If there is one infallible strategy for success in the NHL, it is building through the draft. The Pittsburgh Penguins used top-10, first-round picks from 2002-2006 to select Ryan Whitney, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal, but also added Maxime Talbot, Alex Goligoski, Tyler Kennedy, and Kristopher Letang with later picks, all of whom were on the 2009 Cup-winning roster. The Chicago Blackhawks applied a similar strategy, drafting Brent Seabrook, Cam Barker, Jack Skille, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane in the first round from 2003-2007, along with Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, Corey Crawford, Dustin Byfuglien, Troy Brouwer, and Nicklas Hjalmarsson in rounds two through seven.
It’s the exact strategy that the Ottawa Senators employed after their catastrophic 2017-18 collapse, and since then, they’ve constructed a fantastic core consisting of Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, and Tim Stützle, and surrounded them with pieces like Nick Paul, Artem Zub, and Colin White. That group is only going to get more talented as the seasons wear on as they’re set to be joined by a whole cohort of talented prospects just waiting to be given a chance to prove they’re NHL ready. However, not all of them will arrive at once, and not all will end up being first-line players, but if Dorion played his cards right, nearly all of them will become valuable members of this team as they search for their very first Stanley Cup.
Ready for Full Time
The Senators continue to profit from their rebuild with five more prospects looking ready to join the team full time this season. While this isn’t a guarantee they’ll make the lineup, as there are always other factors that come into play, there’s no question that these players have proven that they at least deserve a chance this season.
Alex Formenton made a name for himself when he made the Senators out of training camp in 2017-18, just one season after being picked in the second round of the entry draft. He only lasted one game, but his speed and offensive prowess were hard to pass up, even at 19 years old. Now 21, he’s been one of the AHL’s best scorers since he joined the Belleville Senators in 2019-20, finding chemistry with Josh Norris and Drake Batherson to form a deadly top line.
Erik Brannstrom has had a similar rise as Formenton, joining the team via a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2018-29 and proving that he was worth the high price of Mark Stone. In 2019-20, he played 27 games in the AHL and scored an astounding 23 points. The Senators had no choice but to bring him up that season, and although he struggled to adjust to the higher tempo and skill level, it was a valuable learning experience for him. Last season, he already looked exponentially better, scoring 13 points in 30 games while averaging over 16 minutes a game.
Then there’s Logan Brown, who’s been waiting a long time for his chance. Originally drafted 11th overall in 2016, he joined the organization in 2017-18 and has since put up very solid AHL numbers. In 94 games, he’s scored 23 goals and 79 points. However, he’s had a tough time breaking into the NHL; his best season came in 2019-20, when he appeared in 23 games, scored one goal, and added seven assists. Not bad, but not what’s expected of a first-round pick.
However, there’s no question that Brown is ready to take a spot on the Senators. He’s proven all he can at the AHL level, and while he hasn’t been dominant, he’s been incredibly effective as a top-six center. Injuries have slowed his development significantly, and they did so again last season, limiting him to just 13 AHL games and a single NHL appearance, but the Senators have refused to give up on him. While time may be running out for him in Ottawa, he’s only 23 years old and just needs to be given that opportunity.
The one player making that somewhat more difficult is Shane Pinto, who made his NHL debut at the end of last season and was incredible, especially considering he was in college not three weeks before his debut. In his 12 appearances, he wracked up an impressive seven points while finding chemistry with Stützle and Connor Brown on the second line. It’s made him one of the best bets to make the Senators’ roster in 2021-22.
Better yet, Pinto has made a name for himself as a faceoff specialist. Although he finished his NHL stint with a 40.9 percent faceoff win percentage, he was dominant at the NCAA level, finishing his college career second in all-time faceoff win percentage with 61.9 percent with a total of 388 faceoffs won. As the Senators struggled to win faceoffs — only Josh Norris and Nick Paul were above a 50 percent win rate while taking more than 100 draws — they’ll certainly be looking to add someone who can help them improve in that area.
