In maybe the most surprising stat of the season, the Ottawa Senators were not mathematically eliminated from the 2021-22 playoffs until April 6 thanks to the Washington Capitals defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning, which put their current point total higher than the Senators’ best possible record. That made Ottawa’s subsequent three-game losing streak a little easier to bear, which firmly dashed any chance of a late-season push.
The Senators’ influx of prospects has also made the last handful of games worthwhile. Mads Sogaard made his NHL debut on April 1, as well as recording his first NHL win after stopping 27 of the Detroit Red Wings’ 29 shots. He followed it up by a valiant effort a week later against the Winnipeg Jets, where he turned away 21 of 25 shots. Cole Reinhardt also made his NHL debut last week, playing just over eight minutes against the Nashville Predators and recording a shot, two hits, and two penalty minutes. Finally, Mark Kastelic returned to the lineup for the first time since February and has looked right at home on the fourth line.
Having the Senators’ prospects sneak into these games is a great way to get a closer look at how they’re progressing, but it’s not always the best for their development. Rather, players need to be playing in meaningful games to continue growing and improving, and thankfully, many of Ottawa’s best young players are gearing up for a long playoff run, and several more will be joining them once the NHL season comes to a close.
American Hockey League
Before the 2021-22 American Hockey League (AHL) season, the league decided to expand its playoff qualification to 23 teams and restructure its postseason to allow for more players to play in more meaningful games and thus continue their development. That’s great news for the Belleville Senators, who currently sit fifth in the North Division. If the playoffs started today, they would have to play the Syracuse Crunch, which they’ve beaten three times this season, but lost to four times. It’ll be a right race, however, as the Rochester Americans are right on their tale for that last playoff spot.
Thankfully, Belleville will be getting an influx of talent in the coming weeks. Viktor Lodin, a fourth-round pick in 2019, recently joined the team after playing his entire career in Sweden. This season was the first he spent entirely in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), and he put up an impressive 12 goals and 27 points in 44 games for Timrå IK, plus four playoff games where he added one assist to save his team from relegation to the Allsvenskan. Since coming to North America, he’s played just one game and took one penalty, but that’s sure to change, especially if he can do things like this:
It will also be worthwhile to see who the Senators send to the AHL in the coming weeks. Kastelic and Reinhardt have already been returned to Belleville, and Sogaard is likely not far behind them. Parker Kelly is also likely to rejoin Belleville, as he still is waiver exempt, as are Alex Formenton and Erik Brannstrom, and could bolster an already impressive lineup. Though, all eyes will likely be on Jake Sanderson, who signed his entry-level deal with the Senators at the end of March, but has yet to make his NHL debut thanks to a lingering injury that kept him out of most of the 2021-22 NCAA season. He almost certainly will be given some reps in the AHL to help him prepare for next season.
Speaking of the NCAA, Senators’ prospects had surprisingly brief appearances in this season’s playoffs, especially when you consider that the University of North Dakota won back-to-back championships in 2020 and 2021. But without Sanderson to help stabilize the blueline, the Fighting Hawks were upset by Notre Dame. Tyler Kleven, the lone remaining Senators’ prospect on the team, wasn’t much of a factor on the scoresheet, taking three shots that all went wide and blocking one shot. He’s not much of a point-producer, evidenced by his 10 points in 38 games this season, but seven of those were goals, and he’s developed into a competent defensive defender. The Senators wanted to bring him aboard for next season, but he opted to remain in school for his junior year to continue his development.
Of the Senators’ three other college prospects, only Minnesota-Duluth’s Luke Loheit managed to play more than one game, appearing in two before getting eliminated by the eventual champions, the University of Denver. He didn’t put up any points but recorded two shots on net and two blocks. Northeastern University’s Jakov Novak only got in one game before getting sent home, falling to Western Michigan 2-1 after recording one block, and Jonny Tychonick’s University of Nebraska-Omaha failed to qualify for the postseason.
