Belleville Year In Review: The Back End
In the second part of this series, we examine the Belleville Senators from the defensive end. With a few standout blueliners and a pair of solid goaltenders, Belleville’s success this year wasn’t solely due to their high-powered offence.
If you look at last week’s piece on the forwards, you might make the assumption that Belleville’s success in this unfortunately shortened season was due to their ability to fill the net with pucks. While that may be somewhat true, there are still many reasons to be happy with the defensive performance of the 2019-20 squad.
The offence compiled the most goals of any team in the league this year whereas the defence and goalies had a tougher time preventing them. Ranking 26th in goals against isn’t something to be proud of, especially when you’re looking at a team that was poised for a deep playoff run. Just like in the NHL, American League teams lock down their defence in the playoffs. Had the season seen its end, it’s possible we could’ve seen the Belleville offence struggle to produce at the same clip while the defence continued to allow one of the league’s worst rates of goals against.
Individually, there are players to be proud of and excited about. As a unit, there’s definitely room for improvement, especially in the way of depth. Let’s take a look at the heroes, zeroes and a few questions as it relates to Belleville’s back end.
The easiest hero to talk about on Belleville’s blueline is Erik Brännström. A dynamic skater and puck mover, Brännström spent a good chunk of the year in Ottawa before returning to Belleville for a 27-game stint where he managed to improve his points-per-game production at the AHL level from the year prior (0.64 to 0.85). When it comes to his primary points production, he ranked 13th for defenders who played a minimum of 25 games (0.44 primary points per game). Of his 23 points, only eight came on the power play, which is an indication that his play at even strength was solid as well.
The big knock on Brännström upon his return to Belleville was his decision making as it related to using his teammates and moving the puck. Head coach Troy Mann was quoted saying that he found Brännström was trying to do it all but he wasn’t concerned. Once he settled in, Brännström was the quarterback that Ottawa hopes he’ll one day be at the NHL level. While there are still improvements left to be made, Sens fans should still be excited about the 20-year-old Swede, as his production for a defender of his age was up there with the best in the AHL this year.
In my opinion, an unsung hero this year was AHL veteran Jordan Murray. While Murray’s potential caps out as an AHL defender, his improvements offensively and defensively each season have been great to see.
The 27-year-old New Brunswick native had a late start to his professional hockey career, finishing a full stint in the QMJHL before spending four years at the University of New Brunswick. Beginning his pro career at the age of 25, it’s impressive that he’s become a trustworthy blueliner for Belleville. Most players who take this long of a route to get to the American League tend to end up riding the pine or being relegated to the ECHL.
This season, Murray managed 34 points in 57 games, an improvement over last season’s 26 in 54. Of his 34 points, 12 came with the man advantage as Murray was trusted to the run the power play when Brännström wasn’t on the ice or in the lineup. As Ottawa continues to rebuild and add more young blueliners over the next few seasons, it’ll be important to have players like Murray in the lineup to provide balance and experience.
The final hero of the season came between the pipes. While Filip Gustavsson’s play improved down the stretch, it was Joey Daccord who stole the spotlight as he was able to turn his injury replacement role into starting goaltender status. Across the AHL, the 25-year-old former Arizona Sun Devils star ranked second among rookie goaltenders in save percentage (0.915) and third in goals against average (2.61). Compared to his counerpart Gustavsson (0.889/3.23), the B-Sens stood the best chance of winning hockey games when Daccord was in net.
📺 Joey Daccord AHL highlight video comin’ your way tonight on YouTube! #GoSensGopic.twitter.com/Bg07q0XUDM— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) January 30, 2020
In my viewings and review, there are two blueliners who stand out as zeroes for this campaign. The first is Andreas Englund.
Englund, Ottawa’s first selection (second round) in 2014, has always been described as a tough, physical defender who’s difficult to play against and a menace in front of the net. I’m not here to dispute that, it’s probably the most accurate way you can describe his style of play. The problem for me is that it doesn’t translate to today’s game. Even the toughest defenders at the NHL level need to be able to move the puck and help their team transition from defence to offence. This is where Englund’s game comes into question.
In his fourth full season as a professional in North America, Englund’s first instinct is still to either put the puck off the glass and out or dump it in. Because of this, Belleville often ends up inadvertently turning the puck over when it’s Englund’s job to exit the zone. While Englund spent more games in Ottawa than Belleville this year, he still didn’t perform to a level I would expect from a defender with 228 AHL games under his belt.
