get excited about in the short-term while the Senators sold off the core of the 2017 team for future assets, Anthony Duclair provided some immediate intrigue during a couple of seasons that we largely wrote off entertainment-wise. Because of Ottawa’s place in the standings, the coaches had the opportunity to play Duclair full-time despite his somewhat-undeserved reputation as a liability in the defensive end, and The Duke gave us all something to cheer about.
At this point in time, without a qualifying offer from the Senators, and thus an unrestricted free agent, I won’t bank on a reunion between the Sens and the Duke. And with Jayce Hawryluk now a Vancouver Canuck, Ottawa has little to show of the buy-low/sell-high candidates of last season. Much like the acquisition of Duclair via trade, the shrewd waiver-wire pick-up of Hawryluk doesn’t happen for a team crunched up against the cap with no roster flexibility. (Yes, I have a lot of good things to say about the Hawryluk acquisition.) Even the college free agent acquisition of Max Veronneau provided some hype in Ottawa, albeit briefly. And while dwelt in the basement of the eastern conference, these minor transactions provide some respite from the tedium of nightly losses while invigorating the team and the fanbase.
Now while I may take some flack for this opinion from those with playoff expectations for the Sens this season, 2021 to me looks like another season of playing with house money and I would argue that the team has a few good reasons to take their chances once more on the untapped potential of the next Duclair, Hawryluk, or Veronneau. First of all, the Sens should take any given opportunity to inflate the stats of non-prospects in the hope of flipping those assets at the deadline. Secondly, the team needs to balance the needs of both the Ottawa and Belleville Senators and that could prove trickier than we may have initially figured. Finally, the Senators have cap flexibility that other teams lack right now and they could snag some bargains on the market.
Assuming the Senators have six forwards locked in to the current roster, and three RFA signings on the way, that leaves about four spots open for arguably six or seven deserving forward prospects looking to make the team out of camp. To this extent, Ottawa doesn’t need to make any more additions. However, assuming Ottawa’s top forward prospects all make the NHL squad out of camp, that could leave, say, Alex Formenton, Vitaly Abramov, J.C Beaudin, and Jonathan Davidsson carrying the offensive load in Belleville. I won’t complain if that group puts up big minutes in Belleville, although it may fall somewhat short for those expecting another run at the Calder Cup from the B-Sens. And while I can’t guarantee that any or all of the players listed below would sign two-way contracts and/or clear waivers, I would argue that any one of these forwards could help to maintain the balance of Ottawa and Belleville’s respective offences while providing injury insurance, and possibly even prove valuable at the next deadline (whenever that may happen).
Let’s get to it:
Remember when the Senators didn’t sign any Russians for a solid decade? That was wack and I’m glad it’s over. I may not have had any real hope in a Zykov signing before but I feel like with this new Evgeni Dadonov paradigm-shift, anything is possible in Ottawa. Zykov already has a connection to the nation’s capital, having played his final season of QMJHL hockey with the Gatineau Olympiques. Zykov scored prolifically in the Q, earning himself a second-round selection in the 2013 entry draft courtesy of the Kings who swapped Zykov to the Hurricanes in 2016 for Kris Versteeg. In his third season within Carolina’s system, Zykov went off for 33 goals in AHL Charlotte and then everything sort of went sideways.
The Hurricanes waived Zykov whom the Oilers claimed who subsequently waived Zykov whom the Golden Knights claimed. During his tenure in Vegas, Zykov received a 20-game suspension for PED use, and five NHL organizations later he finds himself a UFA at age-25. I should emphasize here that all of the players listed in this article come with red flags. Players under 27 with NHL potential don’t end up on the free agent market unless they have some flaws. However, if DJ Smith can coax 40 points in 66 games out of Anthony Dulcair (on his fifth NHL team) then I say take the risk. What have the Sens got to lose?