Finally, there’s goalie Filip Gustavsson, who emerged as the Senators’ saviour between the pipes last season when Matt Murray and Joey Daccord were out with injuries. In his first game, he turned away 35 of 36 shots for his first career NHL victory, which he followed up with another victory the next night, turning away 28 of 29 shots. Two games, two wins, two goals allowed. After a performance like that, the Senators were more than happy to keep Gustavsson around and give their more experienced goalies time to heal. In total, he appeared in nine games and posted a team-leading 0.933 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.16 goals-against average (GAA), the best totals of his career outside of any U20 competition.
Gustavsson’s strong performance demonstrated that he is ready to take on a backup role in the NHL, which creates a fantastic problem for the Senators in that they now have too many talented goalies pushing for minutes. After losing Daccord to the Seattle Kraken, journeyman Anton Forsberg is likely the team’s backup heading into camp, but he’ll face tough competition from the younger Gustavsson. There also will be pressure from Mads Sogaard and Kevin Mandolese, but those two aren’t likely to make a strong case for another year or so.
Ready in a Year or Two
The Senators have a ton of prospects who will be fighting for playing time in a season or two, and many of them will be competing for spots in the top six.
Jacob Bernard-Docker is the closest to making the NHL of this next group, as he made his debut last season. However, he didn’t look quite as comfortable as Pinto, which implies that he may need a bit of seasoning before he makes the team full time. He appeared in just five games, going pointless and averaging 13 minutes of ice time, although that did include a 17-minute outing. The former National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s Best Defensive Defenseman isn’t known for his offence, but giving him one season in the minors may help round out his game and give him a bit more confidence.
Lassi Thomson is in a similar boat to Bernard-Docker in that he’ll need a bit more confidence and seasoning before he makes a push for a roster spot. Drafted in the first round of the 2019 Draft, he’s demonstrated top offensive instincts, but had some work to do defensively. Well, after two seasons playing in Finland’s Liiga, he’s made those improvements and looks much more like a future top-four, two-way defender. He only has a partial AHL season under his belt so far, though, and the Senators would likely want him to get a bit more North American experience before they call him up.
Yegor Sokolov has quickly become one of the Senators’ fan favourite prospects for his happy demeanour and inspiring story. Passed over twice in the NHL draft despite big numbers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), Ottawa finally took a swing on him in the second round of the 2020 Draft. He then was assigned to the AHL, where he quickly emerged as the team’s top scorer, putting up 15 goals and 25 points in 35 games as a 20-year-old rookie. Better yet, he seems like a genuinely good person, giving back to his adoptive community of Cape Breton and has a heartwarming bond with his billet family, Kyle and Ashley Ryan, and their daughter Neico, who he treats as a little sister.
Angus Crookshank is another prospect who’s recently gained recognition and looks to be close to making a push for a roster spot. He joined Belleville partway through last season and immediately found chemistry with Sokolov, who helped him explode with 16 points in 19 games, the highest point-per-game rate on the team. Along with 22-year-old center Parker Kelly, they formed a dangerous trio on the top line and were somewhat reminiscent of the Norris-Batherson-Formenton line that dominated the AHL in 2019-20.
Two former Western Hockey League (WHL) players made their AHL debuts at the end of the 2020-21 season and look to factor into the Senators’ short-term plans. Ridly Greig, a 2020 first-round pick, appeared in seven games with the B-Sens after spending four seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings, where he was known for his offensive prowess and in-your-face playstyle. He’ll need to add a bit of weight before he can start doing that at the NHL level, but a season or two in the minors should do the trick. Once he’s ready, he’ll make Ottawa even more frustrating to play against.
Greig joined towering Danish goalie Mads Sogaard, who starred with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers before returning home for the 2020-21 season. He returned to Canada to play in seven AHL games, where he went undefeated and had the highest save percentage of any netminder on the roster at the end of the season. Thanks to his professional experience in Denmark and dominance so far in the AHL, he looks like he’ll be ready for a backup job next season or the one after, although the team’s goaltending depth could make him wait longer than he’d prefer.
