A new year always seems to bring a renewed sense of hope and optimism. Once December ends, the weight of the world lifts – even for just a few weeks – and everything is at least a little brighter. It’s a fresh start, and while mostly symbolic, the power of a mental reset can work wonders. And in Tyler Boucher’s case, that is exactly what he needs.
Although he was a highly-touted prospect coming into the 2021 NHL Draft, it was a massive surprise when the Ottawa Senators selected Boucher 10th overall. Very few analysts saw him as a top-10 pick, and the team was lambasted for the selection, which didn’t grow any quieter during his first season with Boston University. In 17 games, he had just two goals, one assist, a team-low minus-seven, a conference-high 34 penalty minutes – 14 of which came in a single game – and a one-game suspension.
Boucher had been looking forward to this season since he was 15 years old and had officially committed to the university, but in reality, his situation was far from ideal and he was struggling to adapt. That’s when the Senators came asking about whether he’d like to sign an entry-level deal. That, of course, would make him ineligible to play college hockey, something he’d always dreamed of doing. But, after long talks with Ottawa’s general manager Pierre Dorion, as well as his dad and former NHL goalie Brian, he decided that leaving Boston and joining the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Ottawa 67’s would be the best thing for him.
At the semester break, the move became official, with Boucher signing a three-year entry-level deal with the Senators. Although the move was surprising on many levels, Dorion and the Senators are optimistic about the change of scenery. “Every team and every situation can be good,” he said in a press conference announcing the signing. “We’ve had players at the college level who have developed very well. You’ve got to take each situation individually. When you look at a guy like Tyler Boucher, and how he plays the game, playing major junior is probably, fits his type of game more.”
Dorion is probably right on the money. With Boston, Boucher was regularly up against opponents who were three to five years older than him and wasn’t able to use his physicality as much as he had while in the United States National Development Program. In the OHL, however, he’ll be right with players his age and be thrust into a bigger role than he would have had as a college freshman. That will give him opportunities he never would have had in college. With a brand new outlook for the rest of 2021-22, he’ll be doing his best to prove why he was the right pick at 10th overall.
Boucher isn’t the only Senators’ prospect who’s starting the new year off on the right foot. Take a look at how some of the other prospects in Ottawa’s system are faring as we enter 2022.
Canadian Hockey League
Ben Roger shares a lot of similarities with Boucher. He too was an unpopular pick when the Senators 49th overall pick in 2021; he hadn’t played at all in 2020-21 after the OHL shut down operations for the season and he hadn’t shown a lot of high-end potential during his 2019-20 rookie season with the London Knights. He started the season with the London Knights as their assistant captain, but after 18 games, the 6-foot-4 blueliner had just three assists, despite the team’s strong performance. Like Boucher, it was becoming clear that he wasn’t going to thrive with his current team, so the Knights cut a deal with the Kingston Frontenacs for the defensemen in exchange for a couple of draft picks.
With his new team, Roger suddenly looked more at home, putting up two assists in seven games, a pace that would make him the Frontenacs’ third highest-scoring defenceman. That’s impressive for a player who has never projected to be an offensive catalyst. But his strong work ethic, quick stride, and long reach are giving Kingston better chances to win, and he’s being rewarded for it. Since he arrived, the Frontenacs haven’t lost a game and have surged to third place in the league.
Chandler Romeo also found himself on a new team recently, joining the Sarnia Sting after spending this season with the Hamilton Bulldogs, where he put up nine points in 28 games. A seventh-round pick at last year’s draft, expectations weren’t high for the defender, but his 6-foot-5 frame intrigued the Senators enough for them to take a late-round flier. But he’s slowly becoming someone to keep an eye on, especially after he recorded an assist in his first game with his new team. The Sting hasn’t had a strong offence this year outside of their top line, so to see Romeo contributing offensively already is a great sign.
Over in the Western Hockey League, Ridly Greig has continued to be one of the league’s most dominant players, scoring at a 1.47 points-per-game pace. Only St. Louis Blues’ top prospect Jake Neighbours and potential top-five pick Matthew Savoie have scored at a more prolific pace, but Greig dwarfs them in penalty minutes, totalling more than their two totals put together. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to suit up since Dec. 8 after several WHL teams paused operations after numerous COVID outbreaks. With more teams getting cleared to play, though, he’s hopeful he can resume the season before too long.
American Hockey League (AHL)
Just like the NHL’s Senators, it hasn’t been a great season for the Belleville Senators, either. The team currently sits 23rd in the league and last in their division. It hasn’t helped that both the NHL and AHL have been racked with COVID outbreaks, but several key performers from last season haven’t had the same impact in 2021-22. Egor Sokolov, the most loveable prospect in the system, has been firing the puck at every opportunity, leading the team with 68 shots, but has been incredibly unlucky with an 8.8% shooting percentage. The one positive note is that the new year has given him a bit of a boost; in his last four games, he has four points and a 25% shooting percentage.
