Influx of Young Talent Has Belleville Eyeing the Playoffs

With a new season upon us, we take a look at intriguing storylines and what we should expect from the Belleville Senators.

Whenever an NHL team puts together a strong roster, the conversation tends to focus around a window of time in which the particular team, with its elite young core, can compete for a Stanley Cup. For teams like Tampa Bay and (sigh) Toronto, that window is right now. For our Ottawa Senators? Not so much. What’s important to consider is that in order to have one of these windows open at the NHL level, it needs to start in the AHL.

In my opinion, Belleville’s window starts now.

With an influx of young players fresh off impressive junior and collegiate careers joining a solid group of veterans, there’s no reason to expect anything less than a playoff berth in Belleville. Today we’re going to set some expectations, highlight some storylines and address a concern or two. To start, let’s look at Belleville as it stands today.

The 2019-20 Belleville Lineup

The Belleville Senators have played precisely one game so far this season. In a 4-1 loss to the Toronto Marlies on Saturday, here’s how the B-Sens lined up:

Nick Paul - Logan Brown - Jack Rodewald
Alex Formenton - Jordan Szwarz - Michael Carcone
Vitaly Abramov - Josh Norris - Max Veronneau
Parker Kelly - Joseph LaBate - Jonathan Davidsson

Maxime Lajoie - Christian Jaros
Jordan Murray - Hubert Labrie
Andreas Englund - Nick Ebert

Marcus Högberg (starter)
Filip Gustavsson

There are a few things that jump out to me about this lineup, the most important being the depth up front. Any time a team can safely roll out a third line like Vitaly Abramov, Josh Norris and Max Veronneau, they’re already putting the opposition on their toes.

The B-Sens added strong AHL scoring up front in both Jordan Szwarz and Michael Carcone. Szwarz, the former captain of the Providence Bruins, joins the organization with a solid AHL track record. At 28 years of age, he’s unlikely to make the jump to a full time NHLer at this point, but he has cleared the 20 goal mark in each of his last three AHL seasons. This will add consistent scoring from a player who’s likely to play the entire year with the club. Carcone came to the Sens in the Zaitsev/Ceci swap and doesn’t provide the same level of offence as Szwarz, but he has a little more room to grow at 23 years old.  We can expect to see him occupying a top-nine role with some powerplay time for a bulk of this season in Belleville.

As for the freshmen, I don’t think there is a team in the league with a crop as impressive as this. By bringing in Norris, Alex Formenton and Jonathan Davidsson to join Abramov, Veronneau, Logan Brown and Drake Batherson, the Senators have put together an impressive forward corps. What we’re looking at is a top-nine that includes upwards of seven forwards that are expected to be part of this organization’s run of Unparalleled Success™. Whether they all get there is a different story, but having that many promising prospects in the lineup most nights will be huge for Belleville’s success.

The Kids Are Alright... In Belleville

Let’s take a look at some updated views on the fresh faces of the scene, starting with Tony Ferrari’s review of Norris’ NHL camp from Dobber Prospects:

“Cut from Senators camp on September 22nd, [Norris] has done nothing but have a strong showing with Belleville to start the year in their preseason and training camp. Norris has been strong in all three zones and he looks to be a budding NHL talent. One of the Senators’ top prospects, Norris could make the jump to the NHL at some point this season. His arrival could come after the trade deadline with the likely departures of veterans and roster spots up for grabs. Norris’ play could warrant one of those roster spots should he have a strong start to his rookie AHL season.”

Ferrari and I are on the same page when it comes to Norris’ ability to crack the NHL roster later in the season, especially once some inevitable trades are made in Ottawa.

As a fan base, we know plenty about Formenton and what he brings to the table. It can mostly be summed up by speed.

As for Davidsson, he’s even more of an unknown to this fanbase than Norris. Davidsson is a 22 year old right shot winger who comes to the Senators organization with almost three full years of pro experience at the highest level in Sweden. Last season, he managed 21 points in 37 games for Djurgårdens of the SHL while spending time on the powerplay. Here’s a review of Davidsson at the end of last season, this time from Jordan Deshane of Dobber Prospects:

“Davidsson finished off his season with Djurgardens IF of the SHL amassing 21 points in 37 games. He showed some nice signs of growth this season and could be poised to make the jump to Belleville next season. If he does, he figures to play a prominent role on a team that will have several players graduating to Ottawa. If his development can continue the same trajectory, Ottawa could have themselves a responsible middle-six winger in the next couple seasons.”

