It’s no secret that the cupboards are full in Ottawa. With ten selections in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, and a plethora of prospects that came before, there’s no shortage of intriguing prospect stories for fans to overanalyze think about.
With prospect development comes wild uncertainty. Look no further than the Sens own pipeline for easy examples of this. You have a player like Drake Batherson, having seen 120 names called before his in the 2017 draft, become one of the top prospects in Ottawa and, arguably, the league. You have Logan Brown, a towering skilled centre selected 11th overall who, since 2016, hasn’t been able to cement a position for himself in the big leagues. All this is to say, there are surprises everywhere with prospects.
In our recent roundtable discussing the 2020 Top 25 Under 25 List, a question was asked of the staff as to who they believe would be the big surprise this year. Many names were mentioned. Some called on a player like Jake Sanderson to be the big surprise, since there were enough detractors about his offensive game that a season of gaudy numbers would consider him a surprise. A few, myself included, wondered aloud if someone like Lassi Thomson could be the big surprise of the year. Then you have Logan Brown, Rudolfs Balcers and Roby Järventie also getting mentions.
So, without further ado, here are the four players I think have the best chances to be our Sens Prospect Surprise™ this season.
The Comeback Kid
Lassi Thomson, 20
In 2019, the Ottawa Senators selected Lassi Thomson 19th overall at the NHL Entry Draft. After a solid season with the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL that saw Thomson post 41 points in 63 games, a few heads were scratched with this selection. It’s not because Thomson doesn’t have the attributes that make him worthy of a first round selection, it’s the classic tale of most drafts beyond the 10th selection - there were players many fans felt were better choices at 19 than Thomson.
Following his draft year, Thomson returned to Finland to play for Ilves, of the Liiga. Thomson was playing around 15 minutes per night, contributing a bit of offense but having underwhelming defensive numbers. In the middle of the year, Thomson was named the Captain of Team Finland for the World Junior Championships, where he contributed three assists in seven games on the way to an earlier than desired exit from the tournament.
Coming into this season, when it was expected that Thomson would take the next step and establish himself on the Ilves blueline, he did the opposite. He was, on more than one occasion, a healthy scratch and when he was playing, it was in a depth third line capacity. Even the decision for Thomson to head to North America to start his professional career here was called into question.
Ilves reports that Lassi Thomson will be leaving the team and joining the Senators for their upcoming training camp.— Lassi Alanen (@lassialanen) December 14, 2020
Really surprising decision IMO. Thomson has only averaged 11:37 minutes of ice time per game this season and has two points in 18 games. Not NHL-ready. #Sens
Brandon did a great job summarizing the curve for Thomson thus far, so I won’t dig too deep here.
So, why is Thomson a prime candidate for a surprise season? My theory is slightly wild, probably unlikely, but is pretty simple.
Lassi Thomson is built for North American hockey.
The game, no matter where it’s played, is relatively similar. You have to get the rubber circle thing past the big guy with the padding into the square at the other end of the ice. But, there has long been discussion about the difference between the two styles. In Europe, the ice surface is bigger. This isn’t true everywhere, but in many arenas there is more space to play. Because of this, the European game can be seen as more heavily based on skill, rather than physicality.
When Thomson was playing for Kelowna in his draft year, his stats were impressive. If you sort for primary points per game amongst draft eligible defensemen in the WHL that season, Thomson slots in behind only Bowen Byram. Granted, his 0.46 primary points per game is far behind Byram’s 0.70. Beyond that, Thomson led draft eligible defenders in the WHL in EV GF% Rel, meaning Kelowna’s ability to drive goals positively at even strength with Thomson on the ice was better than when he was off the ice. Across all Canadian Major Junior leagues, for draft eligible defensemen, Thomson sits right at the top in many important categories. Players like Thomas Harley and Jordan Spence, both Canadian World Junior defenders, were the only players to join Byram in outproducing Thomson that year - and their stats were barely ahead of Thomson.
All this is to say, when Thomson was playing in North America, he was successful. Does that mean he will be when comes back? Who knows! It’s possible his development curve has just stalled in Finland, either because of his own capabilities or perhaps because of improper deployment and ice time.
Either way, if Thomson can regain the form he had when he was last playing in Canada when he joins the Belleville Senators this year, he’ll be a shoe-in for this very real award that I didn’t just make up now.
The Dark Horse
Vitali Abramov, 22
Vitali Abramov was a key piece in the Matt Duchene trade, coming over from the Columbus Blue Jackets organization to join the high flying BSens. Since joining the Senators, Abramov has done nothing but improve. The slightly undersized Russian winger oozes skill, moves the puck with ease and you’ll be hard pressed to find a player who can out skate him, especially when he’s chasing down a loose puck.
I, of course, wrote about him ad nauseam a while back so, I won’t bore you with the details.
The short of it is that Abramov was one of the most impressive players on the Belleville Senators last season, contributing similar production as players like Brown, Balcers and Alex Formenton, while receiving virtually none of the praise for it.
The reason why I have him as a candidate for surprise of the season is simple: I think, by the end of the year, it’s possible he will have gone from semi-forgotten about prospect to a regular in Ottawa’s top 9.
No matter how you look at it, Abramov produces. Specifically, primary points at even strength. For me, this is a huge indicator of being able to translate offense to the next level because it means Abramov doesn’t require either powerplay time or secondary assists to pad his stats.
