There was a time, mere weeks ago, that the idea of demoting Drake Batherson, or sitting him down as a healthy scratch was entertained by the Ottawa Senators. After the past five games, such notions seem like a distant memory.
Batherson has four goals in his last five games, and has emphatically staked his claim to a top-six forward spot in the NHL. But even before his recent production, there wasn’t much to be worried about with regards to the soon-to-be 23 year-old’s game.
If one were looking at things purely through a surface-level lens, they could have argued that it did make a bit of sense to send Batherson down. He was mired in an ugly slump to begin the year, scoring just once in his first 16 games. It was a rough start for a player entering the season with much in the way of expectations, after dominating the American Hockey League for the past three seasons.
If you lift up the hood, however, even the untrained eye can see that the stats line did not tell the whole story with regards to Batherson. Sure, the lack of tangible production was perhaps a bit disappointing, but the little things in Batherson’s game were going right. Through those first 16 games, he posted an average 53.11% Corsi rating, as well as a 52.94% xGF%.
What this tells us is that despite Batherson’s struggles to finish plays, he was generating offence at a level seen only by the top of Ottawa’s lineup. The Senators don’t get out-chanced when he’s on the ice, aided heavily by his capabilities in the offensive zone. We’ve known that Batherson is capable of electric scoring performances based on his play in Belleville. It may not have translated to the NHL until this year, but patience in the Fort Wayne, Indiana native has paid off in spades.
For proof of this, we can go back to the first game of the season. With the Senators on a five-on-three powerplay, Batherson fed Thomas Chabot with a cross-ice pass through two Maple Leafs defenders, for Chabot’s first of the year.
Ray Ferraro pointed this out on the broadcast, but Thomas Chabot gets into perfect position for the goal. He comes down through the middle of the slot, and rolls back out wide, opening himself up for Drake Batherson's pass.— Brandon Maki (@BrandonMaki_) January 16, 2021
Great patience, and timing by both.#GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/fKLHZPRwi8
It’s plays like this that demonstrate what Batherson was missing during last year’s call-up: confidence. The ability has always been there, it was just a question of translation. There was a play about a year ago that led me to believe that Batherson was starting to understand how skilled he was. Check out this sweet little toe-drag move against the Anaheim Ducks:
Now, does this look familiar?
Another year older, and more than a few pounds stronger, Batherson has finished what he started at the end of last season. The pieces are being put together in front of our eyes, and it’s been a thing of beauty to watch. Over his past five games, Batherson has been an instrumental part in three big wins over divisional rivals.
His offensive ability is apparent, but Batherson has also taken strides defensively. His isolated defensive impact could certainly stand to improve, but there’s some solace to be found in the fact that he’s slowly beginning to limit opposing chances at the netfront. The front of the net is ice cold for opposing shooters, and Batherson is also beginning to encroach upon the higher slot area.
Does he have work to do in this regard? Of course, but this also doesn’t tell the whole story.
Going back to the previous point about Batherson being bigger, and more assertive, the difference in his overall defensive play is quite visible, as well.
It feels like I'm gushing about Drake Batherson every game. Watch this stickwork, and the way he protects the puck to draw the penalty, and still get it to the net.— Brandon Maki (@BrandonMaki_) January 20, 2021
He's turned into an unquestioned Top 3 forward on this team, and he's only getting better. #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/FeqBRclx13
On January 19th, Brandon so eloquently put it, this is a hell of a play by Batherson. Not only does he generate a juicy turnover — stifling the Winnipeg breakout — but he also is able to regain possession of the puck without drawing a penalty, and create a scoring chance, all the while drawing a penalty on Andrew Copp.
Simply put, these just aren’t plays that Batherson was making last year. The physical maturity, and improvement to his game’s finer points have paved the way for a player quickly putting the NHL on notice.
It’s clear that the mental aspect of his game has come a long way, as well. It’s no secret that Batherson spends his summers training with the likes of Sidney Crosby, and Nathan MacKinnon, so it’s only natural that he would pick up some things that would make your jaw drop.
This one is subtle, but watch how Batherson floats by the puck, here. He never has any intention of touching it, but knows that Nikita Zaitsev is coming down the wall for a point shot. Not only does Batherson create a quickly little screen, but the sudden change of direction in the puck is enough to fool Freddie Andersen, and is only exacerbated by Brady Tkachuk’s deflection.
Was definitely in the Sens' gameplan to take those quick shots from the half boards. They did it a few times. Batherson waits to the last second to leave the puck for Zaitsev, and disguises the shot.— Brandon Maki (@BrandonMaki_) January 16, 2021
Oh, and the mid-air, backhand deflection by Brady was alright, too.#GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/mMlJKEBGq2
Every time a team cleans out their lockers at the conclusion of a season, they send their young players off in the hopes that they will return better for an offseason spent with their nose to the grindstone. Even still, it’s a rare that a 22 year-old player comes back as a bonafide top six forward. It almost makes one wonder whether or not rumours of Batherson’s pending demotion could have been hyperbolic, or intentionally used to light a fire under him, because there is no doubt that he belongs in the NHL.
The question that now remains is just what heights he’ll reach. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Batherson is the next Crosby or MacKinnon, but his play is showing signs of a first-line winger. The eye-test, stat lines, and analytics all flatter Batherson’s game.
As he appears to build chemistry with Tim Stützle, and continues to solidify himself as a key contributor, the sky is the limit for Drake Batherson.