Belleville Year In Review: The Front End

Belleville’s forward group had a season that can only be described as amazing. The rookies were red hot and the veterans were solid. Let’s take a look at how this past season went for Belleville’s front end.

With the cancellation of the AHL season made official on Monday, it’s time to start wrapping up the year for the Belleville Senators. In last year’s series, we ran through things in three parts: Front End, Back End and Personnel - and we’ll be using the same style this year.

For the forwards, there is so much to gush about. From top to bottom, this was the most talented forward group an Ottawa Senators’ affiliate has put together in my memory. You can make an argument for the 2011 Calder Cup Champions, but there’s a strong case that this BSens group has more NHL potential than that one did. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to find out if this group was capable of bringing home the hardware like the 2011 team did.

The 2019-20 Belleville Senators had multiple rookies not only lead all rookies in scoring, but feature in the top 10 of league wide scoring. This team also had six players, two of whom only played a few games, post over a point per game, and 15 (FIFTEEN!) players produce at least 0.5 points per game. Offensively, the BSens were a multi-line wrecking ball of awesome and it should give Sens fans a ton of hope for the future.

The Heroes

I’ll start this section by stating there are far more heroes than I have the ability to write about up front for this BSens group. In an effort to be concise, I’m going to omit all of Drake Batherson, Logan Brown and Rudolfs Balcers from this section. Partially because you’ve read plenty about them, and partially because it goes without saying that having these NHL tweeners spend time in Belleville was a massive help to this roster throughout the season.

To get started, let’s turn to my pick for MVP: Josh Norris. If you’ve followed along this season, you won’t be surprised to read that Norris’ campaign ranked first in goals (31), first in points (61) and fourth in assists (30) among rookies. Relative to all skaters, Norris ranked third in goals, fourth in points and 23rd in assists. For a first year pro, this is pretty darn impressive. Above his point production, Norris was trusted by Head Coach Troy Mann in all situations, almost always anchoring Belleville’s best wingers on the top line. His deployment very much mirrored the way Mann slotted Brown into the lineup last season, showing yet another reason why Mann is a fantastic coach at the AHL level.

Next, we move to a player that really needs to be discussed in this category: Alex Formenton. Ever since Formenton made the NHL team out of training camp as an 18 year old, expectations have been high for the King City native and no less so as he entered his first year of professional hockey. If you look back on his season, you’ll see basically a best case scenario for any rookie. After posting relatively mediocre offensive stats with the OHL powerhouse London Knights, it was an incredibly pleasant surprise to see Formenton explode for 27 goals and 26 assists - ranking him second in rookie scoring behind his aforementioned teammate. But, honestly, that’s not the most impressive thing about Formenton’s campaign. For Formenton, it’s not that he scored as much as he did, it’s how he did it. Of his 26 assists, only 5 came from his powerplay contributions whereas 16 came at even strength and another 5 while shorthanded. What’s even more remarkable about this stat is that of Formenton’s 16 even strength assists, 15 of them were primary. What this tells me is that Formenton was incredibly effective at even strength. Formenton’s speed was always a certainty in locking him into some kind of NHL, role but his rookie campaign showed that there might be even more to the product of the Curtis Lazar trade.

After this duo, there were a number of other fantastic performances for Belleville this season. Jordan Szwarz led the way wearing the captain’s “C” while scoring 18 goals and 18 assists. Had the season not seen its end, Szwarz was on pace to clear the 20 goal mark for the fourth straight season. After Szwarz, we can’t forget about Vitaly Abramov who provided 41 points in 51 games, almost doubling his production from his rookie season, despite seeing a few dry spells throughout the season.

The Zeroes

There is no member of the Belleville Senators organization who fell more short for me than Jonathan Davidsson. Granted, he is a player with a history of injuries that includes more than one this past season. As an organization, the Sens should certainly cut him some slack and continue working on his development as I feel there’s something here. That being said, Davidsson came to North America after spending two full seasons in the SHL, playing professional hockey against grown men. When a young forward with his resume makes his way to the AHL, expectations are pretty high. Besides the aforementioned injury history, one of Davidsson’s other problems was being tossed into a lineup brimming with talent. When you take prospects like Batherson, Brown, Norris, Balcers and Formenton and add in solid AHLers like Szwarz and Carcone, there really wasn’t any space for Davidsson in the top nine. Often relegated to a minor checking role, it was tough for Davidsson to crack this lineup. The good news for Davidsson’s future is that the Ottawa brass have enough faith in him that, despite a crowded lineup in Belleville, he still had a cup of coffee with Ottawa and, in a small sample size, didn’t look wildly out of place with his speed and work ethic. There’s something here with Davidsson and the inevitable graduation of some of Belleville’s best and brightest next season will give him an opportunity to shine.

The Questions

I have so many questions following this nearly impeccable campaign and all of them relate to one thing: graduation. There are a limited number of spots to win up front in Ottawa, and it’s going to be a battle because the number of prospects who have a shot at those spots far exceeds the available positions. How these scenarios play out will, of course, have a direct impact on Belleville’s roster next year.

