Last week, the long awaited AHL season finally came - sort of. Fans of both Belleville and Ottawa were blessed with a quick, four game series against the Laval Rocket as we patiently awaited clearance from the Ontario government to host games in the province.
Heading into this series, all eyes were on Belleville. This team was amazing last season, with skill throughout the lineup and lights out goaltending every game. This year, however, it’s important to know what is different. While the BSens still have some familiar faces, they are without almost all of their offensive production. Of their top ten point producers (pts/gp) last year, only four are on the roster today - Logan Brown (2nd), Alex Formenton (5th), Vitaly Abramov (7th), and Filip Chlapik (10th).
As expected, there was some serious rust for Belleville to shake off which was made evident by the team dropping their first two contests by a combined score of 10-2. A mix of defensive gaffs and a complete lack of production from some of Belleville’s top players made it almost impossible for Belleville to bank any points. In the opening games, Logan Shaw and Parker Kelly found the back of the net while Lassi Thomson banked his first professional assist.
In the third game, it felt like we saw a completely different team. Backed by Filip Gustavsson, the Belleville Senators claimed two points with a decisive 4-1 win. Up front, the big guns showed up. Alex Formenton scored his first of the season while Vitaly Abramov, Clark Bishop and Shaw added the others.
Last night, we were back to the team we saw at the start of this series. Fumbled pucks, getting hemmed in their own zone and failing to capitalize on opportunities. Most importantly, and detrimentally, Belleville allowed five goals against. All-in-all, what fans had hoped was a blip on the radar in game’s one and two appear to be where this team might be at - at least to start.
Let’s go through the good, the bad and the ugly for Belleville’s opening series. For the purposes of this, I’ll be leaving players we expect to be fantastic out of these notes unless they’ve done something particular spectacular(ly bad?) to deserve a mention. So, if you came here for some Formenton content, you’re not getting it today. Just know, he’s real, real good.
Ottawa’s third, somewhat forgotten, first round pick in 2020 was able to join the BSens to start the season as he waits for the WHL to be able to get back underway. Because of his age - 18 years, 6 months - and his complete lack of professional experience, I think everyone’s expectations of Greig were for him to get some ice time, get used to the pace of the game and see what it’s like to train in a professional environment. What we got, however, was a look at a player who seems all but ready to play in the AHL today, regardless of his age.
Greig spent the first game of this series serving as Belleville’s second line centre, with Alex Formenton and Logan Shaw on his wings. Following an injury to Logan Brown, Head Coach Troy Mann thrust Greig into the first line centre role and he did not disappoint.
This is one of many chances generated by Greig’s line where his puck skills and vision enabled him to drive the play. Frankly, Greig’s entire performance in this series was impressive. If he takes this level of play back to the WHL, look out.
Gustavsson is Belleville’s most prepared goaltender, and it shows. After posting a 0.919 SV% and 11-7-0 record with Södertälje SK of the HockeyAllsvenskan, Gustavsson showed up to Belleville in midseason form. After back-to-back 5-1 losses, Gustavsson stepped in and made 25 stops for a 0.962 SV% and a 4-1 win. It will be interesting to see how Belleville manages their goaltenders moving forward as Gustavsson definitely came into the season as the certain number two but his season opening performance - and play overseas - may give Mann a difficult time making decisions. That’s certainly not a bad problem for a head coach to have.
Thomson’s struggles in Finland over the past season and half have been well documented. Many fans, writers and scouts have looked at his body of work in Finland’s top league and begun to question what it is that Thomson really brings to the Senators organization. Once upon a time, some genius on Twitter had a hopeful theory that, after four games, could possibly be coming true.
The only D in the WHL in his draft year who had better offensive stats than Thomson in 18/19 was Bowen Byram. Thomson's EV GF% led the WHL for draft eligible D and was fourth for all D, regardless of age. His P1/GP was second for DY D, he had the second most P1 PP points as well.— Spencer Blake (@spencerdjblake) November 20, 2020
Through four games, Thomson may be Belleville’s top defender. His skating is very smooth, he moves the puck well and he’s created a few chances in the offensive zone.
