The Ottawa Senators’ rebuild is in full swing in 2019-20. The team sits bottom-five in the NHL and only just above the Detroit Red Wings in the Metropolitan Division. While that’s good news for their odds in the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes, it’s no doubt difficult for the players who have to suffer the losing streaks, especially when all their star talent has been traded away. Thankfully, the returns already appear to be worth the steep cost.
November was a good month across the board for Senators’ prospects, from the American Hockey League to the NCAA. The franchise’s top prospects have been on fire lately, with the large majority scoring at over a point-per-game pace. So, with over a quarter of the season completed, it’s time to take a closer look at how they’re doing, as well as any surprises. However, don’t expect to see too many of these players that soon; the Senators are playing the long game right now, allowing their players to develop at their own paces. Hopefully, it will result in success in the future.
So far, nine rookies have skated with the Senators this season, with four playing regular minutes. Erik Brannstrom, the team’s top prospect, leads the pack with 23 games played but has sadly struggled to find consistency, registering just two assists in that time, and none since Nov. 15. Some have called for him to be sent down to the AHL to regain his confidence and form, but he has remained in the NHL, regularly playing on the third pairing with Dylan Demelo, registering roughly 14 minutes a game, one of the lowest defensive totals on the team.
It didn’t help that Brannstrom was suddenly out of the lineup with a reported thumb injury sustained in practice. It’s possible that his struggles could be attributed to an unaddressed injury, and Coach DJ Smith still has confidence in the young defender, so no one is panicking yet. However, his ice time is steadily decreasing. In the past three games, he’s averaged 12:44 per game and was scratched on Dec. 4, whereas he was regularly playing over 15 minutes before his injury.
On the flip side, Logan Brown has looked very confident. After getting a call-up on Oct. 23, the 2016 first-round pick made a strong case that he deserved to be on the team this year. In three games, Brown notched an assist and averaged 14 minutes per game, but in his fourth game, he went down with an upper body injury. It was a big blow to the young forward, who had overcome a disappointing camp to earn a spot back in the NHL. Thankfully, Brown returned six games later and continued on as if he hadn’t missed a beat. He now leads all Senators’ rookies with six points in 14 games.
Brown has been especially good in November. In the past eight games, he has four points, including his first NHL goal, although he was scratched on Nov. 30 against the Calgary Flames. He’s also looked far more confident on the ice, driving the offense at just 21 years old, a good sign for things to come if he can remain healthy. Smith has rewarded him with increased ice time and a regular spot in the top-six. However, if the team continues their recent four-game losing streak, it’s possible Brown could return to the minors and continue his development there.
Aside from Brown and Brannstrom, Filip Chlapik and J.C. Beaudin have also been regulars. Chlapik, who had two seasons under his belt prior to this season, has found himself used frequently on the bottom six, where he’s scored two goals and added three assists over 18 games while averaging just over eight minutes a night. While not the Senators’ biggest prospect, he’s continued to develop and become an important part of the rebuild. However, with the return of Vladislav Namestnikov, he was was sent back down to the minors on Dec. 4.
Beaudin, on the other hand, is in his first NHL campaign after spending a full season in the AHL. He arrived in Ottawa from the Colorado Avalanche, who selected him in the third round of the 2015 Entry Draft, in a minor deal last February. While possessing a good scoring touch, he’s only collected a single assist despite playing 15 games this season so far. That being said, he hasn’t been sent down since his call-up in late October, so he could still become a useful depth scoring option in the future.
After a slow start to the 2019-20 season, the Belleville Senators have gone on a tear, winning ten of their fourteen games in November, including a five-game win streak to close out the month. An important piece to that run has been right winger Drake Batherson, who leads the AHL in scoring with 28 points, 18 of which came in November. He made his NHL debut last season, playing 20 games before returning to Belleville and leading the team in scoring with 62 points over 59 games. It was expected he’d make the NHL full-time in 2019-20, but after a rough training camp, he returned to the AHL after just two games in the NHL.
With Bobby Ryan’s recent departure to the NHL/NHLPA assistance program, it seems more likely that Batherson could get a call-up in the near future. However, there’s no rush to recall him, since keeping the forward in the minors could be more beneficial for the long-term future. The Senators have dropped four straight to end November, while Belleville has ended the month as one of the AHL’s hottest teams. Playing a key role should only benefit Batherson, who was ranked as the organization’s second-best prospect by The Hockey Writers in September.
Batherson’s linemates have also experienced an explosive November. Center Josh Norris, the key piece in the Erik Karlsson trade last Fall, has scored 12 points over the month, while Vitaly Abramov, who arrived from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Matt Duchene trade, has scored 14 points. Norris especially has found good chemistry with Batherson and is enjoying a very productive rookie season after finishing his college career at the University of Michigan last season. He sits second in scoring in Belleville with 18 points and could get a few cups of coffee with the Senators, but will likely spend the majority of his time adjusting to the professional game.
A concussion kept Abramov from making the Senators’ opening night roster, but was recalled early in the 2019-20 season, scoring in his first game with the big club. However, the arrival of Vladislav Namestnikov forced him back to the minors after two games. While Abramov is on the small side at just 5-foot-9, he makes up for it with blinding speed. He may have been ranked outside the top-ten to begin the season, but after scoring 17 points in 18 games in the AHL, he’s rapidly ascended the ranks, making a good case for being among the top-five.
