Belleville Senators Year End Review

While they didn't accomplish the ultimate goal, there are a lot of things to like about Belleville's 2023-24 campaign.

Belleville Senators Year End Review

As far as expectations go, the Belleville Senators lived up to them this year.

The idea at the beginning of the season was that with solid veteran additions like Garrett Pilon, Josh Curris and Boko Imama as well as incoming rookies like Zack Ostapchuk and Tyler Kleven, the Belleville Senators should have been ready to take the next step - and they did.

The 2022-23 campaign ended with members of the BSens heading home after their final regular season game. The team finished with 72 points, which was good for the basement slot in the North Division. In 2023-24, the team added 10 points to their total, which was good for fourth in the division and a playoff berth.

In their opening series, they took down the veteran laden Toronto Marlies in a three game series before pushing the top seeded Cleveland Monsters to game four with multiple overtimes required for the Monsters to knock our BSens off.

Overall, while a Calder Cup is the prize, there's a lot to like about the Belleville Senators looking back on the season.

Today, let's take a look at what went right - and a few instances of what went wrong.

What Went Right


Belleville went into this season with a three headed monster in net. With Mads Søgaard returning to eventually take over the franchise records for wins and starts, Kevin Mandolese adding his multiple seasons of AHL experience and Leevi Meriläinen's introduction to North America after a successful start to his professional career in Europe, it felt like goaltending was a topic Belleville didn't really have to worry about.

And that, thankfully, ended up being true.

Mads Søgaard posted a .916 through 32 starts, which was good for 11th in the league and the top individual performance by any goaltender in the North Division.

When Søgaard wasn't both literally and figuratively standing tall for the team, Mandolese and Meriläinen were both posting above a .900. While those aren't spectacular numbers for a starting goaltender in the league, Mandolese tied his career best for save percentage in a season while Meriläinen's .906 in his first full year with the club exceeded anything Mandolese has contributed, and was just a few points shy of Søgaard's rookie campaign (.908).

When your starting goaltender is the best one in your division and your backups are posting respectable backup numbers, that's a win for any club.

Veteran Additions

When making offseason additions to your AHL club, your goal is to add skill and experience that's going to help your team succeed. In Belleville, three of their top seven scorers - Garrett Pilon, Matthew Highmore and Josh Currie - were all offseason adds by Pierre Dorion's front office.

The team also added Wyatt Bongiovanni at the deadline, who's 25 total points on the season had him ranked as Belleville's 9th scorer. But what's really important to note here is that 15 of his 25 points on the year came in 34 games with Manitoba. After joining Belleville, he racked up 10 points in 14 regular season games before adding 4 points in 7 games in the playoffs.

Outside of scoring, it can't be understated the impact of players who didn't hit the scoresheet like Pilon or Highmore but certainly helped this team take the next stride. Boko Imama's physical presence in the lineup was unmatched while Jiri Smejkal's two way game was appreciated by Head Coach Dave Bell.

Rookie Contributions

Zack Ostapchuk played in more situations than I can recall any other rookie playing in my time covering the Senators. His 28 points in 69 games doesn't jump off the page like other former BSens rookies Josh Norris and Drake Batherson - who both cleared a point per game upon joining the club - but Ostapchuk's 200 foot game made him a favourite of the coaching staff. He was a regular on defensive zone draws, penalty kill and late game ice time.

Stephen Halliday seemingly came out of nowhere in the Senators organization. By my math, he was a double overage draft pick when selected 104th overall in 2022 but then immediately became an impact player for Ohio State, posting just under a point per game through two seasons with the Buckeyes. Then he joined Belleville, posted five assists in ten games in the regular season before exploding for nine points in seven playoff contests. What's even more impressive about his playoff performance is that the Marlies actually held him off the scoresheet for the opening two games. Halliday's nine points game in just five games in eliminating Toronto and battling Cleveland.

On the back end, Tyler Kleven brought his brand of rough and tumble hockey with him from North Dakota and made a strong impact in Belleville's top four on the blueline. He provided some offense, which is always great to see for a rookie blueliner, but where he shined was in his own zone, boxing out players and transitioning the puck up the ice.

Player development can go in a million different directions on a billion different timelines, but I wouldn't be surprised to see these three as regulars in Ottawa by 2025-26 - perhaps sooner.

Elevation of Play

We can't post a recap on Belleville's season without mentioning a particular player who showed up in a big way for the club.

