Buiding the Belleville Behemoth

In the made-up little fantasy world in my head, NHL fans who have to endure lengthy rebuilds get to find some consolation in having a competitive AHL team to keep tabs on in the meantime. What would the Belleville Behemoth look like?

In the made-up little fantasy world in my head, NHL fans who have to endure lengthy rebuilds get to find some consolation in having a competitive AHL team to keep tabs on in the meantime. In the case of your Ottawa Senators, whose AHL affiliate relocated to nearby Belleville to coincide perfectly with said arduous rebuild, we have seen no playoff runs to speak of at either the NHL or AHL levels. In all fairness, we have witnessed a couple of pretty solid regular seasons in Belleville but due to COVID-19—no playoffs!

Part of the job of managing an NHL team through a rebuild involves creating the best possible farm system while simultaneously giving fans of the NHL team just enough reason to keep watching the parent club—enter Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, and Tim Stützle. The two latter went straight to the show with the former not far behind. They had the talent to play immediately, they sold some tickets, and everyone won—except Belleville. Now to make the following thesis absolutely clear, I would never advocate for any of these franchise pillars needing more seasoning time in the AHL. They have all blossomed into great NHL players in their own right without toiling in the minors (Chabot’s brief stint notwithstanding). I reiterate that I would never argue in favour of having sent any of those players down for the sake of their individual development.

But what if any of these players (or a few others who spent minimal time on the farm) stayed in Belleville with the sole purpose of winning a Calder Cup? Again, this fantasy world doesn’t exist and no one cares about this hypothetical scenario, but I still have to wonder just how good of a Belleville team could one build if one chose to eschew big league entertainment value and player-management relations? (Helloooooo MLB!)

It goes without saying that adding Chabot, Tkachuk, or Stützle to one of those good-not-great Belleville teams of recent memory would have a massive, positive impact on team results, but thanks to the CBA (and I mean that sincerely. I feel grateful that NHL managers have less leverage than their MLB counterparts), a GM can’t simply ship all of their best players to the AHL. So for the purpose of this exercise, I tried (and admittedly very flexibly so) to adhere to certain rules. I chose Senators either on their entry-level contracts; or on standard contracts who successfully cleared waivers (such as Nick Paul); and not rostered in Europe, bound by the CHL-AHL agreement, or playing in the NCAA.

We also have to assume, to make this work, that the players in question have played few enough NHL games to keep their waiver exemption. This imaginary scenario presupposes that Tkachuk has played little to no NHL games and doesn’t just get sent to to the farm for a playoff push. I probably took some liberties on the way and I do not uphold this methodology as scientific. And furthermore, I invite anyone else to take a stab at this exercise and see what they come up with. So with all of that in mind (yikes, what a tedious introduction!), let’s try to build the Belleville juggernaut.

In the Senators’ inaugural season in Belleville, 2017-18, the organization had still invested first and foremost in NHL-level success (how did that turn out?) so that first Belleville Senators squad kinda stunk and had a losing record. And most of the decent players on that team stuck around for the next season, thus I won’t bother trying to improve the 2017-18 roster that had a losing record anyway.

Okay, now things get interesting (more not interestinger), I promise. In 2018-19 the BSens had a decent record of 37-31-3-5 but still no playoff run. The Senators, however, had Chabot and Tkachuk on their ELCs. Belleville had struck gold with their line of Nick Paul, Logan Brown, and Drake Batherson that season, and Marcus Hogberg had a save percentage of 91.7 (with Filip Gustavsson backing up). Despite a good defensive core and decent goaltending, the team struggled due to a lack of forward depth. In this little exercise though, we can build a roster of:

Tkachuk - White - Balcers
Paul - Brown - Batherson
Tambellini - Chlapik - Rodewald
xxx - xxx - xxx