But all those players pale in comparison to Jake Sanderson, who is one of the NHL’s top defensive prospects and is being heralded as the future of the Senators’ blue line. In 22 games with the University of North Dakota, the freshman blueliner put up two goals and 15 points and was selected to the NCHC All-Rookie Team and the All-Tournament Team after adding four assists in five playoff games.
If the Senators could have their way, Sanderson would be in the NHL for 2021-22, but unfortunately for Ottawa, he’s committed to another year at North Dakota. The team can afford to be patient, though, as their defence corps is still quite young and needs some seasoning before adding another top prospect into the mix. Still, they likely won’t have to wait that long; he already is showing NHL-level chops and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him leave college after next season or the season after. When he arrives, the Sens’ defence is going to be comparable to the early 2000s, with Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, and Zdeno Chara patrolling the back end.
At this point, it almost feels like an embarrassment of riches; the Senators have plenty more prospects still developing and will try to make the NHL in three or more seasons. The most obvious players in this section are Ottawa’s recent first-round pick Tyler Boucher, who looks to be a Ton Wilson-type player, along with second-round picks Zach Ostapchuk and Ben Roger. All three were somewhat controversial picks, but they all currently look to be on the right track to the NHL. However, with Boucher committed to Boston University and both Roger and Ostapchuk still developing in junior, they’ll have to be patient with them.
Roby Jarventie, also somewhat of a controversial second-round pick in last year’s entry draft, will also be a long-term addition to the Senators. He started the 2020-21 season as one of the league’s hottest prospects, putting up nearly point-per-game numbers in Finland’s Liiga. While he eventually slowed down, finishing the season with 25 points in 48 games, it still prompted Ottawa to bring him to North America to finish the season in the AHL. He was equally as impressive, scoring two goals and an assist in four games. The 6-foot-3 winger still needs to add strength and round out his game, but there is already a lot to like about his skill.
Goalies Kevin Mandolese and Leevi Merilainen round out the Senators’ goaltending depth and likely won’t be ready for the professional ranks for at least three seasons. Mandolese made his AHL debut this past season, but only appeared in nine games and had a 0.888 SV%. With Forsberg, Gustavsson, and Sogaard ahead of him, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him start in the ECHL in 2021-22 to ensure he gets more minutes. Merilainen, an off-the-board, third-round pick in 2020, put up great numbers in Finland’s U20 league in 2020-21 including three straight shutouts to start the season. He’ll join the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Kingston Frontenacs next season and if all goes well, he’ll remain there for a couple of seasons before making his way to Belleville.
The last two prospects of note are defencemen Johnny Tychonik, a 2018 second-round pick, and Tyler Kleven, a 2020 pick also taken in the second round. The former transferred out of North Dakota to play with the University of Nebraska-Omaha last season and expectedly struggled without the support of Bernard-Docker and Pinto. He’ll finish his college career before the Senators make any commitments to him, but at this point, he’ll need to make some big improvements to solidify his place with the Senator’s deepening defence corps.
Kleven, who made his NCAA debut with North Dakota, had a promising start to his time in college. His offensive ceiling is all but non-existent, and it didn’t sit well with some fans that the Senators traded up to select him, despite the fact he was projected to be taken in the third-round. But there’s no question he’s effective at throwing big hits and using his size and physicality to affect the pace of the game.
Sure, the Senators don’t have the deepest prospect pool, nor the most skilled, but that doesn’t seem to be Dorion’s or head scout Trent Mann’s plan. Instead, they want to build a well-rounded team that has its high-skill players but is also tough-as-nails and is incredibly frustrating to play against on both ends of the ice. So far, they’ve got exactly that, and if the end of the 2020-21 season was any indication, they are not that far away from becoming a playoff team. The Senators have nearly all the pieces in place; the only thing left to do is wait.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.