There’s also optimism in goal, as Mads Sogaard has been one of the best goalies in the AHL this season, posting a 0.914 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against average in 14 games, placing him in the top 16 in both categories. Although he is still splitting time with Kevin Mandolese, he has far superior numbers and has caused some to see him as the future in the Senators’ crease and is on a current projection to follow a similar development path to Tuukka Rask.
Roby Jarventie has started the new year on a hot streak, scoring two goals and six points in the past four games. Similar to Sokolov, he struggled to start the season, with the pair sitting at a measly 6.7% shooting percentage in 2021, but after returning from the Finnish World Junior team, he’s been one of the team’s hottest forwards. Hopefully, he can keep the momentum up and make some big steps in his development, as the Senators need a feisty winger in their top-six, and Jarventie fits the bill pretty well already.
It was hardly a surprise when it was announced that Jake Sanderson would join Team U.S.A. at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. He’s been one of the NCAA’s best players this season, dominating nearly every area of the ice, and quickly becoming one of the NHL’s top defensive prospects. He also was an easy choice for a Hobey Baker nomination, which was unveiled on Jan. 12. Should he win, or even get close, he could be one of the most decorated players in Senators’ history – and he hasn’t even played a game for them yet.
With Boucher’s departure, the Senators only have a few prospects remaining in the college ranks, most of whom are long shots to make the NHL. That can’t be said any longer about Tyler Kleven, however, as the hard-hitting blueliner continues to impress fans while starring with the University of North Dakota. He’s focused on becoming more versatile this year, playing on both the right and left sides as well as working on his powerful shot. So far, the returns have been good, as he was once again a member of the American U20 World Junior team after helping them claim a gold medal last year, and currently sits tied for eighth on the team with four goals in 21 games. The only question remaining on this season is whether he will join Sanderson at the Beijing Olympics in February.
The Senators don’t have many prospects playing in Europe right now, as players like Jarventie and Merilainen transitioned to North America to start the 2021-22 season. The most prominent prospect remaining is likely Oliver Johansson, last year’s third-round pick, who is working his way into a regular spot in Sweden’s top league with Timrå IK. He doesn’t have a goal with the Swedish Hockey League team yet in 12 games this season but has been doing pretty well in their U20 league, scoring 18 points in 17 games.
But more fans are talking about a prospect who’s not even with the Senators yet. Andrei Kuzmenko is a 25-year-old winger playing in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg and is currently sitting second in the league with 53 points in 44 games. He’s drawn some attention from several NHL clubs, but being that he can only sign an entry-level deal, he has to look at factors beyond the money. That’s where Ottawa comes in, as they boast an advantage over the rest of the competition – Kuzmenko’s former teammate, Artyom Zub.
Kuzmenko makes a lot of sense for the Senators. First, the top-six needs a skilled winger to help support Tim Stützle or Shane Pinto on their second line. Connor Brown has had a resurgence this season while alongside Stutzle, but he doesn’t bring the same high-offence style as the Russian youngster. Second, he’s a very low-risk addition; being that he’s 25 years old, he can only sign a one-year entry-level deal before he becomes a free agent. While that could mean that the Senators will have to pay up the following season if Kuzmenko clicks with the team and has a breakout campaign, it also means that if it doesn’t work, the team is no more behind their rebuild than they were previously. Dorion seems confident, too, which makes it seem that this may already be a done deal, but nothing will likely be confirmed for a while.
Prospects to Watch
As mentioned previously, Boucher tops the list as the number one prospect to watch in the coming weeks. He was set to join the 67’s earlier this month, but numerous delays and postponed games throughout the OHL have pushed back his debut to Jan. 14 against the Petes. Expectations are high once again, and if his struggles follow him in Canada, fans likely won’t be as charitable with their commentary as they have been. But so far, all signs are pointing to him finding a much better fit with the team, which will provide the optimal environment for him to excel.
Just a few hours away, Erik Brannstrom will be set to return to the ice for just the second time in 2022 this week as the Senators are set to take on the Calgary Flames on Thursday, Jan 13. He suffered a hand injury on Nov. 11 after blocking a shot and missed the next six weeks recovering. Finally back on the ice on Jan 1, he then had to wait another week and a half as game after game was postponed due to the rising number of COVID cases throughout the league. He had an injury-wracked 2020-21 campaign, too, so he’ll be itching to get back to a regular schedule. With the team still with several players in quarantine, he’ll have a great opportunity to play bigger minutes and show off his skill.
You may also like:
- Senators Sign Tyler Boucher, Changing Development Plan
- 2022 WJC Team USA Player Profile: Jake Sanderson
- Senators Prospects Report – Sanderson Off to a Hot Start
- Senators 2021-22 Prospect Pyramid
- Senators’ Sokolov Needs More Time in the AHL
Despite the team’s struggles, there is a lot of hope for this organization. The young core is looking better each day, and many of their most prominent prospects are developing right on track, if not exceeding expectations. Yes, this season will likely end with another bottom-10 finish, resulting in yet another high pick, but in a couple of seasons, this team could be very difficult to compete with – if they stick to the plan.
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.