Weekly Question: What to do with all this time off?

With the NHL season going into October and the AHL season tentatively returning in December, what decisions are on the table for the Senators brass in handling prospect development?

I know what you’re thinking. The NHL playoffs are underway, Connor McDavid is doing ridiculous things again, and the Carolina Hurricanes are back to their sassy selves on Twitter. So, what kind of whacko is thinking about AHL hockey right now?

Me, I’m that kind of whacko.

At the end of July, the AHL announced their plan to return to play on December 4th, 2020.

We don’t know much about the finer details of this plan, and just like the NHL’s plans, they’re going to be subject to change. One of the key differences for the AHL returning to play is the league’s perceived inability to return without fans. More specifically, without ticket revenue from fans. Unlike the NHL, the American Hockey League won’t be able to rely as heavily on television ad revenue to make running the league financially feasible. I’m not saying it would be impossible for the AHL to return without fans - it would just be far more difficult.

With some leagues kicking off in Europe and 24 NHL teams getting deeper into this strange summer playoff reality, what do the Ottawa Senators do with all this time off?

The Tentative Timeline

As reported by Elliotte Friedman and many others earlier this summer, we’re expecting the NHL to kick off the 2020-21 season in December.

With this, and the AHL start of December 4th in mind, there are a few avenues the Senators could be exploring to ensure they’re providing ample opportunity for prospect development between now and November.

Extended Development Camps

A proposal has been submitted by the General Managers of the seven non-playoff teams for extended training camps to make up for the lack of practice time over the next five months.

With the tentative start of training camps on November 17th, these seven GMs are fighting for an additional few weeks tacked on to the beginning of training camp, before the current playoff/play-in teams are allowed to officially get together. This idea is far from the forefront of the NHL’s list of problems right now, so I wouldn’t expect anything to come from this proposal in the near future.

According to the above report from The Athletic, one thing we can rule out is any kind of minicamp involving NHL players earlier than November. That’s not surprising, as most established NHLers wouldn’t be expected to attend a camp throughout the offseason in a regular year, so why would they in this particular offseason?

That being said, I’d love to see teams like the Senators attempt to still hold some kind of rookie tournament, as they would in a normal year, in September. If you’ll recall back to last year, which feels like a decade ago at this point, the Senators prospects battled the young studs from Winnipeg and Montreal at CAA Arena in Belleville in a weekend tournament. Under normal circumstances, this is the prospects first opportunity to start fresh and gain the attention of the coaching staff and NHL brass for their respective clubs.

The unfortunate reality we live in today is this kind of tournament would require extensive planning around travel and health and safety concerns. Not to mention, any player who currently reside outside of Canada would have trouble getting into the country - at least more so than usual. So, while I’d love to see it, it doesn’t feel overly possible at this stage of the global pandemic.

A Growing International Trend

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a few organizations begin the process of loaning their prospects to teams in Europe. With COVID-19 being more under control across the pond than it is in North America, a number of leagues are already hitting the ice and playing competitive hockey. In the KHL, for example, preseason has already started.

One team that’s leading the charge in player loans is the Detroit Red Wings, a franchise in a similar position to our Senators. The Wings have already loaned, or are rumoured to be loaning, Filip Hronek, Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno to various teams in the Czech Extraliga.

KalPa of the Liiga has also announced they’ve received Montreal Canadiens prospect Otto Leskinen on loan while the Toronto Maple Leafs have done the same with newly signed defender Mikko Lehtonen.

For the Senators, there are two things to consider here.

First and foremost, who would you considering sending? For me, you’re looking at the top players vying for an NHL roster spot. For these transactions, there’s a clause that will enable you to retrieve your star prospects in November when NHL camps open again. With that in mind, it sounds like a great idea to have players like Drake Batherson, Logan Brown and Erik Brannstrom getting into game shape before the season starts.

The second consideration is the risk. The obvious risk that comes to mind is that of injury - especially for a guy like Brown who has an extensive history of missing time. However, I don’t find injury to be as great of a risk as burnout. All indications are that the NHL intends to have a full, 82 game season next year. If you send someone like Batherson who, in my opinion, is a lock for a full-time role in 2021, and he plays something like 15 games for a Czech professional team before coming over to start a full NHL season, you’re risking some serious burnout by the time the Senators hit the 60th game of the season.

At a high level, it seems like a fantastic idea to get your top prospects playing in real game situations to prepare them for next season, especially considering the fact that the Senators roster and prospect pipeline is about halfway through a nine month stint without a single competitive, professional hockey game. It would also be pretty great for the confidence level of some of these prospects. While leagues in Europe are filled with quality players, a player of Batherson’s calibre could likely produce at a point per game clip, maybe better, in some of these leagues. Returning to the NHL with that kind of experience and production under his belt would be great for his game.

In The Mean Time

When you consider the risk of loaning players overseas and the complications of any kind of league or team sanctioned camps prior to November, it doesn’t feel like there is much the Senators can officially do for their Belleville roster between now and American Thanksgiving.

The good news is we’ve already seen a few players hit the ice with smaller groups on their own time, including Batherson.

While we’d all love to see more official activity from the Senators in this seemingly endless offseason, it doesn’t feel like there’s much to worry about. If we put our optimists hat on, there might even be an advantage to having this much time off the ice. Sure, they might be a little rusty after having upwards of nine months off. On the other hand, they also won’t have to deal with the quick recovery times of at least four teams who will only have six to eight weeks between finishing their playoff run and kicking off training camp.

If the NHL, NHLPA and these seven teams can pull off an extended training camp, that will be more than enough time to catch up and ensure both Senators clubs are ready for 2020-21.

As it specifically relates to loaning players to Europe, I’d love to hear your opinions! Should the Senators follow Detroit’s lead and send some prospects overseas for a few months of gameplay? Let’s hear your take in the comments!

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