The final piece to the puzzle in a successful year for the Belleville Senators comes from the people who sign the players, make the decisions and provide the strategy for the top tier prospects to execute.
The tandem of GM Pierre Dorion and Head Coach Troy Mann were two major catalysts in Belleville being the top team in the North and one of the favourites for a deep Calder Cup run. Yes, much of the success comes from the players on the ice. But how do you think they got there and who is the person deploying them properly? Mann and his coaching staff were reliable as always when it came to deployment of prospects, ensuring a good balance of providing opportunity and rewarding success.
On the positive side, Belleville’s performance at even strength was a highlight for this squad - thanks to a combination of signing the right veterans and trusting high end, inexperienced prospects in important roles. The team also had a surprisingly solid year of production shorthanded. On the other side, Belleville really struggled in special teams, ranking far down the standings in both powerplay and penalty kill success - despite finishing with a fantastic record.
First, we need to talk about Belleville’s ability to score goals at even strength. In many scenarios, a team would always choose to be on the powerplay but this Belleville squad sincerely didn’t need to have the man advantage in order to fill the net. In 2019-20, Belleville scored 234 times, 50 of which occurred on the powerplay with an additional 18 shorthanded. That means the BSens put 166 pucks in the net at even strength. If you sort the league by goals for, 166 would put Belleville tied or ahead of 10 teams in total scoring. Yes, you read that correctly. If you took away all of Belleville’s goals scored on the PP and PK, Belleville would still have ranked 22nd in total scoring. Absurd. This speaks to this coaching staff’s ability to optimize its talented lineup and execute a strategy at even strength that enables their lineup to succeed. Due to a lack of proper tracking, it’s hard to analyze specifically why this might be. Anecdotally, this Belleville team was not one to regularly dump and chase. Carrying the puck and entering the zone with possession was, more often than not, the apparent go-to strategy. It felt clear that Mann understood that the best way to score is to have the puck - and giving it away, even in an attempt to dump and chase, risks losing possession altogether.
A surprising hero in reviewing this season was Belleville’s ability to score while shorthanded! Belleville led the league with 18 shorthanded goals. I know what you’re asking yourself - is this just a bunch of Formenton breakaways? No. But he did lead the team with a goal and five assists. Szwarz and Klimchuk led the way with four and three goals each, while a total of 10 BSens contributed at least one goal shorthanded. This is a result of an aggressive penalty kill style - which also leads into why the penalty kill’s defensive success (or lackthereof) is listed in the zeroes column. While there’s always room for improvement and it’s important to run an intelligent penalty kill, would you trade the 18 goals for to reduce the goals against? When you have won as many games as Belleville did, maybe you don’t.
This leads into the next important piece to the personnel puzzle - trust. Heading into this season, there was a feeling of optimism surrounding Mann & Co.’s ability to develop prospects based on how heavily they leaned on rookies like Logan Brown and Drake Batherson last year. What this coaching staff did is prove everyone right once again. For forwards who played a minimum of 30 games, the four leaders in ice time were, in order, Batherson, Norris, Formenton and Balcers. This is a huge change from the days of Kurt Kleinendorst who regularly deployed players like Jim O’Brien, Ben Sexton and Chris DiDomenico over Colin White and Filip Chlapik. Now, there’s an argument to make that Mann has had far more to work with in the way of talented prospects than Kleinendorst did - but the AHL is a development league and it’s very clear that Mann’s deployment is better balanced to provide that for Ottawa’s top prospects.
On the point of player deployment, Dorion had a strong season in player acquisition at the AHL level. The offseason signing of Jordan Szwarz alone gets Dorion into the hero section for me. Gone are the days of grizzled veterans being the primary target for Belleville’s AHL signings. In Szwarz, Dorion brought in a captain, a 20 goal scorer and an all around solid AHL player who was a key cog in the Belleville machine. At the deadline, Dorion brought back Darren Archibald back - and he had four goals and four assists in nine games before the season was cancelled. Compared to the Jim O’Brien style signings of yesteryear, Dorion’s work adding skilled veterans to this lineup vastly improved its depth and overall performance. It allowed Mann to slowly work stars like Norris and Formenton into more important roles in the fall, letting them get comfortable and providing them with talented, experienced linemates. In my opinion, Dorion has excelled at bringing in AHL talent since the departure of Randy Lee.
In a season as great as this one, it’s hard to believe there even could be zeroes at the coaching, personnel and strategy level. After all, this team had a 38-20-4-1 record. What more could you want?
The interesting thing is that there’s really one area where Belleville could have taken this season from a probably deep playoff run to an almost-certain championship. Belleville’s special teams were, at best, middle of the pack and, at worst, completely dreadful. Through 63 games, Belleville finished 12th (18.7%) on the powerplay and 24th (80.1%) on the penalty kill. Particularly with the amount of offensive talent up front, finishing 12th is not something to be proud of. There’s an added piece to this puzzle that makes it even more concerning. Across the league, Belleville was given 267 opportunities with the player advantage. That’s good for third in the league. This begs the question - why was Mann’s powerplay strategy so ineffective? To me, it comes back to a lack of high danger chances on the powerplay. If you watch Belleville’s powerplay goals back, you’ll notice that many of them are scored from the outside using what has been one of the more popular powerplay strategies of the last few seasons.
