The Back End - Belleville Year In Review

Through acquisitions, Belleville’s blueline went from mediocre to impressive by the end of the season while Marcus Hogberg solidified himself as the number one goalie in the Bay of Quinte.

Welcome to the second part of our Belleville Year In Review series. On Monday, I took the time to highlight the best, worst and most questionable players charged with scoring goals for the Belleville Senators. Today, we’re taking a look at the blueliners and goaltenders who suited up for the BSens in 2018-19.

The back end of the Belleville Senators can be easily described as a work in progress. While Marcus Hogberg and Christian Wolanin were in the organization at the start of the season, players like Erik Brannstrom, Cody Goloubef and Stefan Elliot were added throughout the season and made a huge impact. A lot can be said about the Senators front office but the additions that were made mid season on the blueline for Belleville were difference makers.

The Heroes

It goes without saying that the hero of the Belleville Senators this season was Hogberg. When you think back to the season, it’s hard to remember that Belleville had more than one goaltender. The main reason for that, of course, is that Hogberg played the bulk of the games in the second half of the season. By the end of the season, the split was almost even - with Hogberg playing 39 games compared to Filip Gustavsson’s 31. But, since the calendars turned to 2019, Gustavsson played just 10 games, compared to Hogberg’s 31. Hogberg finished the season with a 0.917 save percentage and a GAA of 2.32, ranking him fifth (SV%) and second (GAA) in the AHL for goalies who started at least half of their team’s games. Suffice it to say, Hogberg has certainly shown that he’s become comfortable with the North American game and I think we’ll be seeing a decent number of starts from him in Ottawa as soon as next season.

You can’t talk about the BSens backend without mentioning Christian Wolanin. I know what you’re thinking, it feels like Wolanin was more of an NHL player this season but he actually played 40 games for Belleville, compared to 30 with Ottawa. When he was in the AHL, it was clear he didn’t belong (in a good way). Whether it was on the scoresheet, successfully breaking the puck out or playing quarterback on the powerplay, Wolanin was everything to Belleville. Wolanin’s 0.78 PPG eclipsed the likes of Logan Brown, Rudolfs Balcers, and Filip Chlapik. Needless to say, if Ottawa’s new head coach is any good at his job, I won’t be covering Wolanin in Belleville next season.

Brannstrom’s time as a Senator was limited but his season, as a whole, was nothing short of impressive for a 19 year old defender playing his first year of pro hockey in North America. Through 50 games between the Chicago Wolves and Belleville Senators, Brannstrom posted an impressive 0.64 PPG. That being said, his contribution dropped slightly after joining Belleville but with a small sample size, we can only really look at what we saw for nine games and that was a combination of elite speed and skill that will no doubt make Brannstrom a great defender at the NHL level one day - likely soon.

Personally, I would label Cody Goloubef as my surprise of the season. When the Senators traded a solid veteran forward in Paul Carey for Goloubef back in January, I wasn’t sure of the move. The blueline was already somewhat crowded in Belleville, albeit not with exceptional defenders throughout, and Carey had, by all measures, been a great player for Belleville up to that point. What Goloubef brought to the lineup was stability on the right side. The majority of strong defenders in the Senators system from top to bottom are left handed so having someone like Goloubef come in and even things out was a move that flew under the radar.

Stefan Elliot rounds out the heroes of the back end for Belleville this season. Another mid season acquisition, Elliot came to the Senators in December in a minor league deal with Pittsburgh. Another right handed defender coming to the rescue to balance out the blueline, Elliot brought a ton of experience and a good amount of offense to the BSens and his impact was immediate. Elliot ranked second on the team for defenders, behind Wolanin, for scoring with 20 points in 41 games with Belleville.

The Zeroes

As Belleville (Ottawa) did well to add strong defenders to the roster throughout the season, they also did well to move candidates who would have otherwise shown up in this section. At the deadline, Belleville moved Patrick Sieloff to the San Diego Gulls in exchange for Brian Gibbons. Looking at what Sieloff provides - or doesn’t - on the blueline and what Gibbons did in Ottawa down the stretch, I have no idea why Bob Murray made this deal with Pierre Dorion. Nonetheless, Sieloff did play 42 games with Belleville this season and none of it was memorable. An inability to stay out of the penalty box combined with an ineffective off-the-glass-and-out approach to zone exits made Sieloff more of a liability than anything else while he was a Senator.

Jordan Murray is a tough player to evaluate for me, I’ll freely admit. He sometimes has the offensive instincts that make him a good puck mover at the AHL level and occasionally has the defensive awareness to be an impact player in his own end. The problem, of course, is inconsistency. There were games where Murray was, for me, the best defender on the ice. These were also games where Belleville was missing the likes of Wolanin and/or Brannstrom to call ups but that’s what you want from your AHL blueliners - the ability to step up when the top players are recalled. Unfortunately, the games where Murray was inconsistent far outweighs the number where he was on his game. In the end, calling him a “zero” might be a bit too harsh. I do think he has the ability to be a very good pivot in the AHL - as he did improve on his offensive numbers year over year.

The Questions

There are a few questions when it comes to the back end of the Belleville Senators but the biggest one surrounds Andreas Englund. The Stockholm native, for me, leaves a lot to be desired. He’s tough in front of his goaltender and I certainly wouldn’t jump at the chance to meet him in the corner, but as far as the evolution of the NHL game is concerned, I’m not sure Englund will ever fit the bill. Many will see that Englund was awarded the Coach’s Choice by Troy Mann this season. It’s important to note that this isn’t MVP level recognition - it’s simply Mann’s choice for the player that showed the most dedication and most impressive work ethic when it came to improving their game. I have no doubt that Englund is an incredibly dedicated athlete, I’m sure this award was well deserved. That being said, he will be an RFA on July 1st and I’m curious to see whether or not he continues his career with the Senators. One could argue that Ottawa has one of the strongest groups of left handed defense prospects in the league and there’s literally no way Englund will surpass any of Thomas Chabot, Brannstrom, Wolanin or Maxime Lajoie. Even stealing the “tough guy” spot from either Mark Borowiecki or Ben Harpur seems out of the question to me. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Englund heading back to the SHL this offseason.

Perhaps the most important question is: will Filip Gustavsson’s adaptation to the North American game mirror that of his counterpart? Hogberg has clearly come into his own and is starting to show why he was a top goaltender in the SHL just a few short years ago. But it’s important to remember that Hogberg struggled when he first came over and we can say the same thing has happened so far for Gustavsson. Unlike his counterpart, Gustavsson was near the bottom of the list in both SV% and GAA this season. It doesn’t help that Gustavsson bounced back and forth between the AHL and ECHL and that Mann leaned on Hogberg almost exclusively down the stretch. Hogberg spent much of last season doing a similar hop between leagues, essentially living on the road between Belleville and Brampton. If I were running the team, Hogberg would be backing up Craig Anderson next season leaving the crease wide open in Belleville. Will Gustavsson seize the opportunity? That will depend mostly on whether or not Dorion adds a veteran goaltender similar to him bringing in Mike McKenna last year. Joey Daccord’s move to the pro game will also be a factor, of course, but more on that in a later post.

Next up, we’ll take a look at the performance Belleville’s coaching and hockey ops over the 2018-19 season and how the addition of Mann was a game changer for Ottawa’s AHL affiliate.

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