Welcome back to the Sens prospect awards! In part four of the seven-part series, we’ll be taking a glance at the handful of prospects that entered the Senators’ system in the past year, and revealing which one we thought had the best season. You can find the 2020 awards we’ve already handed out here.
Without further ado, let’s introduce the winner...
Top Newcomer: Lassi Thomson
Reader’s Choice: Shane Pinto (90% of votes)
Honourable Mentions: Shane Pinto, Chris Wilkie, Olle Alsing
Last week we saw the first disagreement with the reader vote, as Ary and I chose Jonathan Davidsson over Logan Brown as the biggest disappointment. But the race for the reader vote winner for Top Newcomer was near unanimous, as Pinto’s 90% share of the vote trounced Lassi Thomson’s mere 3% (just one more vote than Mads Søgaard). It wasn’t even close between the Sens’ top two picks in the 2019 NHL draft, and to me, this was surprising. Let’s dig into it.
Drafted 19th overall in 2019, Lassi Thomson was considered by many to be a reach in the back half of the first round, but was nevertheless heralded as a skilled, toolsy defenceman that filled a need in the Sens’ system as a right-shot defender. After transferring out of the WHL to play against pros in Finland’s top league, the expectation was on Thomson to show that he can be a reliable offensive defender against older competition. He may not have gone above and beyond those expectations, but that’s exactly what he provided.
Thomson was off to a hot start with Ilves, being relied upon heavily for a young player, especially being on a team that was winning games. His six points in his first thirteen games showed lots of promise, but it was ground to a halt after he suffered an injury in November.
He was back in time for the World Junior Championships, however, where he captained Finland to a respectable 4th place finish, serving as their #1 defenceman. But it was in Finland where he was at his best, easing back into a top role and contributing offensively before the Liiga shut down the rest of the season.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Thomson, it’s that he loves to shoot. While he was slightly restrained while playing with Kelowna, he turned on the jets this season, standing near the top of the entire league in shots on goal before the injury. He finished the year averaging 3.4 shots on goal per game, good for fourth on his team and first among defenceman. His offensive mobility and lethal slapshot made him a useful player at both even strength and on the power play. Combine that with the fact that he’s a physically developed player playing against professional competition, it makes him very projectable to the NHL level.
In terms of how it translated to the scoreboard, there was still something left to be desired. His 13 points in 37 games was a result of a dry spell in the final months of the season, with his shooting percentage plummeting all the way to 5.3%. This is expected to an extent for a defenceman who tends to be trigger-happy from low-danger areas, but at the same time, it would be beneficial to his development if he could continue looking for plays to get the puck to more dangerous areas. Overall, aside from the injury setback, the development we saw from Thomson this season still has us believing that he was the Senators’ top newcomer.
This brings us to Shane Pinto, who has come out of the woodworks this season after the Sens surprised everybody by reaching on him on draft day. His development curve might be the steepest in the Sens’ system, rounding out numerous facets of his game this past season to put himself on the map as a prospect with higher upside than originally touted. He was deservedly named a runner-up for the Most Improved Prospect award.
Between a key performance at the World Juniors for Team USA and inserting himself into a top role for the University of North Dakota, the highlights were plentiful for Pinto. His 28 points in 33 games was the sixth highest rate amongst NCAA freshman, even above some players who were taken 15+ picks higher.
So why did we choose Thomson instead for the virtual award? Contextual factors matter a lot when it comes to prospect evaluation, and given that Pinto was playing with really talented teammates, against amateur competition, and with an unsustainably high shooting percentage (17.6%), we’re still on the fence as to whether he has the same potential to reach the NHL that we think Thomson has. If Pinto continues his current upward trend he could easily surpass Thomson and become the Senators’ jewel of the draft class. But at this point in time, we remain satisfied that Ottawa’s top pick of the draft is still the slightly better and more projectable player.
Moving on to the rest of the runner-ups, Chris Wilkie deserves a shout-out as being the best volume shooter in the NCAA this season, full stop. He led the entire league with a ridiculous 5.15 shots on goal per game in his senior year for Colorado College, notching 23 goals and 31 points in 34 games. The caveat is that he now has the choice as to whether he wants to leave as an unrestricted free agent when the window opens, whenever that may be (typically August 15th). He’s also going to be 24 years old this summer, which barely makes him a prospect at this stage anyways. But here’s hoping for the best for a player that’s shown steady improvement.
Our final runner-up is Olle Alsing, another one of the Sens’ older prospects as he’ll be turning 24 in May. It was a rollercoaster of a season for the defenceman, as he started off the year extremely hot in the SHL, going as far as leading all defencemen in the Champions HL tournament with 15 points in 13 games. Then he hit a cold streak in the winter, and there was no turning back. He ended the year with a prolonged knee injury, nearing a return before the playoffs were cancelled. On a positive note, though, he confirmed that he’ll be playing in North America next season, and should serve as a welcome addition to Belleville’s blue line.
That’s all for this week’s prospect award! Do you agree? Disagree? I’m guessing a lot of you disagree with this one, so let us know why in the comments. Thanks for reading!
Next week’s award: Best Defenceman