There was some concern surrounding Angus Crookshank's ability to hit that next gear after an injury which caused the 2024 AHL Allstar to miss an entire season of hockey. He followed that missed season up with a respectable 47 points in 71 games but this year? This year was a new level.

Crookshank missed some time split between Ottawa and injuries, but still contributed 46 points. That may look like a decline from 47 the year prior but the difference is that those 46 points came in 21 fewer games. That's a leap from 0.66 points per game to 0.92.

If there's someone on the 2023-24 BSens roster who should be getting a very serious look in Ottawa next year, it's Crooker.

What Went Wrong

Key Injuries

From a team performance perspective, the injury to Roby Järventie was pretty devastating for Belleville's offensive production. With his season ending in January, after just 22 games with the club, it was impressive that Belleville was still able to perform well despite his absence. The Finnish winger-turned-centre had 20 points in 22 games. In those 22 games, he had five multi-point nights and was only left off the scoresheet six games before the game where he left injured.

From a future prospect perspective, it was sadly unsurprising but still disappointing to see Tyler Boucher have another season where he was unable to stay on the ice for a significant period of time. The 2021 first round pick managed just 21 games. His first game of the year didn't come until December 21st, missing a good chunk of the beginning of the year. His season ended just a month after Järventie's, but I suspect he may have been playing through something ahead of that as he didn't register a single point for the final seven games of his year.

Plateaus and Declines

If you dig up Belleville season reviews from the last few seasons, you'll likely see mentions of a few players who were key in whatever success the team may have seen in those campaigns. Two of those players, unfortunately, may have seen a stall or decline in their progression this season.

To start, we know that pending RFA Lassi Thomson is heading back overseas to continue his professional career with Mälmo of the SHL. This is disappointing news for Belleville, as he was still a strong defender for the club this year, but it's also not surprising as his overall contributions at the AHL level appears to have declined. Thomson's 0.31 points per game this year is a career low for him - even during his rookie season he managed 0.37. He also didn't get a single look with Ottawa this year, despite a rash of injuries on the blueline that kept Jacques Martin and his group juggling through different options.

The other player to mention here is Egor Sokolov. The Russian winger donned an "A" for the team and he often showed up when the team needed him most but his offensive production took a dip this year after he played one more game than 2022-23 but managed 13 fewer points. I think there's still something there for Sokolov as a fourth line winger and fringe call-up for Ottawa, but that dip in production tends to lead to a player tailing off as an NHL prospect in the near future.

Looking Ahead

One of the only constants for Ottawa's front office right now is related to Belleville, as Belleville's GM, Ryan Bowness, was with the club during last offseasons additions. We know a little bit about what Bowness can accomplish and we saw the payoff of that work with players like Pilon, Highmore, Currie and Bongiovanni taking centre stage this season.

That being said, there's a pretty long list of players who suited up for the BSens this year who don't currently have a contract for next season. The most important of which are Crookshank and Søgaard, who's deals are an inevitability at this point. Others who will need to put pen to paper - or head elsewhere - include Jiri Smejkal, Cole Reinhardt, Wyatt Bongiovanni, Josh Currie, Egor Sokolov, Rourke Chartier, Matthew Highmore, Boko Imama, Garrett Pilon, Nikolas Matinpalo, Max Guénette, Jacob Larsson, Dillon Heatherington and Kevin Mandolese.

So, if you didn't actually read through that entire list of names, it can be summed up as "pretty much anyone and everyone with more than a year of AHL experience needs a new deal".

This isn't a new way of approaching your AHL roster. For the most part, players brought in for the minor leagues are on one year deals. This offers an opportunity for Bowness to completely reshape Belleville should he wish. The good news is, after a solid season and a step forward for Belleville, there's good reason for many of the above players to consider returning to the club instead of going elsewhere for a shot at a Calder Cup.

At this point, it's likely that the Belleville roster can remain primarily unchanged if they wish. There's nowhere (at the moment) for their goaltenders to go in Ottawa, which means that three headed monster can return, further develop and give Belleville a great shot at another postseason run. They can get a sophomore season from the likes of Ostapchuk, Halliday and Kleven, while adding Tomas Hamara and (hopefully) a full season from Tyler Boucher. Oskar Pettersson, who joined the club partway through the season, will have an opportunity to take another step in a full season, as well.

Last season, Belleville went from non-playoff team to playoff team. With a few calculated moves, there's good reason to believe they can take a leap from playoff team to Calder Cup contender this offseason.

Your move, Bowness.

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