This past weekend, the BSens routed the Toronto Marlies during their 16th game of a 36 game season. With a big four game series coming up against Manitoba, they’ll technically hit the halfway mark later this week but let’s take a look at how the season has gone so far, where the bright spots are and what we should keep our eyes on as the Belleville Senators head into their final 20 games of the campaign.
While Belleville’s 6-10-0 record through 16 games leaves much to be desired, it surprisingly hasn’t been through a lack of defensive effort. When it comes to goals against per game, Belleville ranks 12th in the league with 51 through 16 games (3.19 per game). Of course, you have to score 4+ goals in a game to win, so this stat can definitely improve. That being said, of the teams ahead of Belleville in goals against per game on the season, all but one are above 0.500 and eight of them are above 0.600. Basically, Belleville is playing defense well enough to have a much better record relative to the rest of the league.
Cause for Concern
So, what’s the cause for concern based on what you just read? You guessed it! Scoring goals.
In goals for per game, Belleville ranks second last with just 2.25. Unsurprisingly, all of the teams at the top of this metrics - including the Chicago Wolves who score an impressive 4.53 goals per game - are also the teams with the highest winning percentage. Shocker, I know.
This, however, is something we saw coming from day one. This team started the year without almost all of their top scorers - minus Alex Formenton and Logan Brown. When you kick off a new season without Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, Rudolfs Balcers and Erik Brännström, while not really replacing these players with anyone of immense value, you’re bound to see this drop. As a point of reference, Belleville ranked first in the league last season in goals for with 234 on the season - or 3.71 per game.
Following a series of struggled against Laval earlier in the year, I commented on Belleville’s abysmal special teams effort to start the season. As of this series, Belleville was 22nd out of 28 teams in powerplay performance with an 8.3% success rate. Their 21st ranked penalty kill was also tough to see, with a 76.9% rate.
Since then, however, the BSens have tightened up their approach and modified their units a bit, with the emergence of players like Vitaly Abramov and Mark Kastelic as legitimate scoring threats with the man advantage.
On the powerplay, since started with only one goal through 12 attempts, Belleville has been successful 10 times on 43 opportunities, that’s good for a 23.3% success rate. A massive leap from where they began the season. League wide, they now sit tied for 9th with the Henderson Silver Knights and, within their division, they rank fourth behind Manitoba, Stockton and Laval. The uptick in success has been mostly derived from two things: first, an even spread of goal scoring. On the powerplay, only three members of the BSens have more than one goal, with a total of eight skaters contributing to their 11 goals for. The second is honestly Erik Brännström. Of Belleville’s 11 powerplay goals for, Brännström has factored into four of them. Oh, and he’s only played four games with the club.
When Belleville has been down a man since their rough start, they’ve also seen drastic improvements. Being shorthanded 49 times in this stretch, Belleville has only allowed their opponents to score eight times which is good for an 83.7% success rate. League wide, their overall success rate of 82.3% is now good for 10th place - and barely second in their division behind Laval (82.9%).
Egor Sokolov, welcome to town!
Sokolov, who was added to a long(ish) list of Sens second round picks questioned by many fans due to his overage status, is the Belleville Senators leading goal scorer as a rookie. Starting out playing primarily third line minutes with Mark Kastelic and Cole Reinhardt, Sokolov is now this team’s de facto number one right winger.
It doesn’t hurt that he scored a hat trick this past weekend, which lends some recency bias to this selection, but what’s most impressive is where his production is coming from. On the year, Sokolov has seven goals to his name, only one of which came from the man advantage. In fact, seven of his ten points with Belleville are at even strength and all of his points on the year are primary, he doesn’t have a single secondary assist in any situation. This is efficient work from the big teddy bear.
Cause for Concern
As we know from the overall concerning area for this team, Belleville has seen a significant drop in production from its forwards. As stated, this was expected. The cause for concern is the drop, across the board, from Belleville’s returning players.
Much of this can be attributed to a lack of skill surrounding them, there’s no denying that, but for players like Formenton, Abramov, JC Beaudin and Logan Brown, I’m willing to bet the BSens staff was expecting more.