Related : Ottawa Senators’ Prospect Pyramid
Other players in the AHL worth mentioning are Alex Formenton, who’s been equally hot in November, scoring 12 points in 14 games, and Rudolfs Balcers. Although he spent nearly half his time in the NHL last season, the Latvian is back in the minors and scoring like crazy. In just eight games, he has 12 points already. It’s likely he makes the NHL as a depth scoring option, but right now, he’s one of the best scorers on the AHL team.
Canadian Hockey League
Although their first-round pick in 2019, Lassi Thomson, played in the Western Hockey League last season, he returned to Finland in 2019-20, leaving just five prospects in the CHL for the Senators. The biggest name – and biggest frame – is Mads Sogaard, who plays for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL.
The 6-foot-7 goaltender was picked early in the second round of the 2019 draft and instantly became one of the team’s top prospects. However, he struggled early in the season, recording just a 0.907 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.71 goals-against average (GAA) so far. That’s opened the door for rookie Gavin Bjorklund, who’s won three of his four games in November. Sogaard is heating up, though, winning five of his eight starts last month.
Also in the WHL is Mark Kastelic, who currently leads the Calgary Hitmen with 16 goals and 25 points. He’s been on an absolute tear in November, too, scoring 14 points in 12 games. The 20-year-old led the team last year as well, scoring 47 goals and 77 points, as well as recording 122 penalty minutes. The performance prompted the Senators to use a fifth-round pick on the over-ager last June. It’s unlikely he’ll make much of an impact at the professional level, but Kastelic has an incredible work ethic despite lacking the raw skill of other snipers and could become a bottom-six energy forward.
Across the continent, the Senators have been keeping a close eye on their fourth-round pick from 2018, Jonathan Gruden. He signed an entry-level contract in 2019 after a successful freshman campaign at Miami University (Ohio), but as that made him ineligible to continue in the NCAA, he signed with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights for the 2019-20 season.
After 22 games, he has 28 points, including a 15-point November, and sits behind only Washington Capitals prospect Connor McMichael in scoring on the Knights. Along with Liam Foudy, McMichael and Gruden have formed one of the most dangerous lines in the OHL this season, combining for 110 points so far.
The Senators currently have two prospects in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Defenseman Maxence Guenette got off to a hot start this year with the Val-d’Or Foreurs, scoring nine points in his first 14 games. However, he’s slowed down a bit lately, adding just eight points in November. Goaltender Kevin Mandolese has just eleven starts with the Cape Breton Eagles this year, none of which came in November. He hasn’t looked great in his few appearances, either, posting a 2.84 GAA and a 0.905 SV%.
When Jacob Bernard-Docker was drafted 26th overall in 2018, it seemed like a bit of a reach. The International Scouting Service ranked him 25th overall, but the consensus had him as a second-round selection. It was a low risk, medium reward selection, but with Joe Veleno and Rasmus Sandin still on the board, it seemed as though it could cost the team in the future. But Bernard-Docker has defied the odds this season. In his second season at the University of North Dakota (UND), the defenseman is second in team scoring with 14 points in 15 games, with five in the past three games alone.
With Bernard-Docker, the UND Fighting Hawks have surged to first place in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC). They ended November unbeaten in 11 contests, and have lost just once in regulation this season. Helping the Fighting Hawks are another pair of Senators’ prospects. Shane Pinto is in his freshman campaign after getting drafted early in the second round in 2019, and already has six goals on the season, four of which he scored in the last five games. Jonny Tychonick, a defenseman who was selected in the second round in 2018, is in his sophomore campaign and has seven points in ten games this season.
Elsewhere in the NCAA, Jakov Novak and Christopher Wilkie are also putting up solid seasons. Novak, a sophomore at Bentley University, leads the team with nine goals and 16 points. Drafted in the seventh round in 2018, he’ll hopefully play a big role on a team that is sorely lacking top talent. Wilkie is a few years older, a 2015 draftee of the Florida Panthers, but the Senators acquired him this past October for Jack Rodewald. He’s been the best player for Colorado College this season, scoring five goals and 11 points in ten games to lead the team. He’ll finish his college career at the end of 2019-20, which will hopefully lead to a contract with the Senators.
As mentioned previously, last year’s first-round pick Thomson made the decision to return to Finland for the 2019-20 season after a successful rookie season with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. Initially, he got off to a hot start with Ilves in Finland’s Liiga, scoring six points in thirteen games, but an injury on October 19 kept him out of the lineup for nearly a month. Upon his return, the team listed him as the seventh defensemen, a steep cut on the 15-minute average he was enjoying before, but it shouldn’t be a worrying sign. He was named to the U20 Four Nations Tournament in November and is practically a lock to be a part of the Finnish World Junior Squad.
Another defenseman making waves in Europe is Olle Alsing. While only 5-foot-11 and 170-pounds, the Senators signed the Swedish prospect in May of 2019 after scoring 15 points in 49 contests in the Swedish Hockey League SHL. Already, the signing is looking like a potential steal, as Alsing has matched last season in just 23 games with Djurgardens. While ineligible for the World Juniors – he’s already 23 – it’s possible that he could join the Senators as soon as next season.
The Senators’ rebuild has granted them a large number of good prospects, and trades have brought in blue-chip players like Norris and Abramov, who are having great seasons. However, it’s so far their top draft picks that are performing the best in 2019-20. Brown, Batherson, Gruden, Bernard-Docker, Tychonick, and Pinto are all having stand-out campaigns, and all were selected by Ottawa in the entry draft over the past three years. This is good news for the franchise, as many have criticized their top picks criticism for being reaches. But based on their performance, it looks like the Senators’ future is in good hands.
Let’s hope it stays that way.
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.