While the BSens currently sit in second last in the North Division, that’s actually sounds a lot worse than it is. While the team has an 11-11-0 record, good for 22 points, they have two games in hand on the third place Laval Rocket and fourth place Cleveland Monsters - both of which are only four points ahead of Belleville. This likely speaks more to the lack of strong teams in the division than anything else, as six of the eight North Division teams sit in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.
Let’s take a look at how the team is doing thus far and highlight the individuals who have been major contributors - or otherwise - during the first 22 games of this campaign.
Inconsistency Impacts BSens
To say this season has been a rollercoaster thus far would be an understatement. Belleville kicked off the year by winning just two of their first eight games, dropping them right to the basement of the division. Following that 2-8-0 run, they went 7-2-0. Then they lost three straight. Then they won two straight. It’s really been a gamble as to which Belleville team you’d see on any given night.
Now, of course, the team has had its fair share of adversity. With Ottawa getting ravaged by positive COVID cases in November, the BSens had to play through with a relatively unrecognizable roster filled with bubble AHLers and top tier ECHLers. At any given point they were missing at least three - if not more - of their top players at each position for almost an entire month.
When we look at the team performance over the first 22 games, a few things stand out. League wide, their 11-11-0 record has them sitting 19th out of 31 teams. Their offense, overall, has been so-so, with 64 goals for (22nd) while defense has been more of a strength, with 63 goals against (9th). While the defenders have played well, much of this aspect can be attributed to the relatively strong goaltending situation in Belleville - which we’ll get into later. We can’t lay all the praise on Mads Søgaard, Kevin Mandolese, Matt Murray and Filip Gustavsson, though, as evidenced by Belleville’s 6th ranked penalty kill. The skaters are defending well, too.
If you’re looking for opportunities for improvement once the league returns to action after a possibly lengthy COVID-related pause, look no further than the powerplay. Sitting at just a 16.1% success rate - good for 26th in the league - Belleville has only scored 14 times in 87 tries. With the likes of Egor Sokolov and Roby Järventie as shooting options, you’d hope that this improves as the season goes on. Both players have heavy, accurate shots, and if they can play the Alex Ovechkin Josh Norris spot on the powerplay, they could find some success.
Leading the Offense
Heading into this season, we expected Sokolov to be at the top of the scoring board for Belleville but, while he’s in second place, a surprise candidate has led the charge for the team thus far.
Jake Lucchini, acquired from Laval for “future considerations”, has been absolutely electric as a member of the Senators, as he’s already eclipsing personal bests left, right and centre. The 26 year old forward is in his fourth AHL season and, had you looked at his scoring rates dating back to his time in the NCAA, you’d see a player who provides a few things on the ice but offense hasn’t really been one of them. Prior to joining Belleville, Lucchini played 104 games between Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Laval, totalling just 33 points (0.32 pts/gp). As a BSen, Lucchini already has 19 points in 22 games, good for 0.86 pts/gp.
Another pleasant surprise has been the addition of Chris Wilkie, who has amassed 8 points in 10 games played since joining the team halfway through November. Wilkie, 25, was also acquired for future considerations. That’s two savvy AHL acquisitions for the BSens since October.
Yet another pleasant surprise has been Scott Sabourin. A player we all know much better for hitting and fighting, Sabby has quietly put together a very respectable campaign with seven points in 11 games. He has, of course, accompanied that with 24 penalty minutes but that’s to be expected with his style of game.
The other scoring leaders on the team include Sokolov (18 GP: 4-10-14), Andrew Agozzino (16 GP: 8-3-11) and Cole Reinhardt (21 GP: 3-7-10).
On the Back End
Outside of Lassi Thomson, the blueline has left a bit to be desired offensively. Defensively, and in transition, they’ve been solid. The likes of Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Erik Brännström and Dillon Heatherington have made for a solid top end of the blueline, with Zac Leslie, Maxence Guénette and Colby Williams rounding things out nicely.
Thomson, who most notably came up to Ottawa and played a really solid set of games before being returned to the AHL, has contributed 0.625 pts/gp through eight games in the AHL. More than that, he’s often looked like the most complete defender on Troy Mann’s blueline - playing solid defensively, closing gaps efficiently and forcing the opposition to make a quick decisions when crossing the Belleville blueline.
