My last article focused on the Ottawa Senators’ young group of goalies. Now, it’s time for the defensemen. Senators fans know by now that young defensemen are difficult to project. At one point, the franchise thought they had a future top-four locked and loaded. It was a group that included Erik Karlsson, David Rundblad, Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch. While three of those guys failed to live up to expectations, Karlsson obviously worked out quite nicely and was then set to be helped out by the likes of Cody Ceci, Mikael Wikstrand, Fredrik Claesson, and Andreas Englund.
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Clearly, becoming a bona fide top-four defenseman is not easy. Let’s take a look at the current prospects that the Senators hope can help their stud blueliner, Thomas Chabot, lead the team back to relevance.
The 20-year-old, undersized Swede was the key piece in the trade that sent Mark Stone to the Vegas Golden Knights. Including the playoffs, Stone has scored 86 points in 90 games for the Knights, playing great two-way hockey. Meanwhile, Brännström has managed just 4 points in 33 games as a Senator, averaging around 15 minutes of ice-time per game. At the NHL level, he was playing on a bad team and seemed to try to play a safe style of hockey, trying avoid the big mistake.
At the AHL level, though, Brännström showed why many are so excited about his future. He scored 23 points in 27 games, playing big minutes and with much more confidence. Brännström, a left-shooting defenseman, does have the ability to play on the right side, but the Senators seem hesitant to try him there. He will never be Karlsson, but with his intelligence and skating ability, the hope is that he can stay healthy, play with confidence, and join Chabot in the Senators’ top four in the near future.
In the 2018 NHL Draft, Ottawa selected Brady Tkachuk fourth overall and then traded pick number 22 to end up with picks 26 and 48. Jacob Bernard-Docker was the player they picked at 26. A relative unknown coming from the AJHL, Bernard-Docker has played the last two seasons at the University of North Dakota. After a good first season, his play took a big step in the right direction in season two as he was a top-pairing defenseman on the number two ranked team in the NCAA. He was also a key defenseman for Canada’s Gold Medal-winning World Junior Team.
While he’s not the most dynamic offensive player nor an overly physical one, Bernard-Docker is a right-shot defenseman that plays a strong two-way game, relying on his intelligence and skating ability. He finished this season with 7 goals and 25 points in 32 games. While some thought he’d done enough at the college level to turn pro next season, he chose to stay at North Dakota as he and his teammates have some unfinished business.
Hopefully Bernard-Docker, being helped by fellow Senators prospect Shane Pinto, can get the job done next year and then start his pro career with the Senators in 2021. With enough growth next season, his path could play out similar to the one Dante Fabbro took, playing three season of college hockey and then going straight to the NHL.
Part of the return for Matt Duchene being sent to Columbus was a 2019 first-round pick. Ottawa used that pick to select Thomson, 19th overall. He is a right-shot defenseman that spent his draft-eligible season playing for Kelowna in the WHL. This season, he made the choice to take a jump up in competition, playing in the Liiga, the top men’s league in Finland. He possesses a big shot and managed to score 7 goals and 13 points in 39 games, battling injuries and the expected inconsistencies of a young player playing against more experienced competition.
He was also captain of Finland’s World Junior Team. His play at that tournament was just okay — at times he tried to do too much and made his share of mistakes. While his defensive game needs work, Thomson shows a high compete level and a willingness to play physical when necessary. Pierre Dorion stated earlier in the year that he expects Thomson to play in North America next season.
With uncertainty regarding the start date for next season, it’s hard to say where Thomson will play. If he’s in North America, it will likely be with Belleville in the AHL to start, with some NHL time later in the season if he’s played well enough.
Wolanin was picked in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL Draft as a 20-year-old out of the USHL. He then went on to play three seasons at the University of North Dakota. His first two seasons were solid. Year three, though, was phenomenal. He scored 35 points in 40 games, leading his team in points. The Senators then signed him to an entry-level deal. His first full season as a pro was a good one; he scored 31 points in 40 AHL games and did not look out of place in 30 NHL games, registering 4 goals and 12 points in over 17 minutes of ice-time per game.
Wolanin was set to compete for a spot in the Senators’ top six this season. Unfortunately, in the lead-up to training camp, he suffered a torn labrum that cost him most of this season. (from ‘On Day One of camp, Christian Wolanin sidelined with shoulder injury,’ Ottawa Sun, 09/13/2019) He played just 12 total games in the AHL and NHL this season, losing out on an important year in his development. The hope is that a fully healthy Wolanin can earn a spot on the Sens next season. He’s a left-shot, offensive-minded player who displayed poise and calmness with the puck. With Chabot and Brännström to compete with on the left side, Wolanin should try to continue to improve in his own zone, using his 6-foot-2 frame to his advantage.
While most would agree on the Senator’s top-four defensive prospects, it becomes tougher after that. There’s Artem Zub, the 24-year-old Russian that used his breakout season in the KHL to earn a one-year contract with the Senators. Christian Jaros and Max Lajoie both spent most of 2018-19 in the NHL, but then proceeded to play most of 2019-20 in the AHL. Jaros plays a physical, defensive-minded game that could help him land a role as a bottom-pairing defenseman. Lajoie’s hot start in the NHL had people believing that he was more of an offensive player than he is.
He needs to work on his defensive game if he wants another chance at the NHL level. Perhaps the least-heralded prospect in the organization is Jonathan Aspirot. His play at the AHL level last season on an AHL contract was good enough to earn him an entry-level deal. He progressed nicely and earned a more important role as the season went on. A dark horse to watch going forward is QMJHL defenseman Max Guenette.
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A seventh-round pick in 2019, his play continued to progress last season for Val d’Or, as he finished fourth in team scoring with 40 points in 62 games. Lastly, selected in the second round in 2018, Jonny Tykonink struggled to become a regular in North Dakota’s lineup. He chose to transfer to Omaha in the hopes of receiving more playing time. (from ‘UND defenseman Jonny Tychonick set to transfer to Omaha,’ Grand Forks Herald, 04/13/2020)
Just like at the goalie position, Pierre Dorion has done a nice job putting together a deep group of young defensemen. They have their game-breaking d-man locked up long term in Chabot. Now, it’s about finding him a suitable partner, as well as enough surrounding talent, so he’s not asked to do too much, like this season when he played over 30 minutes in 11 games, including almost 38 minutes in one game.
Brännström and Wolanin will have a chance to solidify themselves as NHL players next season with Thomson and Bernard-Docker not far behind, and of course, the others mentioned fighting for a spot as well. Having said that, the Senators have seen many of their own young defensemen fail to meet expectations in the past. They will undoubtedly add to this group at the NHL Draft, perhaps even with one of their three first-round picks.