Formenton’s primary points per game dropped from 0.82 to 0.31, Brown dropped by 0.6 from 0.8 to 0.2. Beaudin, who admittedly isn’t known to be an offensive powerhouse, went from 0.36 to 0.06. Abramov had the smallest drop from 0.62 to 0.4. That is a ton of primary point production out the window. In fact, one of the only returning forwards who has performed better this year than last, from a primary points perspective, is Parker Kelly who jumped from 0.24 to 0.31, ranked fifth on this year’s team.
As the season progresses and more players get their opportunities to play with Ottawa, it’ll be very concerning if, while they’re still in Belleville, these players don’t pick up the pace. Otherwise, we’re in for a long remainder of this campaign.
Goal scoring has been the trend for forwards since this team hit the 10 game mark. During the first ten games of the season, Belleville scored 18 goals. In their last six, they also scored 18 goals. Of those 18 goals in their last six games, the forwards have been responsible for 15 of them.
Not only has this forward group seen an uptick in production over the past six games, it’s been a relatively even spread of contributors. Yes, Sokolov has four of the 15 goals scored by forwards in this stretch but there are eight other forwards who have scored as well, including two from Mathew Peca, despite just joining the team six games ago.
One thing that happened around the same time was a shuffling of the lines. Most notably, Sokolov was moved to the top line and has been seeing reps with AHL veterans like Peca and Shaw. He had been playing well with his most usual linemates in Reindhardt and Kastelic but Coach Mann recognized that Sokolov’s size and shot could be better utilized with more experienced linemates.
This is an intriguing topic because there are a number of players who deserve some credit for their play in the first part of the season. Lassi Thomson has been decent in his return to North America, contributing offensively with a team leading six assists in 16 games while being strong in his own end. Jack Dougherty and Jonathan Aspirot started shaky but have rounded into their usual reliable form. Both defenders have a positive EV GF%, meaning the number of even strength goals scored while they are on the ice is greater than or equal to the number allowed. But the most notable, under the radar performance for me on Belleville’s blueline has been that of Colby Williams.
Williams was signed to an AHL deal this past offseason, coming out of the Washington Capitals organization after four years with the Hershey Bears. Frankly, we didn’t know much about him. Due to the usual AHL schedule, Hershey is not a regular opponent of Belleville. The former sixth round pick has come to Belleville and been solid on the right side. He’s not much of a point producer - never has been - but what’s interesting is that he’s second on the team in EV GF%, third in EV GF%Rel. All-in-all, Belleville’s ability to drive goals positively at even strength with Williams on the ice was better than when he’s off the ice.
Because of his inability to produce offensively at the AHL level, I doubt we’ll see Williams play much, if at all, in Ottawa. But the good news is he’s a positive contributor in Belleville on the right side which is something that’s scarce for this squad.
Cause for Concern
When the Sens signed Olle Alsing in the offseason, fans were understandably very excited. He was the talk of the SHL, putting up career numbers and looking like a fantastic signing from overseas. If my memory serves me correctly, a few overzealous fans and members of the media even had Alsing penciled into a spot where he’d either play in the NHL or, at the very least, compete for a spot.
A few months into his AHL career, things haven’t looked rosy for the Swedish rearguard. Despite having 20 points in 36 games in the SHL last season, Alsing only has one assist to his name through seven games with Belleville - and that assist came on the powerplay. Alsing has battled at least one injury which kept him out of eight games this season but he has yet to contribute a point at even strength. In fact, his EV GF% is 0 because he hasn’t even been on the ice for an even strength goal for. His goals against numbers aren’t the worst on the team - that honour belongs to Cody Goloubef who also logs the most minutes - but the 10 even strength goals opponents have scored with Alsing on the ice is third right behind Goloubef (18) and Thomson (11). The reason we’re talking about Alsing here instead of Thomson is that Thomson has at least contributed offensively, making up for some of the goals he and his linemates have given up.