Heatherington, a player who has won over the heart of DJ Smith of late, has also been a fantastic addition. While he has put up 8 points in 15 games, many of those points came in a small stretch. The more important addition Heatherington has added to this defense corps is through his defensive play and experience. Having over 300 games of AHL experience, Heatherington has shown he is the kind of defender you want your prospects learning from.
A player to watch down the road is Guénette. In his rookie professional season, Guénette has often been a player receiving smaller amounts of ice time as he adjusts to the pace and physicality of the AHL. That being said, he’s looked better as the season has progressed and with Bernard-Docker currently in the NHL - and Thomson likely to see more time with the big club as the season progresses - the right shot rookie will have opportunities to step further up the lineup.
Speaking of Bernard-Docker, it never felt right to expect JBD to step into the AHL and produce at a high rate. Despite high expectations for the young blueliner, that’s never been his game. Through his time in the AJHL and NCAA, he’s never been a point-per-game player, despite being one of the better players at his position in both leagues. With the BSens, JBD has a modest three points through 18 contests but, away from the puck, he’s been right up there with Thomson in terms of his play. While the team has received decent goaltending, they’ve also received very steady play down the right side, often forcing teams to enter on the left - something which the BSens can plan for given the strength on the right side.
This is what Sens fans should be most excited about when it comes to the future in Ottawa. If there’s a position Belleville feels quite solid in, it’s the right side of their blueline and the two players who contribute most to the confidence in that position are just 21 years old.
Between the Pipes
When you think about the goaltending position in the AHL and you list off the guardians who have suited up for Belleville, you’d be pretty confident on paper that the BSens would have a chance to win more often than not - and you’d be right. While the 11-11-0 record doesn’t reflect it, Belleville has received pretty solid goaltending through the season, while struggling overall to provide the offense to bring home more wins.
The MVG (Most Valuable Goaltender, of course) so far has been Mads Søgaard. The Great Dane™ has post a 0.915 SV% through 11 starts, with a 6-5-0 record. This is really encouraging because that means his strong entry to the league at the end of last season doesn’t appear to have been a fluke - where he posted a 0.917 SV% through seven games. His save percentage ranks him 13th amongst all goaltenders and 6th amongst rookies. That may not look impressive but the AHL rookie class of goaltenders has been wild this year, with five different goalies posting above a 0.920 SV% through at least 10 starts. The next wave of goalie stars are in the AHL right now, doing their thing, and I sincerely believe Søgaard is one of them.
Beyond Søgaard, Belleville has received solid goaltending from Murray (2GP, 0.918 SV%) and some good starts from Kevin Mandolese (9 GP) 0.904 SV% as well. For Mandolese, that 0.904 SV% may not look like much, but it’s impart due to a rough stretch at the end of October. In his last four starts, he’s posted a 0.928 SV% with a 3-1-0 record.
Looking For More
Reviewing the overall team, the BSens truly need to see more from just about everyone. Aside from the aforementioned savvy pickups like Lucchini and Wilkie, there’s plenty to expect from players like Sokolov, Thomson, Bernard-Docker and, if he returns to the club, Brännström.
For me, the player I’m hoping to see the biggest improvement from down the stretch is Järventie. While 9 points in 21 games is nothing to scoff at for a 19 year old playing in his first full North American professional season, there’s more there for the young Finn and Belleville’s ability to climb the standings would be aided by more consistent scoring from the sniper. So far, Järventie has produced in bunches. Of his nine points on the year, six were piled up over a seven game stretch in November. He has just two assists in his last ten games. Fans and Sens brass alike are all hoping spending time likely on the top line for Finland at the World Juniors later this month will help Järventie find extra confidence and bring a scoring touch back to the AHL in January.
What we can expect as the season progresses is the usual instability of an AHL roster, with trades and injuries at the NHL level taking players like Thomson, JBD, Sokolov and more away from Belleville. This team is capable of more, and aren’t far out of a playoff spot in the North Division.
If Belleville can up their offense while maintaining their defensive and goaltending strengths, I can see them squeaking into the final playoff spot. It’ll all depend on the question that has plagued them most, though.
Can they be consistent?