The Forwards - Belleville Year In Review

Led by Logan Brown and Drake Batherson, a new wave of skilled skaters drove the bus for the Belleville Senators this year.

After a terrible inaugural season, the Belleville Senators found themselves some offensive dynamos in 2018-19. If you followed the team through this blog, you’ll be able to pick out the forwards who regularly featured as single game standouts for their excellent performances, particularly in the second half. There’s a very good argument to be made that the trio of Logan Brown, Drake Batherson and Nick Paul were the best line in the league in the second half of the season.

After this trio, the Senators saw a career year from the likes of Jack Rodewald and contributions from newcomers Vitaly Abramov, Rudolfs Balcers and Darren Archibald that made their ultimately unsuccessful playoff run possible.

The Heroes

At every level of this game, Batherson has been a late bloomer. It was safe to expect a player like Batherson to finally find a league in the AHL where he wasn’t able to continue to defy the odds. Drizzy Drake had something else in mind. In his first year of pro hockey, Batherson tallied 62 points in 59 games in the AHL all while having an extended stint with the big club for 20 games. He was named to the AHL All Star game where he took home the MVP honours. He was the AHL player of the week multiple times throughout the season. He was also named Belleville’s rookie of the year at the end of the year. Just three seasons ago, Batherson wasn’t even a full-time QMJHL player. It’s simply amazing. The only knock on Batherson’s season was how his offense dried up at the most crucial juncture of the season. It’s tough to blame him, however, as he had spent months carrying much of the offense in what felt like 20 playoff calibre games.

Brown came into the season with a relatively decent shot to make the NHL. His combination of hockey IQ and size, paired with a long term injury to Jean Gabriel Pageau, made for an interesting NHL camp. The best thing that could have happened for Brown was to play almost the entire year in Belleville instead. It took some time to adjust to the pro game, as Brown tallied four goals and five assists in his first 15 games (1G, 3A of which came in the same game). He also saw some time in the press box with health concerns - as has been a bit of a trend for Brown in his young career. The good news is, his final 39 games played saw him put up 10 goals and 23 assists as much of his ice time was spent with Batherson and Paul.

Speaking of Paul, the player I was hoping to see a few years ago when he came into the Senators organization as part of the Jason Spezza trade finally showed up this season. Like Brown and the rest of the Senators, his season started slow but picked up halfway through. He saw a stint in Ottawa and was returned to Belleville to continue the hot streak. Unfortunately, like his linemates, his point totals tailed off at the end of the season.

Rodewald and Balcers round out the list of truly noteworthy performances from Belleville forwards this season. Achieving a career high in goals (23) and points (47), Rodewald was the most consistent forward not playing on the team’s top trio. As for Balcers, he slightly improved to an impressive 0.72 PPG (up from 0.71 last season) while earning a 36 game stint with the big club.

It’s tough to truly gauge Abramov’s contributions to Belleville as the sample size is quite small. What we did see was a player with impeccable speed who can make plays at a high tempo. He didn’t come in and dominate offensively like I had hoped when he was acquired but he brought an element of tenacity to the forecheck that proved to be very effective.

The Zeroes

The expectations for Joseph LaBate were pretty low and, frankly, he didn’t do much to exceed those expectations. Last season in Utica, he had 11 points in 39 games. While he’s not known for his offensive instincts, you would hope that a similar pace could have been accomplished in a full season with Belleville. Like I said, the expectation was low. Despite playing 31 more games, LaBate only contributed 2 more points than last season. He was essentially an offensive blackhole for Belleville when he was on the ice.

Francois Beauchemin spent the season jumping back and forth between the AHL and ECHL.  When he was in Belleville, he compared to LaBate when it came to the offensive contributions but he came out even worse on the defensive side of things - with the worst GA/60 for forwards on the team. Through 40 games, this is a big enough sample size for me to understand that Beauchemin’s ceiling is likely “AHL call up”. These are the types of players that are needed for a rebuilding NHL team who will likely be dipping into the AHL squad plenty in the upcoming season. Hopefully Beauchemin will make more of the opportunity should he be given the chance next year.

Chase Balisy is another player who, for me, left a lot to be desired on the ice. Balisy, a 2011 Nashville sixth rounder, was signed by the Senators last summer as one of the veterans to come in and round out the roster. Balisy spent the past two seasons in the Florida Panthers’ organization as an alternate captain for the Springfield Thunderbirds. In his time in Springfield, he posted 0.56 PPG. After playing every game for Belleville this year, Balisy finished with 0.29 PPG. There’s no doubt for me that Balisy was an important player on the bench and in the room but the offense that was expected from him did not come through - and he wasn’t particularly strongly defensively either.

The Questions

If you had asked me to predict who I’d be writing about in the heroes section at the start of the season, I would have absolutely included Chlapik in the list. After a strong rookie season where he led the forwards in scoring on a team lacking a lot of talent, I anticipated Chlapik’s  sophomore season to be even better. The good news is it wasn’t worse. The bad news is that it was basically identically. Chlapik scored five more goals but three less assists compared to last year. It’s especially important to keep in mind that Chlapik spent much of the second half of the season on Belleville’s lethal powerplay unit with Brown, Batherson, Paul and a rotating defender. While I wouldn’t count Chlapik in the list of zeroes, the question I have is related to his ability to take the next step. Is he going to be the top-9 impact centre many expect him to be in the NHL? Next year will be a critical season in understanding the answer to that question for me.

The other player I have questions about is Aaron Luchuk. Outside of the scoresheet, Luchuk was a positive contributor for the Senators in his rookie pro campaign. He’s also coming off a completely dominant overage season in the OHL. There were some health concerns at the beginning of the season where Luchuk missed some time with a concussion - I’m sure that played a part of his lacklustre rookie year. I also do subscribe to the theory that was laid out by @SensProspects, Colin and Trevor Shackles in a recent episode of the Cost Per Pointcast where they talk about how Luchuk is the type of player who’s used to being “the guy” and struggled to play in the roles that were given to him as he adjusted to the pro game. I do think Luchuk has the skill to be a good, if not great, forward at the AHL level. There will be some spots opening up with the graduation of Belleville’s top performers next year. I’m curious to see if Luchuk will take advantage of an opportunity to play higher in the lineup in the fall.

Over the next two weeks, we’ll also take a look at the back end, coaching, transactions and how I think Belleville should approach things this offseason.

Keep an eye out and let me know what you’re curious about in the comments!

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