The playoffs are upon us and already history has been made. The Tampa Bay Lightning have become the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to be swept in the first round. The Pittsburgh Penguins were also swept in the first round, an unprecedented exit for the usually dominant playoff team. The conference semifinals are still far from over, and already it’s been the most exciting playoffs in recent memory.
But the NHL is not the only hockey league currently in the thick of playoffs. All across North America, junior leagues are wrapped up in their race for their own championships. For the Ottawa Senators, these races are incredibly important for judging the future of their prized prospects. A strong performance could result in an entry-level deal, while a lackluster showing could spell the end of a player’s time with the organization.
Ontario Hockey League
Surprisingly, the Senators have very few prospects floating around the local junior league. Even stranger is that in the past five years, Ottawa has only selected two players from the OHL. With Logan Brown joining the Belleville Senators this season, that left a single OHL prospect in the Senators’ system – Alex Formenton. Oh, but what a prospect.
Last season was one of Formenton’s best: he scored 29 goals, put up a point per game in the OHL, appeared on Canada’s U-20 World Junior team, and made his AHL and NHL debuts. This season, however, was more challenging. After playing nine games with Ottawa in October, he was returned to his junior team, the London Knights, where he suffered a “freaky knee injury” that cost him a place on the 2019 Canada World Junior team, along with two months of playing time (from ”Back soon’: Alex Formenton closes in on injury return for London Knights’, The London Free Press – 22/1/19). That injury left Formenton with a mere 31 games in London.
However, in his brief time with the team, Formenton put up 13 goals and 34 points, helping his team secure the top seed in the Western Conference. In the first round, the Knights swept Michael DiPietro and the Windsor Spitfires, and Formenton was one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the series, scoring twice and adding nine assists. With that momentum, the Knights came out flying in their second-round matchup against the Guelph Storm, winning the first three games and outscoring their opponents 17-4.
But the Storm surged back, winning the next four games to eliminate the powerful Knights. As the OHL prepares for the semifinals, Formenton sits fourth in playoff scoring with 18 points, and second among all Knights. The speedy forward looks ready to compete for a spot on the Senators next fall.
Western Hockey League
The WHL has produced solid, underrated players for the Senators, like Max Lajoie (Swift Current Broncos) and Rudolfs Balcers (Kamloops Blazers). This season, the Sens may be getting another future addition in Parker Kelly of the Prince Albert Raiders.
An undrafted signee, Kelly was invited to the Senators 2017-18 annual development camp after he more than doubled his rookie totals with the Raiders. Although 43 points is a low total in junior for a forward prospect, he impressed management enough for them to offer him an entry-level deal. It’s a good thing the Sens struck when they did – the following season, Kelly increased his point total again, scoring 59 points in 69 games, 29 of which were goals, while also being named alternate captain. This season, he’s done it again, scoring 67 points and 35 goals, good enough for fourth in team points and third in team goals on the strongest team in the WHL.
In the playoffs, Kelly has been a vital piece for the Western powerhouse, scoring four goals and seven points while the Raiders sent home the Red Deer Rebels in four games, and the Saskatoon Blades in six. The Raiders now prepare to face-off against the Edmonton Oil Kings, who are coming off a second-round sweep of the Calgary Hitmen. The two teams have faced-off four times this season, with the Raiders taking every contest.
One other Senators’ prospect played in the WHL Playoffs this season. Jordan Hollet, a sixth-round selection in 2017, had been the Medicine Hat Tigers’ starting goalie until the arrival of 2019 top prospect Mads Sogaard. In their opening round series against the Oil Kings, Sogaard played all six games. As Hollett is still unsigned, his future with the Senators is looking shaky.
Quebec Major Junior
Kevin Mandolese was the sole QMJHL prospect for the Senators in the playoffs this season. A 2018 sixth-round pick, he backstopped the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles to round two before falling in five games to Alexis Lafreniere and the Rimouski Oceanic. The young netminder ended his playoffs with a 2.53 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in 11 games, a big improvement on his regular season totals. That’s a promising trend. Still only 18, the Sens will take their time with the 6-foot-4 Mandolese.
The Senators have heavily favored the college ranks in the draft as of late. In 2018, seven of their eight picks were either playing NCAA hockey, or committed to joining a team within a year. Despite the plethora of talent, only goaltender Joey Daccord, a 2015 seventh-round pick, played any games in the Frozen Four tournament. He made 36 saves for Arizona State, but lost 2-1 loss to Quinnipiac in the opening round.
Once defeated, he managed to sneak into one game for the Senators, playing the full 60 minutes and allowing five goals to the Buffalo Sabres. With either Marcus Hogberg or Filip Gustavsson likely joining the Sens as backup next season, Daccord is an early favourite to fight the other for starting duties in Belleville.
Luke Loheit, a 2018 seventh-round selection and Minnesota-Duluth commit, played five games in the BCHL Playoffs with the Penticton Vees. He went pointless before his team was eliminated by the Cowichan Valley Capitals. The Sens will wait to see how Loheit fares in college before they make any assessments.
With many of the Senators’ college prospects failing to make the NCAA tournament, precious few players in Ottawa’s system were able to suit up for playoff hockey. However, Formenton, Kelly, and Daccord look to have greatly benefited from their participation in the postseason, and will undoubtedly aim to translate it to professional success.