Looking back at the Ottawa Senators’ draft class of 2017, you can draw a variety of conflicting opinions. On one hand, they selected Shane Bowers 28th overall, the only first-round pick from that year who has yet to play an NHL game. On the other hand, the value they’ve gotten out of a couple of key players has far exceeded that of the four picks with which they went into the draft.
Fourth-rounder Drake Batherson immediately comes to mind, primarily because he’s become arguably Ottawa’s best player at the moment and the best late-round steal since Daniel Alfredsson.
As for Alex Formenton, the team’s second-round selection that year, there’s still plenty of intrigue around what he’ll be in the NHL long-term. You may recall that the 6’2 left winger wasn’t originally Ottawa’s pick; the second-rounder used on him was acquired in the prior trade deadline from the Calgary Flames in exchange for former first-round pick Curtis Lazar. It’s safe to say the deal has aged very well for Ottawa, as the moderate success Lazar has had as a depth forward has come after the end of his unimpressive stint with the Flames.
Despite a junior career with the London Knights in which he didn’t necessarily light it up offensively, scoring 34 points in 31 games in his final OHL season, Formenton turned some heads by making the Ottawa Senators out of training camp following his draft year, becoming the youngest player in franchise history to play a regular-season NHL game. That’s right: a now-twenty-two-year-old Alex Formenton was playing in the NHL before the organization began their strict adherence to Murphy’s Law back in 2017.
Since then, he’s won a gold medal at the 2018 World Juniors at eighteen years of age and notched 53 points in 61 games in his first year with the Belleville Senators of the AHL. He’s locked down a full-time job with Ottawa this season, in which he’s still technically a rookie, and has 6 goals and 4 assists in 25 games. Notably, 7 of those 10 points have come in the last 8 games.
While he’s known for his blazing speed, it can overshadow a few of his other strengths. Former head coach Guy Boucher drawing comparisons to Connor McDavid was pretty silly, but Formenton’s also better than the league-minimum depth players the Edmonton Oilers would throw onto a line with McDavid back when Peter Chiarelli was in charge.
A glance at some of his highlight packs could give you an impression that his inability to finish on his chances is a big flaw in his game, but his shooting percentage of 14.3 doesn’t fit that narrative. A breakaway is far from the only way to create high-danger opportunities, yet it stands out in memory as an epic showdown between goalie and shooter, which could lead one to believe that Formenton generates more chances than he actually does. While we’ve certainly seen him create chances off of sustained pressure, or by forcing turnovers in the offensive zone, it’s not the case that Formenton is missing a boatload of opportunities.
We can see this through the use of HockeyViz’s heatmaps. Regular readers will be familiar with these visualizations, but for those who need an introduction or refresher:
These are maps of the offensive zone, with the grey box near the top representing the net. Wherever you see red on the map, that’s an area where the team is generating more shots than the average team. Blue areas denote the opposite — fewer shots than the league average. The above chart shows the team performance while Formenton is on the ice, specifically, they mostly attack from in close and around the net, which lines up with his supposed affinity for chances off the rush, while heavily struggling to get pucks on net from other areas. To me, it suggests an inability to frequently enter the attacking zone, favouring quality over quantity.
This second chart shows how they’re doing while he’s off the ice. You’ll notice a lower amount of saturation of either colour as opposed to the first chart — this is generally because, over a larger sample size, the focus on any specific point on the map will decrease. In this case, it’s not obvious which chart is showing the better results, fortunately, HockeyViz also gives us exact xG rates to show us that the team does slightly better without Formenton while in the offensive zone. He’s a positive influence at the other end of the ice, however, as the team’s 5-on-5 xGA/60 is slightly better with him (2.77) than without him (2.86).
As alluded to before, Formenton has been on a bit of a heater with 7 points in his last 8 games, and there’s an argument to be made that he’s now been given the perfect opportunity by head coach D.J. Smith to make sure he stays hot — a spot on the team’s second line with Tim Stützle and Connor Brown.
In comparison, his most common linemates this year have been Chris Tierney and Tyler Ennis. The former hasn’t been up to the task of generating primary assists recently, which have been his one consistent contribution to the team over the past three seasons. Ennis is a more reliable source of secondary scoring, but I’m not sure he’s the best fit for Formenton either. I’ll bet that whenever you notice Ennis, nine out of ten times it’s when he’s got the puck along the boards, quickly changing directions every couple of seconds. He’s great at maintaining possession in the offensive zone, and a similar player like Nick Paul might be a better fit with him and make their line more successful at keeping opposing scoring threats pinned in their own end.
As for Formenton, since the best way to utilize his strengths is to maximize his opportunity to create rush chances, placing him on Stützle’s wing is a good idea in theory, because Stützle is currently the Senators’ best defensive forward, which means they’re completing successful zone exits and zone entries more often while he’s on the ice. Also, the idea of a decent shooter being set up by this guy is pretty awesome:
Formenton’s value doesn’t stop with his even-strength play. D.J. Smith had recently stated that the team’s focus would shift towards the development of young players, but Formenton was one such player who had been trusted with a key role long before — that being on the penalty kill. Along with Paul, Brown, Austin Watson, and Dylan Gambrell, Formenton has been heavily relied on by Smith to be an integral part of a unit that’s yielded...unimpressive results to say the least.
NaturalStatTrick ranks Ottawa’s rate of 4-on-5 expected goals against at 30th in the league, at 7.99 per sixty minutes. However, it gets a lot more complicated when you consider the metrics of individual players. In the following table, you’ll see where these five forwards rank-league-wide in preventing expected goals against, out of 179 forwards who have a sample of at least 20 minutes.
How Successful Are Ottawa’s Forwards on the Penalty Kill?
We’ve got a pretty interesting discrepancy here, as for whatever reason, the results simply haven’t been there while Brown and/or Gambrell are on the ice. Watson has been an absolute warrior, while Paul and Formenton are also positive influences on the unit.
Not to mention, beyond being pretty good at holding back the opposing power-play, he’s always a threat to take advantage of a mistake and take off with the puck:
Formenton shorthanded breakaway goal. Drink. pic.twitter.com/pwbqbpvhUE— Lalime's Martian (@LalimesMartian) December 19, 2021
At the very least, Alex Formenton is a versatile bottom-six forward whose speed can be an asset on the penalty kill. However, his decent two-way play and underrated shot, as well as the right deployment could see him further develop over the next few years. It also wouldn’t hurt to see his speed on display during 3-on-3 overtime.
What’s important is that even if a prospect can pan out as Formenton has, they may never reach their ceiling, so the Senators shouldn’t count on him to blossom into a legitimate top-six forward.
But at twenty-two years of age, they shouldn’t count him out, either.