It’s fairly straightforward to project the Ottawa Senators’ defence group for the start of the 2021 NHL season. They have six defencemen on one-way contracts, as well as top prospect Erik Brannstrom and KHL import Artem Zub hoping to force their way into a regular spot.
One player that you’d definitely consider to be a dark horse to make the team would be Maxime Lajoie. Considering how few fifth-round picks actually make the NHL, that’s not really a surprise. What’s interesting however, is that a few years ago, Lajoie was looking like a key player in the Senators’ rebuild. Now, we’re seeing the results of an instance of sub-optimal development by the organization.
Early on, the Quebec City native proved to be a prospect worth keeping an eye on by earning an entry-level contract from the big club during his first training camp in 2016 before returning to the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos for the year. As a player drafted in the fifth round from that same year, he had to have made a very strong impression on the team to earn that contract. The following year, Lajoie was still considered to be a project, and was still nowhere near to being NHL-ready, and took part in Belleville’s inaugural 2017-18 season, putting up 15 points (1 goal) in 56 games. Overall, a decent first professional season.
Coming into training camp in the 2018-19 season, the opportunity for young defencemen to make an impact was larger than ever before, as Erik Karlsson had just been traded to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for their entire future. Even so, Lajoie was still considered to be below Christian Wolanin, Christian Jaros and Ben Harpur on the depth chart. However, the 20-year-old surprised everyone with a very impressive preseason, which was enough to earn a spot on the opening night roster. Lajoie was considered to be a well-rounded defence prospect with decent offensive and defensive ability, but the offensive side of his game especially came through during his unforgettable NHL debut in the season opener against Chicago:
This debut grew into a scorching hot streak, as he began the year with four goals and three assists in his first six games, while firing 18 shots on goal. Although he and the rest of the Senators’ defence corps struggled to drive play, Lajoie’s confidence was sky-high, with play after play coming off of his stick and leading to a quality scoring chance. Ottawa had found a diamond in the rough.
As the season went on, however, the porous defensive play continued, while Lajoie’s production came to a halt. After a ten-game stretch with only one point (a goal), it was time to consider sending him down to Belleville to continue to hone his two-way game. It wouldn’t have been an issue at all to have done so, since he was still twenty-one years old and had already done more in the NHL than an average late-round pick. Plus, a large stint in Belleville under coach Troy Mann would certainly have been beneficial to his development long-term, and Ottawa did have Wolanin waiting in the wings, ready to seamlessly move into Lajoie’s spot.
Instead, the team opted to keep Lajoie in Ottawa long-term; it’s likely that his production at the start of the year had earned him more rope than that which a prospect would normally been given. He remained with the big club until he’d played 56 NHL games. In his final 50 games, he scored only three goals and five assists, not nearly enough to justify throwing an inexperienced defender to the wolves every night.
The Senators were out-performed to a large degree with Lajoie on the ice, only generating 43.71 percent of the 5v5 expected goals share, and Lajoie’s primary partner on defence was Cody Ceci, which wasn’t ideal, but when you consider the alternative was to separate the fantastic pair of Thomas Chabot and Dylan DeMelo, there really was no choice in that regard. Lajoie did have some great performances throughout the season, but not at the consistency required to warrant a full-time job with the team.
Simply put, the NHL wasn’t the place for Lajoie to be for a full season. Instead of a full year of development, he was overwhelmed with extremely tough minutes for a rookie. To make matters worse, shortly after being assigned to Belleville, he suffered an injury and required sports hernia surgery. Although he recovered over the offseason, the road back to the NHL has been tough. He was unable to earn the trust of D.J. Smith during the 2019-20 season, spending another full year in Belleville and tallying 4 goals and 13 assists in 48 games. Things have only become harder with the acquisition of Brannstrom from Vegas in 2019, and the selection of Jake Sanderson fifth-overall in the 2020 NHL Draft.
Granted, with this addition of talent on the blueline, Lajoie likely would’ve been passed on the depth chart regardless of his development, but he was playing like a legitimate NHL defender for a short while, and was looking like he could become part of the long-term solution in Ottawa.
He still can, by the way. He’s still got one more year on his entry-level deal, meaning he can be sent down to the AHL without being placed on waivers first. Though, it should be said that giving Lajoie a proper workload throughout the 2018-19 season might have allowed him to take additional steps forward, instead of backward.
Development is key when it comes to a team’s success, not just when they’re rebuilding, but also if they’re looking to keep the roster competitive once they start winning. The organization will have to make the correct decisions regarding many of their prospects in order to maximize their chances of bringing a Cup to Ottawa. Let’s hope they can right this ship and turn Max Lajoie into an NHL defender.