Now, this has small sample size alert written all over it so let’s wait to see how the rest of the season goes but, early on, Thomson has looked solid.
Shaw is showing early signs of being another great AHL acquisition courtesy of Pierre Dorion. His play with Greig and Formenton regularly has me impressed. It’s evident that he knows how to play at the AHL level and may even garner himself a few shots with Ottawa, depending on how his season progresses and how many bodies get shipped out near the trade deadline. His two goals and one assist through four games leads Belleville in scoring.
Overall, Belleville’s play in their own zone was relatively poor for three games of this series. If opening the season with two 5-1 losses isn’t evidence enough, I don’t know what to tell ya!
Of the eleven even strength goals against, Belleville’s top pairing of Jonathan Aspirot and Cody Goloubef were on the ice for six of them. It’s natural for the defenders playing the most minutes to be on the ice for more goals against based on probabilities alone - they’re playing the most and matching, as best they can, against Laval’s top players each game. That being said, these two AHL veterans are capable of better and neither showed up to play in the opening two games.
There was also a general lack of presence and awareness from Belleville’s forwards on a number of goals against - things that are, however, easily fixable and likely to improve as the season progresses.
I’ll chalk most of the defensive lapses up to the circumstances surrounding this season, but if Belleville wants to have another successful campaign, play away from the puck in their own end is going to need some serious tightening.
Belleville sits 22nd (out of 28) in powerplay success with a brutal 8.3%. In twelve attempts, the team only scored one goal - last night’s Mark Kastelic goal, his first of his professional career. Similarly, their penalty kill was just as ineffective. Their 21st ranked unit was only successful 76.9% of the time, allowing three goals on thirteen attempts.
The struggles on the man advantage were pretty obvious - this team doesn’t have a ton of skill beyond their first unit. Mann was doing the right thing by loading up on his top unit, with players like Greig, Shaw, Abramov and Thomson seeing regular turns. After that, with Brown and Chlapik injured for the second half of this series, the team’s best options are either players who lack that offensive prowess or fresh faces, still trying to find their way in the AHL.
Moving forward, with Greig almost certainly heading back to the WHL, it will be very interesting to see what tactical changes Mann and his team make to their powerplay unit specifically. Something will have to be altered to see a boost in success.
Goaltenders Not Name Filip
I told myself I wouldn’t add this group into “the bad” because, heading into last night, I genuinely wasn’t sure they were a problem. Yes, allowing ten goals through your first two games is rough on the stats but I’m not convinced enough of those goals were the fault of either Joey Daccord or Kevin Mandolese to warrant their inclusion here. That being said, when you allow five goals in three separate games, you have to look between the pipes to see what happened.
There were a number of great goals scored by Laval - and one that should’ve been disallowed last night - but, with how the team has looked in front of them so far, both Daccord and Mandolese are going to have to be perfect on every other chance against to give this team an opportunity to win regularly. With better positioning and rebound control, Belleville should have been able to hold Laval to three or four goals, instead of five, in three of these contests. The offense is going to have to show up to get them back in a game but goaltending could have made it a more realistic comeback.
When you’re coming into a season like this one, where the Ottawa Senators have so many great prospects but simply not enough spots, you’re bound to see some fringe NHL players hit the AHL roster to kick off the season. For Filip Chlapik and Logan Brown, both came into the season with expectations that they’d be absolutely dominant. Before both sustaining injuries and being kept out for the back half of this series, neither player particularly impressed.
Brown had a few moments in the opening game where he showed the skill and vision that makes him such an enticing prospect but he also made a number of plays - or, didn’t make a number of plays - where you have to ask where the motivation is to become the regular NHLer his skillset says he can be.
It’s little plays like this that are holding Logan Brown out of the NHL.— Everyday.Sens (@EverydaySens) February 13, 2021
He turns the puck over, then doesn’t move his feet to recover. Leads to a good scoring chance. pic.twitter.com/VdIicTSByg
Chlapik, on the other hand, was more defensively responsible than Brown but, for a player with as many AHL games under his belt as Chlapik has, he didn’t make the impact I was hoping he would through his two games with the team.