On the backend, the Belleville blueline was bolstered thanks to additions at the NHL level. At first, it feels like players such as Maxime Lajoie and Christian Jaros were squeezed out of Ottawa, which is somewhat true, but both players likely need more time in the AHL to meet their full NHL potential. Lajoie specifically has the opportunity to play 25 minutes a night and quarterback a potent top powerplay unit, alongside Ottawa’s best and brightest prospects like Brown, Norris and, as of the other day, Batherson. It can’t be overstated how important it will be for Lajoie to use this time to hone his already strong puck movement skills.

In net, Marcus Högberg solidified his role as Belleville’s starter with a stellar campaign in 2019. Filip Gustavsson will factor in as the backup, seeing plenty of starts thanks to the regularity of back-to-backs on the schedule. The moment a goalie goes down in Ottawa — which is surely bound to happen — Gustavsson will take the reins and we’ll get to see Joey Daccord at the AHL level. With the age of Craig Anderson and the unpredictability of injuries, you can mark this down as an almost certain series of events.

Given the constant state of flux of most AHL teams, which we’ll get into later, it’s tough to truly analyze or predict how these lines and pairings will shake out over the course of the season. One thing that is for sure is that, regardless of promotions and demotions, this roster is stronger from top to bottom than it was last year. Belleville and Ottawa fans alike should be excited about that.

The Constant Shuffle

A story to watch with any rebuilding franchise is the chemistry-ruining amount of transactions between the AHL affiliate and its parent organization. It’s safe to say that a focus on prospect development coupled with the natural number of injuries each NHL team experiences in a given season will make for an everlasting rotation of players. It’s likely that we’ll see most of the prospects we’re excited about — Brown, Formenton, Abramov (already recalled), Norris, Lajoie, Jaros, Högberg, etc. — get recalled. As they should! But what this does for Belleville is create an environment where developing chemistry with linemates and partners becomes increasingly difficult.

This is a reality of the AHL and head coach Troy Mann did a good job of handling things last season. But if there’s anything standing in the way of a Belleville playoff berth, this is one of the bigger factors.

How Many Is Too Many?

It’s already the talk of the town on Twitter but we have to ask ourselves an odd question. Does Ottawa have too many prospects?

The realistic answer is no. Of course not! When you’re rebuilding, you need to have as many promising players in the pipeline as possible. Every player develops at a different rate and some promising draft picks may not pan out. It’s like playing the lottery in some ways. The more tickets you have, the more likely you are to win.

The problem that we’re already seeing in this young season is that while you can never have too many prospects, there is a finite number of minutes to go around when this many players are of the age where they have to occupy a spot in one of Ottawa or Belleville.

Ottawa head coach D.J. Smith was brought in after being lauded for his ability to communicate with young players, with the goal bring this franchise from a bunch of prospects to a team of solid NHL players who can compete at the highest level. The problem is that with the number of kids in the pipeline, some of them simply have to play in Ottawa.

In fact, we saw the exact impact of these moves in Belleville’s practice lines yesterday.

With the additions of Batherson and Filip Chlapik, we immediately see an increase in skill and scoring potential. What we also see is important prospects like Norris and Davidsson playing on the fourth line and Verroneau skating with what would appear to be a “fifth line”. Another thing to consider: what happens to Rudolfs Balcers when he’s back from his injury? Best case, he’s in good enough physical condition that a conditioning stint is all he needs in Belleville before heading back to Ottawa. Worst but completely plausible case, this injury sets him back and he spends more time in Belleville as well, which in turn bumps somebody else off the roster.

So, how many prospects is too many? The answer is there is no such thing... provided the best ones are getting regular minutes and quality linemates in Ottawa. The good news is there are 80 games left in the NHL season — and multiple trades on the horizon — for Smith to work these players into his lineup and give them a long enough leash to show what they’re worth.

Punching Their Ticket

This Belleville team has something last year’s team didn’t: depth. The B-Sens of yore had a solid top-six and great goaltending when Högberg was between the pipes, which was most of 2019. After that? Meh.

This year, when the best players step off the ice, more great players will step on to fill their place. While I wish players like Adam Tambellini, Darren Archibald and Chase Balisy all the best in their future endeavours, you can’t look at Norris, Davidsson and Formenton and not immediately see the upgrade.

Last year Belleville missed out on the playoffs by a single win in their final game of the season. For me, that came down to two things: a slow start and a lack of depth. Almost all of Belleville’s success last year came in the new year, which put them in a hole so deep it was honestly impressive seeing just how close they were to digging themselves out. And as mentioned previously, as soon as Mann had to deploy the back half of his lineup, the Senators struggled to create offence. This roster looks like it should take care of both of those problems quite easily.

All in all, your 2019-20 Belleville Senators look to be primed to take that next step, start the season off strong, and give the fans in Belleville what they’ve been waiting for since the franchise move was first announced: playoff hockey on the Bay of Quinte.

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