Through a very small sample of 55 NHL games, Zykov has accumulated a modest 17 points (playing fourth-line minutes). However, the nerd stats suggest Zykov has a lot more to offer. Going by corsi-for percentage and expected-goals, Zykov had sterling numbers in his first three NHL seasons and only really regressed this past season with Vegas (I contend that anyone can have poor relative stats on a team with Mark Stone though). While we await the breakouts of Drake Batherson and Vitaly Abramov, Ottawa doesn’t have too many forwards with elite goal-scoring ability (especially in the wake of Duclair) so I leave this here for your consideration:
As a general rule, I try not to advocate for the Senators signing ex-Leafs but Connor Brown just had a fourty-plus point season in Ottawa and we tend to spill a lot of ink over that guy around these parts so just hear me out. After an impressive rookie season with the Sudbury Wolves, Toronto selected Leivo in the third round on the draft and he went on to have a couple more standout seasons with the Wolves and then the Kitchener Rangers. Leivo had two solid seasons with AHL Toronto along with one dud and when he did finally crack the NHL roster, he never played more than fourth-line minutes (see a pattern developing?)
The Leafs eventually sent Leivo to the Canucks for current Senator Michael Carcone, and things didn’t get that much better in Vancouver where Leivo dealt with multiple injury setbacks. If Leivo can get healthy, and if for whatever reason Connor Brown doesn’t stick around in Ottawa, the former could slide into the latter’s role rather smoothly. Leivo produces just enough individually and has a well-earned reputation as a corsi-beast (with one outlier season the year prior to his trade). Anyway, here’s a video of Leivo scoring for a team we don’t hate:
With the Oilers having surrendered a second-round pick in his acquisition just last season, colour me surprised that Athanasiou doesn’t currently have a gig in the NHL. The speedy winger and former fourth-rounder of the Red Wings peaked out in 2018-19 with a 30(!)-goal campaign and has averaged over a point every other game during his NHL tenure. While, in the past I may have felt skeptical about a repeat on that 30-goal season, I recall doubting that Anthony would duplicate his 20-goal high set with the Coyotes.
Athanasiou seems, to me, like something of an anomaly coming out the Red Wings system as he played just one full season in AHL Grand Rapids before graduating to the NHL. Could this have affected his development? Unlike the other players on this list, Athanasiou has scored consistently at the NHL level, while his fundamentals need more work. Playing for weaker teams in Detroit and Edmonton, Athanasiou has had paltry corsi-for percentages and expected-goal rates in each of his NHL seasons to date. Much like Duclair before him, could DJ Smith find a way to round out Athanasiou’s two-way play without sacrificing offence? We know he can skate like the wind and we know Athanasiou has the hands:
Far more enigmatic than the other skaters listed thus far, Ritchie has only had one strong offensive season in the NHL, 2016-17 with the Stars, and his corsi and expected goal numbers have fluctuated pretty much every season. When I said reclamation projects, I meant it. All that considered, Ritchie could provide a big boost down the right side in Belleville if he accepted a two-way deal.
The big winger excelled in the OHL and had a phenomenal rookie AHL campaign totaling 22 goals and 26 assists with the Texas Stars and went almost point-per-game in the Calder Cup playoffs in the spring of 2014. For one reason or another, however, things never really worked out in Dallas and the Stars soured on Ritchie after he failed to live up to a $3.5M contract signed in 2017. Signing with the Bruins last season, Ritchie got his nerd stats somewhat back in the black, although the offence still hasn’t quite developed as some may have liked. Like I said, Ritchie’s a longer shot for the NHL but he’s the type of player Belleville could use if enough of the Senators’ top forward prospects graduate this season:
I know, I know, “now we’re talking about Pittsburgh’s castoffs?” Look, the Senators did just acquire and extend Matt Murray, and Cody Ceci plays for the Penguins now, so anything can happen in 2020. Simon started his professional career playing in the Czech Extraliga and Pittsburgh drafted him as an over-ager already established in Europe. Simon had no trouble adapting in the AHL and has just over two full NHL seasons worth of experience now. Like a few other players on this list, I think Simon finds himself in free agency because of the flat cap and that puts Ottawa in an advantageous position.
Closer in comparison to, say, Josh Leivo, Simon won’t generate a lot of individual offence. He does have very strong nerd stats though and has arguably the most consistent corsi-for numbers of any of the players listed. Whether the Senators need a forward to insulate the bottom six in Ottawa or to shore up the offence in Belleville, Simon could provide some insurance for the organization or become a solid deadline asset: