The Future on the Right Side
This Wednesday’s long form focuses on the right side of the blueline. What could it possibly look like and how soon?
When we talk about the future of the Ottawa Senators, there are a number of positions where options abound. At centre, Josh Norris has solidified himself as a top six centre while Shane Pinto and Ridly Greig appear to be knocking on the door. On the left side, Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle and Alex Formenton are a formidable top three. Stützle, of course, could be an option down the middle in the future as well. On the right, things are a little lighter with young stars today as Drake Batherson is the only bonafide NHL winger under the age of 24 but Egor Sokolov and Tyler Boucher could be in that group sooner rather than later. And, for now, Connor Brown is doing a fine job while we wait for others to surpass him.
In net, it feels like there’s a new top goaltender added to the pipeline every year, with Mads Søgaard, Kevin Mandolese, Filip Gustavsson and Leevi Meriläinen fighting for that future starting spot.
On the blueline, the spotlight is always on the left side. After Thomas Chabot, the Sens have an abundance of riches in a variety of forms. Erik Brännström and Victor Mete are both NHL ready left shot defenders, with excellent skating and transition games. Then we have the long awaited arrival of Jake Sanderson - a defender some high profile prospect writers have touted as one of he best defensive prospects not currently in the NHL. Of course, the guys over at the Locked On Senators podcast will probably hop into my DMs if I don’t also include Tyler Kleven as an option down the left side for the future.
Today’s topic is inspired by what I deemed to be a standout performance of right shot defenders in Saturday’s rookie game. There was plenty to like but the fact that some of the best, most impactful skaters in my eyes were right handed rearguards should have us intrigued.
So, that brings us to this: what do the Senators have in the way of prospects to compliment what appears to be the makings of a dynamic left side for the future?
When we think about a potential top pairing partner for either Chabot or Sanderson, Jacob Bernard-Docker is always the player who comes up first. A graduate of North Dakota’s top tier hockey program, JBD stepped in the NHL following his third year in the NCAA for a total of five games at the end of last season. Getting a taste for the NHL game was certainly beneficial for the Canmore native but, unsurprisingly, the minutes he played were quite sheltered and infrequent.
While JBD has put up his fair share of points, the majority of his attributes don’t jump off the scoresheet like some of his peers. He’s got a good shot but doesn’t use it as much as you’d like. Where he excels is his defensive positioning and transition game. It’s been rare, so far, to catch Bernard-Docker out of position, which is why he was a workhorse for both UND and Team Canada at the World Junior’s - logging a ton of minutes against the best players on the ice.
At the beginning of the month, The Athletics’ Corey Pronman ranked Ottawa’s U23 pipeline second in the entire NHL, behind the notorious lottery pickers in Buffalo. In this piece, Pronman ranked JBD 8th in Ottawa’s pipeline, sandwiched between Brännström and Egor Sokolov. In his write-up, Pronman notes he’s likely to project as a middle of the line-up player who lacks flash and finish but excels defensively, playing a prominent role on the penalty kill and as a defensive zone specialist.
This past season in the NCAA, Bernard-Docker had a modest 18 points in 27 games but what’s most impressive was what the University of North Dakota was able to accomplish with him on the ice. At even strength, UND scored 30 goals with JBD present, while allowing only 15 (EV GF 66.67%). As a player who’s estimated to play over 21 minutes per game, in all situations, it’s quite impressive that UND was able to score so consistently at even strength with JBD on the ice.
JBD’s profile screams complimentary partner. Whether it’s Chabot or Sanderson leading the charge in two or three seasons, JBD’s development will be key in the Sens shaping a blueline that can not only compete for a playoff spot but make some noise once they’re in.
Best suited to start 2021-22 in Belleville, I’d expect JBD to be an easy first or second call up, should the Sens require reinforcements on the right side.
Lassi Thomson is a name that has slipped a few minds since he was drafted 19th overall in 2019. The right shot son of Tampere, Finland spent a few forgettable seasons in Finland’s top league before coming back to North America to pursue his NHL dream this past season.
There were many ready to write Thomson off, including a few prominent Finnish hockey outlets, but his return to North America put to rest a theory I had: Thomson’s game is just suited for the style played west of the Atlantic. If I had to venture a guess, I think having the amount of time and space you have in European rinks can lead some players to get too comfortable and make mistakes, thinking they have more space than they do. Based on the night and day difference between his contirbutions in SM-Liiga and the AHL, there’s a very realistic theory that says Thomson plays better under pressure and with less space.
Both Troy Mann and DJ Smith have had positive things to say about Thomson, most recently in a Q&A with the wonderful Ian Mendes, Mann had this to say about Thomson:
“I think in Lassi’s case, he may not be the flash-and-dash type defenceman, but from our coaching perspective, he plays hard, skates well and competes. He’ll battle out in front of the net and boxes out very well. And that’s why I think he’ll play at the National Hockey League level at some point.” - Troy Mann, September 16th, 2021
Mann also put some words in DJ Smith’s mouth in the same answer, giving us insight into how the NHL and AHL bench bosses communicate about Belleville’s top players.