Canadian Hockey League
This season, all eyes have been on 10th-overall selection Tyler Boucher as he transitioned from the NCAA to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) after he signed his NHL entry-level deal in December and joined the Ottawa 67’s. Although he got off to a slow start, he picked up speed as the season went along. With just two games remaining, he sits at seven goals and 14 points in 22 games, including four multi-point games. Translated over a full season, that pace places him around 40 points, good for fourth place on the team and second in goals with nearly 20. With the team locked into a playoff spot, fans will see whether he can help the underdog 67’s upset a powerhouse like the Hamilton Bulldogs or North Bay Battalion.
However, if the 67’s go on a late-season surge, they may end up playing the third-place Kingston Frontenacs, which feature two Senators’ prospects in Ben Roger and Leevi Merilainen. Roger has had a strong season after going in the second round in last season’s draft with 10 points in 34 games after coming over from the London Knights, but it’s been nothing compared to Merilainen, who has quickly become one of the OHL’s best goalies since leaving Finland to come to Canada this season. He currently sits third in wins, 12th in shutouts, and third in games played. Although he sports a .890 save percentage (SV%) and a 3.34 goals-against average (GAA), his first season in North America has been nothing short of incredible and a big reason why the Frontenacs have done so well.
Over out west, Ridly Greig has been an unstoppable force for the Brandon Wheat Kings. In just 39 games, he has 26 goals and 63 points, which is a pace of 1.62 points-per-game; only Logan Stankoven has a higher point-per-game this season, and he currently sits third in league scoring with 102 points. The Wheat Kings will have their work cut out for them against the Red Deer Rebels, who own two of the Western Hockey League’s highest scorers in Arshdeep Bains and Benjamin King, but Sens’ fans have seen what Greig can do, all but guaranteeing it will be a highly entertaining series.
The final few spots in the WHL playoff picture will be an incredibly tight race; in the Western Conference, the ninth-place team is just two points behind sixth, and in the Eastern Conference, four teams are in the running for the final eighth seed. Zack Ostapchuk, the Senators’ second-round pick last year, has been a breakout star for the Vancouver Giants this season. His 24 goals, which lead the team, are a big reason why they currently sit within the playoff picture in sixth place, and with his physicality and grit, the Giants will certainly be a force to be reckoned with. Carson Latimer hasn’t been quite as effective, but he’s helped give the Prince Albert Raiders some depth scoring. Still, they’ll need to leap over both the Calgary Hitmen and Swift Current Broncos to qualify for that last playoff spot in the East.
Ottawa has just a single prospect in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) at the moment, but he’s unlikely to remain there much longer. Philippe Daoust started the season in the AHL and remained there for 15 games before being returned to the Saint John Sea Dogs, where he took off like a rocket. In 29 games, he already has 20 goals and 34 points, making him one of the hottest snipers in Quebec in 2021-22, and helped the Sea Dogs lock down home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
Like the NCAA, few Senators’ prospects remain for the European league playoffs. Oliver Johansson also played on Timra alongside Lodin, but without a contract from the Senators, he returned to the J20 league and played in two games before they were eliminated in the first round. Eric Engstrand, a fifth-round pick in 2020, failed to qualify for the playoffs with the Malmö Redhawks, who finished third-last in the SHL, the lowest spot a team can finish without having to play a relegation series.
Senators’ Eyes Set on Next Season
The Senators don’t have a top-ranked farm system anymore, but that should signal that they are close to finishing their rebuild, as most of their top prospects have graduated to the NHL. Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, and Brady Tkachuk have formed an impressive core up front, while Thomas Chabot will likely soon be joined by Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker. But there are still some pieces missing, and Ottawa is hoping that some of their remaining prospects can come in and fill those gaps. The playoffs often bring out the best in every player, so now is the time for these young stars to break out. Greig and Daoust have already proven to be close to ready for the pro ranks, but others will be watched closely to see if they deserve a call-up or their first contract.
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.