Belleville Year In Review: The Front End

Jason Scourse
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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?

Comments

Hypothetical opening night roster

Tkachuk – Byfield – Batherson
Duclair – Norris – C. Brown
White – Tierney – Ryan
Formenton – Anisimov – Balcers

Chabot – Drysdale
Brannstrom – Zaitsev
Boro – Wolanin
Reilly

I know we’re thin on RW but I think drafting the best C and the best D in the draft would be best for us. Drysdale looks phenomenal

Opening night 2021-22?

I’d be more than happy to see the Sens draft Byfield and Drysdale, but I think both would likely go back to junior for another season.

I expect the same re: junior

I don’t think we’re going to see a 2020 draft pick in the NHL for 2020-21 unless Ottawa gets the top pick.

It would, of course, be lovely if Byfield was ready to step right in but most of the prospect reviews I’ve seen of him are saying dominating the OHL is the best option for him next year.

Lafreniere and Stutzle likely play in the NHL in the coming season

At least that is the impression that I get from all the pre-draft info that is floating around. If the Sens get one of those two guys I could see them opening the season on the LW in the NHL. Lafreniere is a natural LW and Stutzle likely would play LW in the NHL as a rookie (to ease his transition).

Might be able to make a case for Raymond as well

His SHL experience might make him ready for the NHL.. but I agree, Stutzle is another guy who could move straight to the big league.

Agree on Byfield and Drysdale

Both need another season of development so would have to spend another year in junior. I am not sold on Sens taking Drysdale at #3. Stutzle or sniping winger may be more of a need. Although, I watch the highlights for Norris and he scores many goals with one-timers …

Could Drysdale = Brannstrom, both within 1" height and Brannstrom only 5kg heavier? Both dominant in u19. Both like playing right side.

I was about to argue with you that Drysdale is more than 1" taller than Brannstrom, but then I checked and those are the actual numbers. However, Brannstrom is 20 and Drysdale is 18, so there is a very good chance that Drysdale could still grow a bit. I wouldn’t take Drysdale at #3 either however. I’d take Stutzle or Byfield, whichever is available. Drysdale at 4 is very reasonable though, but Raymond is also a very good option, so it’s really tough to say.

Formenton on 4th line?

If Formenton is playing 4th line minutes I’d hope they don’t bother calling him up. Let him play LW1 minutes in Belleville until he can slot into at least LW3, ideally LW2.

No way jose

Firstly many wingers/dmen on your list play on their offside.Secondly none of Byfield and Drysdale will play in NHL this upcoming season.Thirdly i would not draft Drysdale.I saw you forgot Zub too.

What about......

Stuetzle– Byfield – Batherson
Tkachuk– Norris – C. Brown
White – Brown– Ryan
Formenton – Anisimov – Balcers

Chabot – (a top 4 defenceman we claim off a cap team with our 18th, Duclair and maybe a second)
Brannstrom – Zaitsev
Boro – Wolanin

Great work this year!

I have really enjoyed the updates on the B-Sens throughout the seasons. It is a real shame that we won’t be seeing his team get a shot in the playoffs. It makes me wonder if the Sens send a few more back than we are expecting, so they get a second shot at the AHL playoffs.

Thanks!

It was a lovely change of pace covering a really good team. Hopefully (for the sake of my content) we see a similar Belleville roster next year and they get their shot at the cup.

Who stays, who goes

I think spencer is right that both Norris and Brown won’t be on the opening night roster for the big club. Personally, I am hoping Brown works hard and wins a spot in the Ottawa line-up. Norris was pretty great in the AHL last year, but he could still get even better and this coming season maybe he would be the first call-up and play something like 30 games in Ottawa. Ideally, Brown last the season in Ottawa and puts up decent numbers allowing him either to become part of the long term plan or a valuable trade asset.

I agree that Balcers should be on the Sens from the start next year (assuming he keeps improving through the off-season) and I could see Formenton either making it from the start or otherwise getting plenty of injury call-up games throughout the season.

