Establishing Belleville: The kids are ready for development
Has the Senators prospect pool ever been deeper at the AHL level?
**Editor’s Note: We’re very excited to debut a new feature today, called Long-form Wednesday. Going forward, each week you can expect to see a new, longer, more in-depth piece of writing from a member of the staff or potentially from special guest writers. It’s one of the ways that we are going to be working to give you the best coverage of the Ottawa Senators out there. I’m very excited to kick things off with this first piece from Ary. Please let us know what you think in the comments and feel free to suggest any topics you’d like to see us dig into. -nkb **
When the Ottawa Senators announced D.J. Smith as their head coach, I immediately thought of Troy Mann.
When it comes to hockey operations, the Sens have gone for the internal hire on numerous occasions over the past decade, including twice in their search for a head coach, when Cory Clouston and Dave Cameron compiled 335 games behind Ottawa’s bench after previously working for the Binghamton Senators from 2004 to 2009. Some argue that this is due to cost — a factor you can’t ever rule out with a Melnyk-run franchise — but there are other reasons like familiarity and international success that presumably played into the decision. Neither Clouston nor Cameron had much success at the AHL level, with the team only making the playoffs once in four-and-a-half seasons with either behind the bench. That was Dave Cameron’s first year (2004-05), and the only time the team sported a positive goal differential under the tutelage of these two coaches.
Troy Mann’s teams have been the opposite. In his four seasons as head bench boss in Hershey, the Bears went to the playoffs three times, won a playoff round three times, and went to the Calder Cup Finals once. It’s a stark contrast when you consider that over the last 17 seasons (since 2002-03, when Binghamton became the team’s AHL affiliate), Ottawa’s AHL team has only made the playoffs six times. They’ve only won a playoff round twice in those six appearances, in 2002-03 when they went to the conference finals under John Paddock, and in the championship winning year of 2010-11 under Kurt Kleinendorst.
Part of what Mann’s done well is player usage. The AHL is barebones in terms of the statistics they provide to the public — we don’t even get access to time-on-ice — but tools like the (now-defunct) Prospect-Stats.com have popped up to estimate metrics like even-strength ice-time and primary points per-60, which gives us an idea of how players were deployed and how their points were distributed. Our own Colin Cudmore was able to chart the data from Prospect-Stats.com onto Tableau, and looking at these images, you can see a shift between the Kleinendorst-coached 2016-17 and 2017-18 BSens, versus the Mann coached 2018-19 squad. Yes: Mann has had more talent made available to him, bolstered by both from strong drafting and better free agent signings, but the way he’s distributed minutes is what stands out to me. While Kleinendorst seemed to have a decent idea in 2016-17 of what he wanted to do with his forwards, he played everyone pretty evenly in 2017-18. Mann, however, clearly identified Drake Batherson, Nick Paul, Logan Brown, Rudolfs Balcers, Filip Chlapik, and Jack Rodewald as his top-six forwards — despite four of the six being U22 players.
With an extended level of poor play, built off of questionable hires and player personnel decisions, I think it’s fair to say that Troy Mann is the highest calibre AHL coach the team has ever had. What’s exciting is that this year’s iteration of the Belleville Senators has an argument for featuring the highest talent level in the team history.
The current mark is the franchise-record 47-win 2004-05 Binghamton Senators, a team that featured Jason Spezza, Antoine Vermette, Brandon Bochenski, Chris Kelly, and Chris Neil at forward; Anton Volchenkov and Christoph Schubert on defence; and Ray Emery in net. The 2010-11 Calder Cup winning year, and the back-to-back 44-win seasons put together by the Luke Richardson coached squads in 2012-13 and 2013-14 are no slouches either. Let’s compare those rosters:
Notes on 2004-05: What incredible centre depth, with three players — all 23 or younger — putting up at least 0.77 points-per-game. On defence, Volchenkov, Schubert, and Pothier would go on to play big roles with the big club in their Stanley Cup Finals run, while in net, the team was backstopped by two 21-year-olds. Overall, nearly half of this 23-player roster was 22 or younger as the team reaped the benefits of the Marshall Johnston years.