The Lock

For the purposes of my questions, I’m assuming Batherson is a lock for opening night in Ottawa next season. Partially because he’s arguably the best forward outside of the NHL in the Sens system, and partially because he’s the only right winger who I have on my list of possibilities for graduation. With very little competition on the right side, it feels inevitable that Batherson is already written down in the opening lineup in permanent marker.

After that, it’s a head to head battle. I’d venture to guess there are 2-3 spots that could be made available to prospects next year. At centre, it’s a conversation of Brown vs. Norris. At left wing, it’s a conversation of Balcers vs. Formenton. If we assume Batherson is a lock, only two of these four are going to make Ottawa in the fall... maybe only one of them. So let’s consider each scenario.

Brown vs. Norris

This is an interesting one. In one corner, we have a more experienced pro with a bigger frame who, up until this past season, was the “centre of the future” within the prospect system. Brown split his time between Ottawa and Belleville this year and, particularly in his second call up, performed well. In the other corner, we have the hot new kid on the block. Norris had an outstanding rookie season with Belleville. We’ve been over this many times, it doesn’t need to be re-written, but there’s a case to be made that Norris may end up being better than Brown long term. Yesterday, Hailey Salvian of The Athletic posted a piece (pay wall) with a few quotes from Coach Mann regarding Norris. In particular, Mann says we shouldn’t be too surprised if Norris is a full-time NHLer as soon as this fall. That’s high praise from a coach who’s worked with many young, skilled centres. There’s a case to be made that both Brown and Norris end up in Ottawa next year but that’ll be up to DJ Smith’s comfort level in having that many young players holding down important positions. I have seen a few people mention moving Norris to the wing but, after seeing what he accomplished being the anchor piece of his line in Belleville, I think that would be a waste of his true talent.

Balcers vs. Formenton

In an even more intriguing match-up, I think a rationale exists for both of these players to line up on the left side in Ottawa next year. Balcers, already having 51 NHL games on his resume, has the edge in experience. The 2015 Latvian fifth rounder has proven he’s capable of lining up with the big club and I don’t think we’d be considering him as a bubble player for this roster had it not been for a training camp injury that relegated him to the AHL after a few months of recovery. Once back on the ice, Balcers had a phenomenal season in Belleville, eventually earning him a call up and another 15 games with the big team. I would be confident he makes Ottawa right out of camp next year if it weren’t for Formenton’s coming out party.

In Formenton, the Senators have a player who has proven he’s just as fast as the best in the NHL. For a long time, Formenton’s speed was the only thing we talked about. This year, he jumped out of the gates offensively and didn’t look back, showing Sens fans and brass alike that maybe Formenton isn’t the one dimensional speedster we thought he was. He’s an exceptional penalty killer and, as we’ve already been over earlier in this piece, he’s got more offensive prowess than most of us knew.

Again, I think both could be NHLers as early as next year but, if I’m giving one of them the edge, it’s Balcers. I don’t think he has anything left to prove at the AHL level whereas starting the season in Belleville will only give Formenton an opportunity to continue developing and readying himself for his eventual NHL call up - as soon as mid-season 2020-21.

Tough Decisions

I think the answer to the above match-ups relies heavily on a few key pieces of information we do not yet know.

First, what happens with the slew of free agents coming down the pipe for Ottawa in the summer? CapFriendly currently lists 9 forwards in the Ottawa system in need of a new contract. That’s a huge opportunity for turnover - which brings me to the second part of this particular puzzle piece. How many of those forwards receive extensions and how many new free agents does Dorion bring into the fold?

Second, and arguably more important, how risk averse is DJ Smith going to be with his lineup particularly as it relates to NHL experience? I think there’s a case to be made that Ottawa could run an incredibly young team next year and still find similar, possibly more, success than they would if they extended or added some veteran experience. That being said, NHL Head Coaches often play it safe so I have a hard time believing they lean on the young players as much as fans might want.

In a world where you have three of the aforementioned forwards win a job, a quarter of your forward group are rookies, or very close to it. Then you have Brady Tkachuk, who has earned his spot but is still young. Add the possibility of an Alexis Lafreniere or Quinton Byfield making the club and all of the sudden five of your top 12 forwards aren’t old enough to rent a car by themselves in Ontario. This just doesn’t feel like a very likely scenario, which is why I question how many of these top performing prospects will actually make the Senators next year.

Now, don’t get me wrong. An ideal lineup for me next season in Belleville is missing all of Batherson, Balcers, Brown, Norris and Formenton because that means Ottawa has taken the youth movement incredibly seriously. I just don’t think it’s realistic which is going to make for a very interesting battle next training camp.

Because of just how young this year’s Belleville Senators were, and how unlikely it is that all of the stars move up at the same time, even Coach Mann is confident that he’ll be welcoming a similar roster to Belleville in the fall. If that’s the case, the final question I have is which streets in Belleville do we clear for the Calder Cup parade next spring?

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