“I remember D.J. (Smith) coming to some of our games towards the end of the season and he phoned me afterwards to say that he thought Thomson was our best defenceman. So I think D.J. is really excited to see the progression of Thomson here at this rookie camp and then main camp later this month.” - Troy Mann, September 16th, 2021
For the full piece, Mendes alone is worth the price of admission to The Athletic. You can find it here.
I think it’s clear that we’ll see Thomson at the NHL level at some point, possibly as early as this coming season in the form of an injury replacement. Another strong season or two under Mann, however, and we could be looking at a prospect redemption story for the ages.
Maxence Guénette is perhaps the most intriguing option on the right side because he’s newer to us as a prospect. Unlike players like JBD and Thomson, all we have for Guénette is some solid numbers in the QMJHL. As we know from experience, it’s tough to evaluate what exactly that means and how it will translate until we see him suit up in a professional league.
Guénette spent four full seasons with Val-d’Or, serving as the alternate captain for the final two, and was a solid contributor in the offensive zone. In fact, his advanced stats were nothing short of impressive.
Maxence Guenette was one of the best defenseman in the Q last season, notably leading the league in breakouts and successful zone exits passes. #Sens pic.twitter.com/kB4puq8gs3— Andy Lehoux (@Andylehoux1) September 17, 2021
The only area where Guénette struggled was turnovers. As an offensive minded defender, that’s no surprise, but this will be an area that he and Coach Mann will have to work on in Belleville over the next few seasons in order to see Guénette live out his dreams of making it to the NHL.
The fact a player who was drafted just two years ago 187th overall can be included in a conversation about the future of an NHL blueline already should give fans something to be excited about. He also has a unique profile, compared to Thomson and JBD, as he likely grades out higher than both in his offensive game. We could be looking at a player who plays sheltered minutes in the NHL while contributing on the powerplay, given his success in that department.
If you’re keeping score, we have a good defender, a good two-way player and, now, a good offensive defender in the pipeline on the right side. This will be a good array of options as we carefully watch the development of these three players.
Ben Roger is the wildcard, the darkhorse, the question mark. Ottawa’s amateur scouting department has grown a reputation for going against the popular opinion at the draft table. From the initial reactions to Brady Tkachuk and Shane Pinto, it’s spiralled even further with the Sens surprising the scouting world with Tyler Boucher in the first round of the 2021 draft.
One of possibly the most surprising selections Ottawa has made to date was Ben Rogers, who was selected 49th overall. The surprise comes partially because of his public rankings but mostly because he didn’t really play hockey last season with the OHL missing the entire year. So not only was his consensus ranking far from 49th, his development over the past year consists entirely of practices and dry land training.
In the Elite Prospects Draft Guide, the review wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. It wasn’t negative, but it’s not something you look to do in the second round.
“You know what he will give you on every shift — defence. There is value in that, but probably not enough for him to feature on our board. He is mobile, but not mobile enough to become an aggressive neutral-zone defender. He defends approaching attackers with too many crossovers and his swaying movement exposes him to angles. As he keeps a looser or more passive gap, however, he can generally avoid conceiving the slot.”
His video and stats all seem to say the same thing. Roger will be present, he’s big, he’ll box players out and he’ll defend well enough. But, that’s about it. Now, as is noted by the team at Elite Prospects, there’s value in that! If Roger can do what he’s done at the OHL level at the NHL level in the future, you’re looking at a big, defensive defenseman who you can put out on your third pairing, possibly on the penalty kill, and trust that the other team is unlikely to score with him out there.
In his games in the rookie showcase last weekend, I thought Rogers looked pretty solid. He skates well enough for someone of his size and he didn’t make any blatant mistakes - something that, for me, can be far more important for a defender than making highlight reel players.
I’m not ready to say Roger has a future in the NHL just yet but a strong year in London could change that.
One thing we always have to keep in mind with prospects is which players will live up to the hype, which will fall short and, the most exciting part, who will exceed expectations?
I think it’s safe, at this point, to call Bernard-Docker a future top four defender while Thomson should also be pencilled into the NHL in some capacity. Guénette has some work to do in his own zone to get there but there are few better people to learn that from then Belleville’s coaching staff. Roger is a wild card, but worth noting.
Let’s assume both Bernard-Docker and Thomson can make a case for the NHL in the near future. It’s possible the Sens can put together a blueline where Chabot, Sanderson, Bernard-Docker, and Zub are the top four. On the third pairing, it’s possible Brännström sticks around long enough to cement himself a role but, typically, bottom pairings in the NHL are the bigger, grittier types. I do think it’s more realistic that we see something like Kleven and Thomson on that third pair. That being said, with a defensive workhorse like Sanderson likely commanding top pairing minutes, it’s possible an offensive specialist like Brännström can carve a role out.
Either way, I’m of the opinion that many are sleeping on the future of the right side for Ottawa. Yes, today it doesn’t look great but if JBD and Thomson live up to or exceed their development projections and Zub continues to be as excellent as he was in his rookie season, the Sens could be looking at an incredible top six on the back end - an amount of talent this franchise has, honestly, never seen all at once.