Now, I’ve included a highlight above of Belleville’s powerplay strategy working but the cross ice one-timer and half wall one-timer are two of the most common goal scoring tactics at the man advantage these days and you have to ask yourself if teams are starting to figure out how to more efficiently defend against it.
In last year’s Year In Review, I highlighted a tactic Mann used a fair bit last season that seems to have fallen off the map.
One of the things that's clicking recently for the #BSens is their top PP unit featuring all of Batherson, Brown, Chlapik and Paul. This is a set play they executed multiple times this weekend which created two PP goals. Brown ➡ Batherson ➡ Chlapik ➡ net. #Sens pic.twitter.com/2MZL5b1WCv— Spencer Blake (@spencerdjblake) February 13, 2019
For me, this is the kind of play you want to see more of. This unit moves the puck around the outside before quickly moving down low and even more quickly into the slot for a high danger shot. While it’s difficult to execute this successfully every time, getting the puck into the slot for a chance should be more of a priority if Belleville wants to improve on its powerplay success next season.
On the other side of the special teams woes, Belleville was amongst the worst teams in the league on the penalty kill. If it weren’t for their impressive even strength production, there’s no way Belleville would have been as high in the standings as they were with how poor their penalty kill was. Not only were they 24th in the league, they led the league total times being shorthanded with an astounding 291 penalty kill “opportunities”. We don’t need to get too deep into a math lesson to understand that being one of the worst teams on the penalty kill while having spent the most time on the penalty kill can’t possibly be a good thing.
As I mentioned above, Belleville also led the league in shorthanded goals. What this could tell us is that Belleville ran an aggressive penalty kill and, from reviewing attempts, I think it’s safe to say that’s true. Instead of letting the other team work the puck around the outside and limiting them to less dangerous shots from further out, Belleville had a tendency to jump at an opportunity to steal the puck, intercept a pass or win a puck battle. While this led to some scoring, it’s worth considering a change in tactics especially if next year’s team drops off in offensive skill.
With every other section, there are a ton of questions surrounding the Belleville Senators heading into the offseason. First, we need to look at how much of this team’s success was due to coaching or the sheer skill within the lineup. Second, who can Dorion target in free agency to ensure that, with the pending graduation of Belleville’s best players, the BSens’ competitive environment is a lasting one and not a flash in the pan.
I think it’s fair to say that Belleville’s success can be credited to both the coaching staff and the skill of the lineup. It’s hard to imagine, however, that the BSens would have been as successful if it weren’t for players like Josh Norris and Alex Formenton lighting the world on fire in their respective rookie campaigns. This is why improving special teams needs to be the top priority for Mann and his team heading into the offseason. Mann won’t always be able to rely on players of this skill level to carry his team’s offense - and I highly doubt that he’ll have many teams in his future that will be capable of scoring at even strength like this one. Given the early end to the season and the uncertain start to next, Mann will have plenty of time to review tape and make these important improvements to his playbook.
While I’m sure Dorion’s priorities are focused on the June uh July uh... eventual draft that’ll happen at some point... it can’t be overstated that Belleville’s ability to carry this year’s success into next will be heavily influenced by Dorion’s free agent work this summer. While Michael Carcone is still under contract for another year, players like Szwarz, Archibald, JC Beaudin and Morgan Klimchuk are on expiring deals. If I’m Dorion, I’m bringing all of these players back. But if they are enticed to find other opportunities, there are a few players I’d target who will bring both veteran skill and an opportunity to improve special teams to the table.
For example, let’s take a look at individual powerplay performance across the league. Of AHL players who played at least 30 games this year, the top four players on expiring contracts in primary points on the powerplay per game were Kyle Rau (MIN), Sam Anas (MIN), Matt Puempel (DET) and Austin Czarnik (CGY). These are all players who produced well overall but contributed significantly to their respective teams powerplay production. Of these players, the most intriguing might be Czarnik as he’s on the older end (27), has a bit of NHL experience and might be convinced to join an organization like Ottawa where playing time at the NHL level can be dangled in front of him. I don’t know about you but bringing back Puempel would be a fun (funny?) development, given he flopped at the NHL level with Ottawa. That being said, you can’t deny his ability to contribute in the AHL as his career average is 27.7 goals per full AHL season.
Thanks for the season, friends!
With that, we wrap up the Belleville Year in Review series. The hardest part about this season will be thinking about what could have been. With how well they produced at even strength, solid goaltending from Joey Daccord and skilled veteran leadership, you have to think a deep playoff run was on Belleville’s horizon. I’ve pondered previously that this BSens team was probably better, at least on paper, than the Binghamton team that went all the way in 2011.
Here’s to hoping a similar calibre team will return to the Bay of Quinte next season and give CAA Arena its first taste of playoff hockey.
Keep an eye on Silver Seven for upcoming draft coverage, offseason hot takes and a few sarcasm filled pieces from yours truly. Thanks for the season, friends!