When we talk about defense, the easiest thing to look at is the number of goals a team allows. While that’s on the whole team, and many can argue goaltending is a primary factor, overall team defense plays a huge part. Looking at the same timeline as we did with the forwards, Belleville’s goals against have in the past six games are more reassuring than the first ten games of the season. In the first ten games, they averaged 3.5 goals against per game. In the past six games, that number has dropped to 2.7. Further, if you take out the 7-1 beatdown (I know, I know, if you take out the bad games, stats look better), they’ve averaged 1.8 goals against in five of their last six games.
The problem with picking out a bright spot for goaltending is that it’s difficult to decide. That’s not necessarily because there’s nothing to be happy about but rather that the BSens have had so many goalies start for them that nobody, through 16 games, really has a long resume to point at and see obvious success.
So far this year, Belleville has had six different goaltenders start at least one game, five of which have started at least twice. Their most regular goaltenders have been Kevin Mandolese, who has appeared in four games, and Filip Gustavsson, who has started six. Funnily, by theAHL.com’s definition of “qualified goalie”, none of Belleville’s goaltenders qualify for their default stats page - you have to have played at least 360 minutes to qualify and Gustavsson leads the way with 357.
That being said, Belleville has also generally struggled in net. Out of Mandolese, Gustavsson, Cedrick Andree and Joey Daccord, Gus is the only one with a save percentage about 0.900.
For a bright spot between the pipes in Belleville, we have to go to Marcus Högberg’s recent return to the club on a conditioning stint after missing some significant time in Ottawa. Through two starts, Högberg has allowed three goals on 60 shots - good for a 0.950 SV%. Belleville is 2-0-0 with this particular Swedish netminder as their starter and he’s average 1.51 goals against per game.
Cause for Concern
Well, you already read it. Gustavsson is the only netminder with a save percentage above 0.900 and, even still, his 0.909 through six starts isn’t exactly spectacular. If he had spent an additional 3 minutes on the ice and “qualified” for the AHL’s default stats page, he’s be 11th in the league behind Laval’s Cayden Primeau.
For the rest of the team, Belleville needs more steady goaltending. It’s as simple as that. Mandolese and Daccord, who are rocking 0.899 and 0.867 SV%’s respectively, have not been consistently strong for Belleville. Mandolese has a GAA of 4.03 while Daccord’s is even worse at 5.00. What’s been most concerning for Mandolese in particular has been the consistency of play. In Mando’s four starts, he has two games where he was above 0.930 SV% and two where he was below 0.880 SV%. Nothing in between.
As has already been mentioned, the past six games have seen a big downtick in goals against per game which we can directly tie to both the teams defensive play as well as the play of the goaltenders. The problem here is that, of these last six games, a regular BSens goaltender has only been in the net for three. Högberg has started twice and Anton Forsberg has guarded the crease once. The concern here is there hasn’t been a positive trend you can tie to Belleville’s goaltenders through the past six games, or the entire season.
The only trend that will help is one that sees a trickle down impact of healthy goaltending in Ottawa which would lead to Gustavsson’s return to Belleville, as he’s been the best option to date. With Gustavsson being reassigned to the BSens yesterday, hopefully life between the pipes will become more stable.
The Belleville Senators have 20 games left in their season. It’s safe to look at their first 16 games and set our expectations heavily towards development opportunities for players and away from any kind of success in the wins column - not without some more consistent goaltending, that is.
With Angus Crookshank joining the BSens, Sokolov playing well above expectations and Thomson contributing offensively, there are definitely reasons to be intrigued by what these BSens will have to offer its fans as we head into the second half. With Daccord out and Gustavsson in Ottawa, for now, the pressure will be solely on Mando’s shoulders, something he’s used to from his extensive playing time in Cape Breton.
The BSens head out for a four game series with Manitoba today, which will end up being a seven game road trip in total before they return to the Canadian Tire Centre. I’m hoping to see Mandolese get a bulk of those starts as having only four to his name on the season isn’t enough, in my opinion, to get him used to the professional game.
The coaching staff, led by the incredible Troy Mann, deserves a ton of credit for having the record they have, given the turnover of players from last year coupled with the number of skaters and goaltenders they’ve had to sub in and out of their lineup during this particularly strange season. That’s nothing new for Mann, though. Last season he had 43 skaters play at least one game for Belleville. This year, through 16 games, that number is sitting at 32 (and rising).