I think we will see plenty of last year’s cast back in Ottawa. DJ loves Connor Brown and he was pretty successful last year. Duclair should be back unless he asks for an unreasonable contract. I also expect the Sens to re-sign Nick Paul. Boedkker is gone for sure. Peca probably isn’t back unless it is a two-way. The two I am not sure about are Tierney and Hawryluk. Tierney’s future probably depends on how the Sens project LBrown and Norris. Hawryluk was surprisingly useful as a depth player and he seems to really fit DJ’s style, but at the same time he is a 4th liner, so there is a high level of uncertainty there.

Best guess for the Sens forwards:
C : Tierney, White, LBrown, Anisimov
RW: Ryan, Batherson, C.Brown, Balcers
LW: Tkachuck, Lafreniere/Stutzle, Duclair Paul
13th: Hawryluk

Best guess for B-Sens forwards:
C: Norris, Chlapik, Beaudin, Kastelic
RW: Szwarz, Davidsson, Abramov, Kelly (last two are listed as LW on Capfriendly)
LW: Formenton, Abramov, Gruden, Carcone
13th: Wilkie/Lodin

Pretty much in agreement with this

I think if both Norris and LBrown impress, Anisimov might just end up being our next Boedkker (a cap hit in the pressbox).
It will be interesting to see if Hawryluk gets a contract or if Chlapik earns that spot.
Leaving out for the moment Lafreniere/Stutzle, should also be a good battle between Formenton and Abramov for the LW spot.

me, i think if one of them forces the russian to the sidelines, i will be shocked, and pleased. I can’t see that happening. The russian is a bona fide NHL player. He is a great shooter, nice skater. The only issue with him is health. But if he gets seated as a healthy scratch, to me that means someone has exceeded expectation. DJ is going to play whoever helps the team the most, and for a rookie to unseat a real NHL player, they will have to earn that, it wont be handed to them. In their favor, tho, is the fact that the russian does not like physical play. He shuns it. He is a big guy who plays small. And DJ wants every guy to be fully involved. So that may force him to the fringe.

Admittedly by the eye test

And I know injury may have had something to do with it. I just wasn’t impressed with him at all. He seemed invisible for large parts of the games he did play. But yes, both Norris and Brown would really have to bring it to unseat him. The alternative if Anisimov is playing well and Norris/Brown earn it is to force a Tierney trade.

Also the line-up will not be static all year

There will be injuries and slumps along the way. Norris and/or LBrown could easily end up with something like 40 NHL games and 40 AHL games over the course of next season.

i think its the russian’s last year…so i don’t think they would keep him as a result of play, and trade Tierney. Anisimov wont be here the year after. IF he plays well, he would be a deadline trade guy, seems to me.

Anisimov got time this past year due to his offensive skills (which were in short supply on the team overall). If the Sens show more scoring ability this year that could be bad news for Anisimov’s ice time.

My guess for the opening night roster

I think both Norris and L.Brown are going to make it and Formenton will start in Belleville. There is no place for rookies unless maybe Lafreniere

Tkachuk-Norris-White
Duclair-Brown-Batherson
Balcers-Tierney-Brown
Paul-Anisimov-Ryan-Hawryluk

1a 1b 3a 3b

I see more of 2 sets of players instead of 4 lines. The top 6 listed will swap around and get more icetime, with Tierney popping in and out of the top 6. Bottom 6 make up 3a and 3b, and I would hope the coach gives all 6 enough ice time to get in the game.

whats it mean…the 1a 1b etc

i mean

No real 1 or 2nd line, and no real 3rd or 4th line. More of a top 6 and bottom 6, with regular swapping within each group

Ryan is wasted on the 4th. Can he just retire already?

ALOT OF IFs

I hope LBrown and Norris both make the team out of camp but unless there are injuries, I don’t think that’s going to happen. There probably will also will be at least one trade made for a forward. Logan probably ends up being one of the guys left out. He might be better off getting moved to another organization. It depends on how myuch ferocity he comes to this season with.

If we add Byfield and Stutzle, are they NHL-ready? Or will we go with Drysdale?

If we don’t win the lottery, I’d like to go with strength down the middle and worry about a right-handed dman a bit later. We won’t win anything with White and Tierney as our top centers. Norris may work his way up as winger or a center. So many decisions to make. A really good rebuild yields a ton of depth which means alot of decisions. It will be fascinating to watch, as this will be a hotly contested training camp. Unless of course we do training camp with social distancing (joke).

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