Notes on 2010-11: While the percentage of players under 25 is similar to the 2004-05 BSens, there’s less top talent on this roster and it shows. At forward, only Kaspars Daugavins, Mike Hoffman, Jim O’Brien, and David Dziurzynski played a full season with the squad, with Daugavins and O’Brien being the only players receiving top minutes. On defence, Wiercioch, Schira, and Gryba were young players, but generally played third-pair. Vets Andre Benoit and Derek Smith primarily got the bulk of the offensive zone and powerplay time. Many forget that Robin Lehner only started 22 games this season — still a feat for a 19-year-old — before stealing the crease from Barry Brust in the playoffs.
Notes on 2013-14: This is the BSens roster the last time the Sens were “in a rebuild” and features many of the top talents that the organization has traded away in some form or another over the last two years. While the rate of U22 players is similar to 2010-11, there’s a lot more young depth here. In fact, ~90% of the roster was under the age of 25, and like 2004-05, everyone was under 30.
Lastly, let’s take a look at just the roster creation metrics for the last five seasons:
Overall, while the team’s injection of U22 players has remained rather steady, the team’s depth — the surrounding talent of AHL veterans, players getting a second chance, or older talent acquired via trade — hasn’t reached the levels from the team’s heyday. It’s important to note that Randy Lee became assistant general manager heading into the 2014-15 season, and basically ground Binghamton into the dust. The team’s drafting during the 2012 - 2014 period didn’t help at all, but many familiar with the BSens have written about how Lee struggled with identifying capable secondary talent for AHL teams. This is an example of how that showed up.
Again, this is a really simple analysis; a lot goes into roster creation and I haven’t run any correlations between age range and “success”, or looked at number of draft picks per team, but it gives us an indication of how the BSens have historically been built to help us compare to this year’s incoming roster.
Assuming that Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Rudolfs Balcers, and Christian Wolanin are in the NHL, here’s Belleville’s current depth chart heading into the 2019-20 season:
Notes on 2019-20:This is the team’s highest level of U22 talent since 2016-17, and if you counted Brown, Batherson, and Balcers in the mix (or if there was a lockout, like 2004-05), you’d see a roster really close to the 2004-05 record-setting Binghamton Senators. With 84% of players under the age of 25, the 2019-20 team is miles ahead of the Sens’ AHL rosters from the last five seasons, and most resembles the Mark Stone-led BSens from earlier this decade. You’ll notice that the depth chart looks rather full near the bottom of the roster. That’s likely the result of having 36 different players suit up in 10+ games last season, a franchise record. I’m not surprised to see Dorion, MacTavish and co. take a more proactive approach to identifying depth players this year.
Over the last two seasons, the management group has successfully transitioned a veteran-heavy and not-very-good roster into one brimming with talent. Let’s not forget, with Ottawa rebuilding, this is what we should expect the BSens to be. Under current ownership, the team’s hockey operations department has traded away practically every star player on the parent roster for young players and draft picks, with more to come in 2020 and 2021.
It’s important for the Senators to establish Belleville as a developmental powerhouse, with a steady stream of talented young players who receive opportunity on a regular basis. This will do many things for the Senators organization. For one, it offers cost-controlled talent — an extra-appealing trait to Eugene Melnyk, but also, to any owner hoping to compete in the salary cap era. Some of the biggest misses in free agency are when depth players get term because a team has holes they’re desperate to fill and don’t know when help is coming. A model organization, like the Tampa Bay Lightning/Syracuse Crunch, combat this by consistently having two-to-three young players make the parent roster after receiving some time in the AHL, while consistently maximizing every dollar spent on their star players.
Beyond that, there’s also the benefits of getting to know your players. If you’re assessing talent correctly, you’d be able to flip players in positions of strength to other teams for everyday NHLers when the time comes. Or, for those who remain with the organization, there’s a comfort level with knowing the coaches, development staff, and team culture as you move on up — knowing that you’ll receive opportunity in the NHL at some point.
With a quality head coach to lead the way, Belleville seems set to compete with the AHL’s best this year, and deliver a season to remember like the three we’ve profiled in this article.
Let’s see if they can do it.
Note: Thank you to HockeyDB, Colin Cudmore, Prospect-Stats.com, and Joel Vanderlaan for the data used in this article.