The second zero is based partially on unfair expectations set by Guy Boucher that gave Maxime Lajoie an early and unexpected start to his NHL career after only one season in the AHL. Lajoie made the Senators out of camp as a 21-year-old in 2018, something that doesn’t happen very often for a player of his pedigree. He then came out of the gate flying, putting up four goals and three assists in his first six games, while almost always playing a minimum of 18 minutes per night. After he came back down to earth, Lajoie was sent back to Belleville for further development, experiencing a few injuries that didn’t make him look like the game breaking player he might’ve been.
This season, Lajoie’s production almost perfectly mirrored his rookie AHL season from 2017-18. As a defender whose game revolves around skating and moving the puck, his production was pretty disappointing, especially in the first half of the season. In 22 games in the calendar year of 2019, Lajoie only produced one goal and six assists, his first goal coming on December 28th. Offensive production isn’t everything for blueliners, and I’ll give credit to Lajoie for his ability to transition the puck. It’s much smoother and more successful than that of his counterpart in this section.
🚨 Max Lajoie's 2nd of the season.— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) January 12, 2020
8 points in 27GP for Maxy Max. #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/hQ9xKSzMMe
In the end, I think Lajoie still has an NHL ceiling but likely in a depth capacity. The good news is he’s only 22 and has plenty of time to develop his game at the AHL level. With likely graduations of players like Brännström and Christian Wolanin, Lajoie has an opportunity to play bigger minutes and re-prove himself as the player the fans were so excited about just two seasons ago.
There are a number of questions surrounding Belleville’s back end as we look towards next season. Similar to the forwards, the biggest one is surrounding graduation and who might replace the lucky graduates.
As it stands today, Ottawa’s blueline has fewer openings than the forward group, and the candidates for graduation are relatively obvious and also fewer in number. The second question surrounding the B-Sens next year is who GM Pierre Dorion will add in the way of experience on the back end. Over the past few seasons, Dorion has added players like Stefan Elliott, Cody Goloubef and Frankie Corrado so we can expect similar AHL veterans to be inked to deals this offseason, whenever that may be.
Finally, the biggest question I’ve seen about a player relates to Daccord, his initial success and how that translates given his age.
This past season, the three pivots who spent time in Belleville that have a shot to play in Ottawa are Wolanin, Brännström and Christian Jaros. Similar to Rudolfs Balcers, Wolanin’s inclusion as a B-Sen is purely injury related. Had he not suffered such a serious shoulder injury in training camp, Wolanin likely wouldn’t have spent any time in Belleville. Behind Thomas Chabot, Wolanin is probably the best option for Ottawa’s left side who is currently under contract. With the likely extension of one of Mark Borowiecki or Ron Hainsey (or possibly both), Wolanin feels like a likely candidate to be on Ottawa’s roster near the bottom of the defensive depth chart to start.
There are, however, two players who may get in the way of Wolanin’s full-time promotion. Mike Reilly, who joined the team last year and is under contract for one more season, played a depth role on the left side this past season whereas Olle Alsing may have a shot at the NHL after his breakout season in Sweden.
Brännström’s advantage in the graduation conversation is his ability to play the right side, despite being left handed. With Nikita Zaitsev and new addition Artyom Zub on the right, if Brännström can establish himself as an NHL defender playing on his off-hand, I think he stands a really good chance of winning a roster spot. If D.J. Smith is focused on a young player like Brännström getting started on his natural side, we might end up seeing him return to Belleville to start the season with a mid-season graduation being an almost certainty. Smith might end up opting for our third candidate instead of Brännström, as Jaros is naturally right handed, has almost 100 NHL games under his belt and his shutdown style of play may be more suited for the depth role available behind the two Russian blueliners on the right side.
All of this is to say, the competition for roster spots on the back end in Ottawa is going to be quite competitive, with as many as seven pivots vying for those final few spots. What could this mean for Belleville? We might end up seeing a similar lineup with more experience and a few new additions next year. Improving the blueline would be the biggest needle mover in carrying this team’s success into next year.
New Kids on the Block
With the news that Jacob Bernard-Docker is understandably returning to the University of North Dakota to make a run for the championship they felt they lost due to the cancellation of the season, Belleville will be missing out on what would have been their top defender on the right side.
