After an exciting finish to 2018-19 that left the Belleville Senators on the outside looking in, my bold prediction is that they will not only make the playoffs but they’ll have home ice advantage as well.
I know what you’re thinking, this doesn’t seem that bold. The Senators are injecting talented youth left, right and centre and are coming off a strong finish from last year with many bodies returning. But here’s the thing: The AHL is, for lack of a better term, a crapshoot. It’s hard enough for the average AHL club to keep its core intact. When you’re in the position of the Ottawa Senators, however, it’s almost certain that the carousel will be extra busy as they give young players like Drake Batherson, Logan Brown and Erik Brannstrom extended looks with the big club. That’s what makes this prediction bold - it’s not that the roster will be bad, it’s that it will rarely be consistent.
For as long as Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson are healthy (*knock on wood*), the Belleville Senators will have one of the best goaltenders in the AHL defending their crease. Since you all certainly read my season review of Belleville’s back end, you’ll recall that Hogberg ranked fifth in save percentage and second in goals against average for AHL goalies who started half their team’s games. To add to that, Belleville will have Filip Gustavsson and Joey Daccord fighting for the backup position. In Gustavsson, the B-Sens have a young goaltender who posted solid numbers in the SHL prior to moving to North America and has a year of pro hockey under his belt. In Daccord, they have a goalie coming off a season where he was was nominated for the Hobey Baker award as the NCAA’s top player, and was a finalist for the Mike Richter award as the NCAA’s top goalie. Daccord is clearly already used to the North American ice - he just has to adapt to the elevation in skill and speed that the pro game will throw at him.
Needless to say, even if (*knock on wood*) Hogberg is needed in Ottawa, there’s a good chance one of these young goalkeepers will step up to the challenge and continue to give Belleville’s skaters a steady presence between the pipes.
Off the hop, there’s one skater that I firmly believe will not suit up for Belleville for enough games to impact their results - and that’s Drake Batherson. When you look at his AHL production, his brief but impressive NHL stint last season, and Ottawa’s depth chart on the right side, an NHL spot is Batherson’s to lose.
After that, you have Brown. Last week, Ross made the bold prediction that Brown will score 60 points this season. For that to be true, he’ll have to stick with the big club. Since I’m a big believer in Ross, let’s assume for this scenario that Brown also makes the big club out of camp. In a similar fashion, N_Dew predicted that Brannstrom will suit up for 30 games in the NHL. Last season, Batherson played 20 games for Ottawa and still managed 59 games for Belleville. By similar math, 30 NHL games for Brannstrom likely translates to 45-50 AHL games. That’s good enough for my bold prediction to hold true.
Quite frankly, I have no idea how Coach Mann will deploy his lines but let’s give it a shot.
First and foremost, Brannstrom will get a ton of ice time in Belleville. Between Thomas Chabot, Ron Hainsey, Christian Wolanin and Mark Borowiecki, it’s entirely possible that Brannstrom spends a decent chunk of the year in Belleville. If this is true, look out. After Brannstrom, we have Max Lajoie who proved last season that he’s got what it takes to move the puck himself. Belleville’s left side could be fantastic.
If you followed along last year, you’ll recall that Coach Mann loaded up his top powerplay unit. Partially because it worked and partially because it’s all he had. In this year’s edition of the BSens, there is more skill spread throughout the lineup. Yes, Batherson and Brown will be missed. But if you look at the following, you’ll see what I’m saying.
On the second unit, there’s skill in Josh Norris, insane speed in both Formenton and Jonathan Davidsson, a solid quarterback in Lajoie and a leader who’s put up points in the AHL before in Jordan Szwarz. Being able to throw a group like that out after the top unit has already peppered their opponent is a huge advantage.
The Wild Cards
Sorry Ross, I know I said I believed in you but what if, let’s say, perhaps, possibly Brown doesn’t put up 60 points this year? What if, because of Ottawa’s roster of mostly-mediocre NHL centremen (and Colin White), Brown ends up spending more time than we think in Belleville? When I see names like Artem Anisimov, Chris Tierney, JG Pageau and White, I get the feeling that a first time NHL head coach like DJ Smith may run with the veterans down the middle. After all, you can only have so many youngsters in the lineup (*insert eyeroll*).
There’s another name who might spend more time than we’d like in Belleville this season - and that’s Christian Wolanin. There’s a real scenario where Wolanin gets squeezed into the 7th defender role in Ottawa this season and the Sens may decide it’s better for his development to play. Maybe they add a veteran of some kind - via PTO, trade, etc. - to hang out in the press box. We really don’t know how Smith will treat this rebuild and just how many opportunities he’ll give out before he becomes nervous that he doesn’t have enough experience in his lineup.
If this ends up being true - that both Brown and Wolanin play a decent amount of hockey in Belleville this year - then I’m going to petition the Silver Seven team to rename this series Spencer’s Insanely Perfect And Also Easy Predictions and give me the President of Hockey Operations job.