#5: Drake Batherson (Last year: 4, Reader Rank: 5)
Look, I need to start right off the bat with a spoiler here: we had a razor-thin margin between numbers four and five this year so I’ll go ahead and personally anoint Batherson 4B to tomorrow’s 4A this year and prevent any panic over The Drake falling a single spot in the rankings after years of climbing all the way to the top-four.
For a quick recap, Drake debuted on this list at #21 in 2017 coming off a fourth-round selection in the entry draft as an over-ager. The book basically went that Batherson seemed like a low-risk, decent-reward mystery selection after an unusual path to the draft and a well-timed growth spurt. He then rocketed up the ranks to #9 in 2018 after an impressive World Juniors, a monster season in the QMJHL, and an arguably even more dominant playoff performance.
At the professional level, the steep trajectory stayed the same as Drake cracked the top-five in 2019 and became arguably the Belleville Senators’ best player during his rookie season in the AHL. Batherson had such an exceptional season that Spencer took it upon himself to pen this long-form to elaborate how favourably the projections now regarded Batherson heading towards the NHL. As an MVP candidate in the AHL, and having played a handful of games in Ottawa, Drake inched up to #4 last year.
While Drake’s NHL career got off to something of a slow start in terms of production, Brandon provided us with a breakdown of Batherson’s game and opined we might in for a breakout sooner than later. Right on cue, Drake caught fire in 2021 and by the end of the season we got a glimpse of Drake as a complete NHL player as nkb explained in this Year in Review instalment. For all of his hard work and improvement along the way, the Senators rewarded Batherson with a six-year extension ensuring he enjoys the next (more competitive, we hope) era of NHL hockey in Ottawa.
If Drake’s salary over the next six seasons reflects the projections of the organization then we can likely expect to watch Batherson develop from the pup we know and love earning a modest $2.5M into a reliable 25-goal scorer once his annual gross eclipses $6.5M. And therein lies the crux of the whole thing. Can Batherson evolve from a solid NHL player into a star at the highest level? I had my reservations heading into last season because Drake had demonstrated that he could score prolifically in junior and in the minors but we didn’t know how his play would translate against the best in the world. Now, we know Drake can play in the NHL but we don’t know what his ceiling looks like.
Based on his current pace, Batherson looks like at least a 20-goal, 45-point player per 82 games, and based on his fancy stats, he belongs in Ottawa’s top-six without question. He doesn’t have any penalty killing experience in the NHL yet but he belongs on Ottawa’s first powerplay. Another thing to keep an eye on this season, is that only Tim Stützle had a more sheltered role than Batherson under head coach DJ Smith (70.96% offensive zone start rate). We’ll see if the coaching staff get more comfortable expanding Drake’s role.
Digging beyond the obvious stats, I would argue that Batherson has earned an even more prominent role this coming season. He does a lot of little things right. He draws more penalties than he takes and, to that effect, Ottawa has few players more disciplined than Batherson (0.46 penalties per 60). Drake also takes good care of the puck and while he doesn’t generate a tonne of takeaways, he scarcely turns the puck over (1.63 giveaways per 60). Furthermore, in terms of maturity, not only have Drake’s penalty minutes per 60 decreased with each season in Ottawa, his all situation goals, primary assists, points, shots, and individual expected goals per 60 have all increased annually. At five-on-five, Batherson’s corsi, fenwick, and expected-goals rates have all improved on a yearly basis as well.
To bring it all home here, I want to evoke my oft-referred concept of building back to front. The same way I see this team laying a foundation based on goaltending depth, responsible defensive play, and puck protection, I see an emphasis on developing players with good habits first and foremost with the understanding that offence will follow at its own pace. Part of patiently developing players involves ensuring they know they have responsibilities on the ice first and foremost not to put their team at a disadvantage by turning over the puck, taking bad penalties, or getting caught flat-footed. With Batherson having demonstrated his ability to play sound NHL hockey, expect to see him play with more confidence as this next season progresses and we can maybe expect to see more offensive creativity leading to an increase in scoring.
In a complete and total reversal of the trend we saw last decade, there’s reason to hope several players in the organization can follow this type of trajectory. Regardless of pedigree, don’t expect many prospects to skip any rungs on the organizational ladder until they’ve cleaned up these types of details in their game. I feel like with just about every profile I write up these days, I cover the same components because the staff have made it very explicit where they want players to excel in order to secure a spot on this team. So far, Batherson’s more than delivered in every respect.
As always, numbers courtesy of naturalstattrick