Chabot - Jaros
Wolanin - Englund
Lajoie - Murray

Not too bad—but no bottom-six to work with and not enough in the way of puck-moving defenders. A year later, however, Ottawa’s fire sale acquisitions had started to mature along with their recent draft classes meaning Belleville could more than withstand the graduations of Paul, Hogberg, and Christian Wolanin. Joey Daccord had a solid season (91.5 sv%) splitting the crease with Gustavsson. The BSens had their best record to date (38-20-4-1) but missed out on the postseason due to the pandemic. If you forfeited the NHL season then you could have a 2019-20 Belleville roster of:

Tkachuk - Norris - Batherson
Formenton - Brown - Veronneau
Abramov - Chlapik - Davidsson
Kelly - Szwarz - Beaudin

Chabot - Jaros
Brännström - Murray
Lajoie - Aspirot

I feel pretty confident that team wins the Calder cup with either of Daccord or Gustavsson providing average goaltending. Now based on Belleville’s actual record in 2020-21 (18-16-1-0) and that fact that Chabot signed his standard contract, you might think the fun ends here, but for one season the Sens had both Tkachuk and Stützle on their ELCs plus a great season from Mads Søgaard (91.7 sv%). And to get extra sacrilegious with it, Ottawa had Artem Zub on an ELC so count him eligible for this beauty of an imaginary roster:

Tkachuk - Stützle - Batherson
Formenton - Norris - Sokolov
Abramov - Brown - Kastelic
Kelly - Shaw - Beaudin

Brännström - Zub
Aspirot - Thomson
Alsing - Dougherty

That defence looks a lot thinner after the top pairing than previous seasons but you have an NHL-level first line that could effectively steamroll an AHL defence, and an exceptional tandem with Søgaard and Gustavsson putting up their best AHL numbers to date. In my imaginary world, I thought things would start falling apart here but the actual BSens improved in 2021-22 (40-28-4-0) and they thickened up their bottom-six and depth on defence. Last season Gustavsson played the hero (91.5 sv%) with Søgaard and Mandolese also staying over 90% for good measure. You could thus drum up an imaginary lineup such as:

Järventie - Stützle - Pinto
Formenton - Norris - Sokolov
Kelly - Reinhardt - Kastelic
Shaw - Lucchini - Chartier

Brännström - Thomson
Aspirot - Bernard-Docker
Dougherty - Guenette

With the gradual maturation of the NHL team, and with core players now signing the standard contracts, we start to wind down both this little thought exercise and the actual potential of the BSens as a prospect-driven franchise (as opposed to an AHL team built around the strength of its veterans). Thanks to that 2020 draft class you can still put together a pretty decent imaginary roster but the actual team has a record of 27-28-6-1 and the goaltending tandem of Søgaard and Mandolese (currently employed in Ottawa albeit) has posted respective save percentages under 90. So here you have it, one last time:

Järventie - Stützle - Pinto
Crookshank - Greig - Sokolov
Lodin - Daoust - Kastelic
Reinhardt - Lucchini - Chartier

Sanderson - Thomson
Aspirot - Bernard-Docker
Larsson - Guenette

You know what? I don’t hate it. And I find it somewhat surprising how poorly the BSens have fared this season (injuries tend to do that I suppose) considering how closely this imaginary roster resembles the actual Belleville roster, minus Stützle, Sanderson, and Pinto obviously. I should probably also acknowledge here that this whole exercise has left me exposed to “lol, the Sens are pretty good—for an AHL team!” jokes, and quite frankly, leafs r poo (montreal 2).

In summary, I have no idea what point I intended to make. I’ve always wondered about this and I’ve put off this project for years because I don’t know that it has any redeeming value. I would have loved to have seen any of those 2019-21 configurations run riot in the AHL for the pure chaos of it all but obviously not at the actual expense of missing out on Chabot, Tkachuk, Stützle, Norris, and Brännström in Ottawa. We may have missed our window in Belleville and we may have to wait another year yet for our playoff dreams in Ottawa but if nothing else, take a moment to appreciate all the great young players in Ottawa, in their prime right now, with a couple more blue-chippers on their way in the coming months.

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