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Five Thoughts: Belleville Edition

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It’s a special Belleville edition of Five Thoughts for Friday where we’ll talk about prospect arrivals and departures, goaltending, analytics and more.

Belleville Senators v Laval Rocket Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

As we head into the offseason, there are a lot of questions surrounding the Sens organization. Many of them at the NHL level - like Brady Tkachuk’s new contract, the potential to name a captain, selecting 10th overall and more - but Belleville is far from ready to head into next year as it is.

Today’s Five Thoughts will specifically circle the Belleville Senators, how this season went and what’s in store for the fall.

On Player Departures

As comes with every AHL season, there will be fresh faces in the Belleville lineup next season. Recently, we’ve learned of a few key departures that, while they’ll be missed, will open playing time for those who played in Belleville last year as well as new additions.

First, and probably most importantly, the BSens will be without Vitaly Abramov next season, as he’s heading to the KHL to continue his professional hockey career. The 23 year old Russian was second in point production for Belleville this past season, despite playing fewer games than all the players around him. His 19 points in 23 games was second only behind Angus Crookshank for players who suited up in at least 15 games with the club. The sneaky, albeit streaky, winger’s offensive production will certainly need to be replaced.

Second, Belleville will be saying auf wiedersehen to Hubert Labrie as he’s signed a deal to play in German’s top league for the Iserlohn Roosters. The 29 year old veteran defender leaves a decent hole on the left side of the blueline as well as in the leadership department in the locker room. Not known for heavy point production, Labrie has been a typical defensive defender for Belleville.

Finally, Olle Alsing has made his time in North America about as brief as possible, as he’s also heading to the KHL to continue his professional hockey career. After a career year in the SHL last season, Alsing joined the Sens organization last offseason and played in 11 AHL and 4 NHL games while he was here. Sidelined with some injuries, Alsing wasn’t able to become a regular contributor in the AHL.

On Player Additions

With players heading overseas, there are also a few coming in return, primarily up front. Roby Järventie, a 2020 second round pick, joined the BSens late in the season and is a prime candidate to supplement the offense lost by Abramov’s departure. I say this partially because Järventie has the offensive skillset to be a strong contributor at the AHL level but mostly because, like Abramov, Järventie has a bit of a history as a streaky producer - often scoring in bunches and having longer than desired slumps. After joining Belleville down the stretch, Järventie contributed two goals and an assist in four games. You can expect a top six role for the Finnish scorer as early as opening night next year.

Another Sens draft pick in Viktor Lodin will be joining the Sens next season and, almost certainly, his first stop will be in Belleville. The Leksand native spent this past year with Timrå IK of the Hockey Allsvenskan, Sweden’s tier two professional league. Lodin, and former Sens prospect Jonathan Dahlen, led Timrå to a promotion into the SHL by winning the 2021 SHL qualifier. Lodin’s 40 points in 47 games was good for fourth on the team. The question will be if Lodin was a driver of this team’s success or more of a complementary role player. Either way, Lodin will almost certainly suit up in Belleville’s top nine to start next year.

With Nikita Zaitsev, Artem Zub and Josh Brown on the right side of the depth chart in Ottawa, it’s likely that we’ll also see Jacob Bernard-Docker wearing the B in the fall - a move that’s probably best for the 21 year old’s development. I’d expect GM Pierre Dorion to likely add to that right side as well, further solidifying JBD’s destination in Belleville. As a key contributor with the NoDakSens University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, and a distinct lack of competition on the right side, I have JBD’s name written in permanent market on Belleville’s top pair and top power play unit next year. That being said, pending injuries and his level of play, Bernard-Docker is the key addition I could see spending the least amount of time in the AHL.

On Goaltending

A fascinating story to watch this offseason will be how, if at all, the Ottawa Senators address the number of bodies they have manning the crease. On one hand, you can never have too many goalies. On the other hand, if you don’t have an ECHL franchise for them to play in, you kind of can.

At the moment, in the Sens organization, there are two starting spots and two back up spots - at the NHL and AHL levels, respectively. As passionate Sens fans - and people who can probably do basic addition - you look at Matt Murray, Anton Forsberg, Filip Gustavsson, Joey Daccord, Mads Søgaard and Kevin Mandolese, start counting on your fingers and realize... uh oh.

At this point, Murray and Forsberg are almost certainly the NHL pairing, at least to start the season. That leaves four goaltenders fighting for two spots. Competition is great but if there’s nowhere for half of these goalies to play, they’re sitting on ice, practicing and waiting for an injury to get them into games.

I’m certain Dorion and the Sens front office will address this problem, either by engaging with a new ECHL team or perhaps working on loaning players to other clubs. Perhaps Søgaard heads back to Europe on loan or, perhaps, Dorion is almost counting on Seattle taking one of his goalies and this becomes a slightly smaller problem. This is a storyline to closely watch as the offseason unfolds.

On Being Home

Yesterday Head Coach Troy Mann joined the Wally & Methot Show for a fantastic interview where he dove into a number of topics - including his team’s play, particular players he’s loved coaching and the difference between coaching in Belleville compared to other places he’s coached. One topic Brent Wallace, Marc Methot and Mann got into was this very odd season we’ve just wrapped up.

As we know, it’s been a weird one. I’m sure, however, most of us thought far less about the impact on AHL players and personnel than we did about the players on the big club. Mann mentioned on the show that he really enjoyed being in Ottawa. He said being at the Canadian Tire Centre, using their facilities and having so many members of the organization in attendance for home games - particularly compared to how often folks make the trip to Belleville to watch the team play. One comment he did make, however, that made my jaw drop a little bit was that Mann checked into the Brookstreet Hotel at the end of December and checked out just over a week ago.

For the BSens, the hopes of being back at CAA Arena must be pretty high. Afterall, the facility there is excellent. It may not be an NHL facility but it’s about as good as it gets in the American league. More importantly, though, the sense of normalcy, living in your own home or apartment, and playing (hopefully) in front of fans, has to be something players and coaches alike are looking forward to.

On Analytics

One of the most fascinating parts of Mann’s interview with Wallace and Methot was when Methot brought up the topic of analytics with Mann. A relatively hot button topic, I loved Mann’s perspective.

Mann mentioned that the Sens organization, like many others, are customers of SportsLogiq. Hearing him describe the process and information they get from this organization was really interesting. It’s clear Mann believes in the power of data and information and using it, along with his knowledge of the game, to influence decisions, structures and strategies. What I found most interesting was something he uses analytics for in Belleville that I don’t think I’ve ever heard another coach admit: player buy-in.

The specific area he spoke about was defensive zone entries and defending the blue line with proper gap control. Information SportsLogiq tracks helps Mann understand how well his team, and his competitors, fare on this particular topic. Over the last two seasons, the BSens have ranked at the very top (first) or close to the top (fourth) in reducing successful entries by the opposition. The last two seasons - minus the beginning of the year - have also seen two very good, successful teams come through Belleville. Mann uses this information as proof that his defensive structure works and relays that message to his players to say this is why we do this and this is the evidence that it works. For Mann, he clearly feels this helps his players buy-in to his system.