If we look past his great season with Belleville last year, Abramov went over to play in Europe this fall and was the offensive catalyst for an otherwise lacking Jukurit team. In his eight games before getting injured, Abramov had compiled five goals and two assists which, to this day, leads the team in points per game.
🔥🇫🇮 Vitaly Abramov scored twice in the 1st period to give him 4 goals through the first 4 periods (plus an OT) of his Liiga career. Heck of a start to his season. #SensInEurope pic.twitter.com/7JtY6YRFwe— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) October 17, 2020
This is the kind of play we really wanted to see from a player heading overseas before the NHL season began. Abramov didn’t just play well, he dominated. If he can bring that swagger and skill back to Ottawa, I think he stands a really good chance of securing a full-time role.
Tyler Kleven, 18
Tyler Kleven is the latest Sens prospects to join the pool of “what were they thinking?!” on draft day but he’s here to silence the haters. Before him came Shane Pinto and Brady Tkachuk. To the point of many detractors, there were many publications that had Kleven ranked far lower than 44th, and for good reason, too.
Kleven’s scouting reports might as well have been copied and pasted from every stereotypical big body defensive defender ever. He’s big, he uses his size, he has a big shot, nobody wants to meet him in the corners, we’ve all heard this before. For Sens fans, in particular, many of the reports on Kleven triggered some underlying trust issues about Ottawa and their ability to draft defenders with similar descriptions.
Ben Harpur came to mind, Jared Cowen popped into our heads, Andreas Englund, how are ya?
To top it all off, the Senators moved two picks to select Kleven. Two picks who, of course, are both having strong World Junior showings for Team Finland and Leafs fans everywhere are thrilled about.
The two biggest knocks on Kleven heading into the draft were his mobility and his defensive decision making. So, in order for him to truly surprise us this year, he’s going to have to show that those two aspects have either been taken care of or he’s working on it.
The reason Kleven is a prime candidate for the 2020 Sens Prospect Surprise™ title is that early showings have indicated that one of the aforementioned knocks might not actually be as big of a deal as was originally thought - either because the scouting reports were wrong or, much more likely, Kleven worked on it this offseason.
Early on with the University of North Dakota (small sample size warning!) Kleven has looked far more mobile than he’s been given credit for. His skating has appeared smooth, his edge work has been strong and he’s definitely gaining the label of “good skater for a big guy” in my eyes.
He also scored this goal. We can’t determine his future based on this one play but, come on, it’s fun to watch.
Given his irregular spot in the lineup for Team USA at the World Juniors, it’s clear there are many areas for improvement for Kleven. All eyes will be on him when he returns to UND, as a solid rookie season in the NCAA is exactly what could propel Kleven to the top of the podium for the incredibly important honour of the Sens Prospect Surprise™.
The Prophecy Fulfiller
Filip Gustavsson, 22
When Filip Gustavsson joined the Senators organization, there was fanfare. After all, Gustavsson was a highly touted goalie prospect: in both the U18 and the World Junior Championships (U20) tournaments, Gustavsson was named the top goalie and Gustavsson’s Swedes took home the silver (U18) and gold (U20) medals. He had solid numbers in the SHL with Luleå and was making his way to North America.
Then, his development appeared to stall. Through 31 games in his rookie season with the BSens, Gustavsson posted 0.887 SV% with a 12-16-3 record. He followed that campaign up with a similar save percentage with a drastically different record of 15-6-3.
All in all, there are some questions about the former highly touted goalie prospect but we have to remember he’s only 22 years old. The best is likely still ahead of him.
Right now, Gustavsson is fourth in line for the starting position in Ottawa to most fans. Fifth, to some. The big surprise needed for Gustavsson is whether or not he can leap Joey Daccord and challenge Marcus Hogberg for playing time behind Matt Murray.
In my Top 25 Under 25 piece on Gustavsson, I noted that the important trend for Gustavsson this past season was improvement. Both his save percentage and goals against average improved drastically in the second half of the season. He then proceeded to head to Sweden this fall and post sparkling numbers with Södertälje SK of HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden’s second tier league. After his first 16 games, he had a 0.922 SV% which fell slightly through his final few games to 0.917 SV% on the season.
For Gustavsson, his path to the Sens Prospect Surprise™ title is straight forward. This season, it is now mandatory that NHL teams carry three goalies, due to health guidelines. This means one of two things. Either Gustavsson is that third goalie or he gets the starting position to Belleville virtually all to himself to kick off the season. Should he end up serving as the backup’s backup in the NHL, he will find himself playing games for the Ottawa Senators as the jam packed schedule will make that a necessity. Should he be relegated to the AHL while Daccord takes the third string spot in Ottawa, he will be the bonafide starter, at least to start the season.
Since he’s already played 19 professional hockey games this year, which is 19 more than anyone he’s competing with for playing time, he’ll have a head start on his competition. This feels like a big opportunity for Gustavsson to make his move.
What say you?
There are strong arguments for any of the above names to win this coveted prize, but there are also others who are just as worthy. I didn’t even get into Brown, Pinto, Järventie or Balcers.
Who do you think will be the most surprising Sens prospect this season - one of my four candidates or a choice of your own?
Who will win the Sens Prospect Surprise™ title for 2021?
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