Depending on how contracts and training camp shake out, however, Belleville could be welcoming both Lassi Thomson and Olle Alsing from overseas. These players would be two huge additions to the top four in Belleville, with Thomson bolstering a very thin right side. In Liiga action this season, Thomson was one of only four defenders in their post-draft season to suit up in at least 35 games in Finland’s top professional men’s league. Thomson isn’t known to be elite offensively, but he still ranked 21st in primary points per game for defenders who played at least half of the games for their respective team, one of only two DY+1 blueliners to appear in the top 30. The fantastic site where most of my prospect information comes from (Pick224) lists Thomson’s ice time at 15:09 per game, meaning he was able to gain the trust of his coaches enough to get middle pairing minutes.
🚨🚨 Lassi Thomson— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) September 15, 2019
ICYMI, Thomson had a pair of PP goals in his #Liiga debut on Friday 🇫🇮 pic.twitter.com/kmE00xKf1O
Alsing, should he make his way to Belleville this year, would be the most impactful addition. When the Senators signed Alsing last off-season, fans and media were immediately drawn to his spike in offensive production as he compiled 20 points in 36 games — five more points in 13 less games than the year prior. Alsing averaged just under 20 minutes per game, good for second on the team in ice time. Having a defender with professional experience join Belleville would be a fantastic addition to the team and would help Dorion add experience to the roster in a player who has NHL potential, rather than an AHL veteran.
🇸🇪🚨 Olle Alsing scored his first SHL goal since October on Saturday night, part of a 2-point game.— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) January 12, 2020
Alsing's point production has cooled off since an early season hot streak. He's got 4 goals and 19 points in 32GP, good for second on Djurgårdens in scoring. #GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/hgx0kerm6F
In the way of external additions and rounding out the blueline, Dorion has some work to do. Right now, Lajoie is the only lock for the defence as he has one year left on his entry level deal. Then you have one, maybe two, of Wolanin, Brännström and Jaros with possible additions of Thomson and Alsing. The Senators also gave former Moncton Wildcat captain Jonathan Aspirot a three-year entry level deal as well, which kicks in next season. By my count that’s a loose six defenders. A decision will need to be made on bringing back Murray — which I’m all for — but that still leaves some questions on rounding out the blueline, especially on the right side. I’d love to see Dorion bring in someone similar to Elliott or Goloubef from previous seasons. Who wouldn’t love to see the return of a player like Fredrik Claesson, for example?
The best thing that happened to Daccord’s season was the unfortunate injury Craig Anderson sustained in December. The trickle down effect saw Marcus Högberg jump to the big league while Daccord got pulled from the ECHL basement and given the opportunity to start more meaningful games against better hockey players. Daccord took the opportunity and ran with it.
I’ve seen a few people who cover the Senators discount Daccord’s ceiling as a netminder because he’s just starting his professional career at 23 years old, whereas Gustavsson is two years younger. The net is one position where development is almost always delayed. You don’t have to be a Marc-André Fleury or Carter Hart and jump quickly from junior to the big leagues. NHL starters like Ben Bishop, Jonathan Quick, Cam Talbot and Cory Schneider all spent multiple years in the NCAA, then took a few years of AHL (and some ECHL) time to make their way to eventual starter status. You can say the same for Ryan Miller, Jimmy Howard and Connor Hellebuyck. Most of these goaltenders, with the exception of Quick and Hellebuyck, didn’t become bonafide NHL starters until at least the age of 25. Bishop didn’t start more than 13 games in a single NHL season until he was 27! If we’re going to discount a goaltender’s ceiling, it can’t be about something as trivial as age. Looking at Daccord’s NCAA progression and first year in the AHL, it’s possible we’re looking a future NHL netminder.
One of the best things Daccord did for his development was committing to a brand new hockey program at Arizona State University, allowing him to get absolutely shelled in shots and refinine his game to become a top goaltender in the NCAA. He took that experience and brought it to Belleville, posting solid numbers as a first time AHLer. Barring some type of injury or a surprise free agent signing, we’ll see Daccord as Belleville’s starter next year, hopefully picking up where he left off behind a better, more experienced blueline. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but don’t be surprised if Daccord ends up getting a few games at the NHL level as soon as next season, injuries pending.
With fewer opportunities for graduation, the worst case scenario with Belleville’s back end is that they’re as good as they were this past season. The best case is an improvement through a few key additions and returning players with another year of experience.
The goalies are likely to be the same and we’ll probably see one or two of the top defenders make the jump to Ottawa. Much of the rest of the blueline has an opportunity to improve. If coach Mann gets to bring in both Thomson and Alsing while keeping one or more of Wolanin, Brännström and/or Jaros, he’s going to head into next year with the ability to boost this team’s defensive play and put together a squad that’s a force at both ends of the ice.