Not pictured: me eating my words
Best Defender: Tyler Kleven (52%)
Runners up: Jacob Bernard-Docker (27%), Lassi Thomson (8%), Max Guenette (8%), Jorian Donovan (3%)
Last Year's Winner: Jake Sanderson
It tends to happen pretty much every year that we have an Ottawa Senators prospect who wins multiple awards here at Silver Seven and while it certainly bodes well to see one young player enjoying so much success, it makes our jobs as writers a little trickier because we can really only say so much with the data available below the NHL level. To that effect, I really do not want to tread over too much of the same ground I already covered in my Tyler Kleven as Most Improved Prospect write-up because I think I covered most of the pertinent details regarding his strong season at UND and his professional debut with the Senators.
Instead of focusing on Kleven's development, I'll try to unpack what separated Kleven's season from his peers and earned him your votes as Ottawa's best defensive prospect this past season. Just to rundown the list of other contenders, the Sens cut ties with Ben Roger, Chandler Romeo, and Jonny Tychonick so that thinned out the pack a bit, while first-year prospects Tomas Hamara, Filip Nordberg, and Theo Wallberg had perfectly average campaigns with little to write home about. Jorian Donovan had an exceptional season but I already wrote about that at length, and again don't want to repeat myself. That leaves Kleven in the company of Jonathan Aspirot, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Maxence Guenette, and Lassi Thomson for our purposes today (and wouldn't you know, Shaan already wrote at length about two of them here and here). So let's get into how Kleven outperformed said fellow defenders.
In the case of Aspirot and Bernard-Docker, lack of offensive production probably hurt their causes when it came to reader voting. In pretty much all counting stats, Guenette and Thomson outscored Aspirot and Bernard-Docker in the AHL this past season. Both at even strength and on the powerplay, Guenette and Thomson got the lion's share of the points. It didn't help Aspirot's case that he missed so much of the season with injury (and the fact that so many folks forget he even qualifies as a prospect). Now it does bear mentioning that Aspirot and Bernard-Docker fared better by +/- (never a reliable stat on its own, granted) than Guenette and Thomson, and that Bernard-Docker still has a reputation as Belleville's best defensive defender (probably why he finished second in the final votes).
In and of itself that paragraph doesn't help too much because Tyler Kleven did not play in the AHL so we don't have a baseline but I hope it helps set the table of the greater conversation at hand. Guenette and Thomson led the pack in terms of offensive production with Bernard-Docker struggling to produce offense but providing the best defensive value for Belleville (again based on the limited on-ice info we have). I have good news though as Kleven played in the NHL, if only for a cup of coffee, as did Bernard-Docker, Guenette, and Thomson this past season so we have some slightly more useful data to work with (if only in very small samples). No such luck for Aspirot who still hasn't made his NHL debut.
In Ottawa this season, Erik Brännström set the gold standard for scoring-chance differential (5V5 xGF% 56.70) and gives a good idea of the kind of numbers to look for relatively speaking among Senators. Again, keeping sample sizes in mind (Kleven played just 8 games in Ottawa), Kleven actually had better results than Bonestorm in terms of five-on-five expected goals-for percentage (62.77) and Corsi (61.38). Guenette stayed over 50% in Corsi in his one game appearance while Bernard-Docker and Thomson failed to break even in Corsi in their stints in Ottawa (Bernard-Docker had a healthy 19-game stay in Ottawa while Thomson played just two games in the NHL this past season). The same applied in terms of expected goals as Guenette fared well in his one game while Bernard-Docker failed to break even, and Thomson struggled mightily (5V5 xGF% 41.76). Thomson and Kleven got the most offensive zone starts while Bernard-Docker and Guenette got about 50/50 zone starts at five-on-five. Hats off to Guenette for managing that so well.
I really wish I could unpack more for you than that but I don't like to make apples-to-apples comparisons across leagues and Kleven spent most of his season in the NCAA while the others played the majority of their games in Belleville. I guess we should mostly take away how much Kleven has improved his stock since the Sens selected him in the second round (hence Most Improved Prospect) while Thomson has plateaued somewhat (Biggest Disappointment) and Guenette has found his way onto the radars of more Sens fans (Mann of the Year).
I don't think of this necessarily as a negative connotation for Thomson, or Bernard-Docker. I think they still have futures in the NHL, and probably in Ottawa but too many people have slept on Guenette for too long and you can absolutely count me among those who underestimated Kleven's game. Kleven got the wrong kind of hype around the draft based on his size and style, and fans like me too quickly dismissed him as a bruising, one-dimensional defender. It didn't help Kleven's case that he never had a big statement performance at an international tournament like the World Juniors (the pandemic didn't help) and that he missed so much time due to suspensions for illegal hits in the NCAA. Anyway, congratulations to Kleven on earning the distinction of Best Defender among Sens prospects this year. Shoutout to Guenette, JBD, and Lassi for keeping it interesting. Expect big things from Donovan, Hamara, and Nordberg next year. Keep enjoying your summers, folks!
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