Senators Prospects Report – Sanderson Off to a Hot Start

It’s 12 games into the hockey season, and although the Ottawa Senators are off to a slow start, there’s plenty to celebrate. They signed face-of-the-franchise Brady Tkachuk long-term and subsequently named him team captain. Drake Batherson has continued his upwards progression and currently leads the team with 12 points, while Josh Norris’ six goals in twelve games places him first in team scoring. And Artem Zub proved he’s no one-hit-wonder, currently ranking fifth in the NHL in blocked shots.

Ottawa Senators Prospects report
Ottawa Senators Prospects report (The Hockey Writers)

But as the team continues to struggle – their five-game losing streak has pushed them into the Shane Wright sweepstakes – there are some legitimate concerns about the team’s defence. Nikita Zaitsev, Michael Del Zotto, and Victor Mete all own an on-ice save percentage below 0.900, and only Zub and Thomas Chabot are above 50% in Corsi percentages, which measures on-ice puck possession. The Belleville Senators haven’t fared much better, starting the season 2-6-0 record before winning their last two games. However, aside from free agent Jake Lucchini, much of the roster has struggled to generate any offence.

The only thing that is bringing both Senators management and fans solace is that Jake Sanderson is having a great sophomore season at the University of North Dakota. In nine games this season, Sanderson has three goals and nine points, which sits tied for second on the team, third among defensemen in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC), and 10th among defenders in the NCAA. He’s also first on the team with 26 shots on goal, and second with 11 blocked shots. He really can do it all and is projecting to develop into an all-star calibre defender that will almost certainly transform Ottawa’s blue line.

It’s been incredible to watch Sanderson’s development, from his draft year to the Senators’ surprising selection to his current college success. He’s frequently the best player on the ice at any time and is able to use speed, intelligence, and both offensive and defensive chops to dominate the opposition. However, Sanderson won’t arrive in Ottawa for at least another season, maybe two. Until then, the Senators are going to have to find other solutions, and with many of the team’s other top prospects off to sluggish starts to the 2021-22 season, there’s some anxiousness setting into the fan base. But not everyone has had a slow start. Here’s a quick look at some of the Senators’ top prospects and how they fared over the past month.

American Hockey League

As previously mentioned, the Belleville Senators started their season poorly, but there’s a few good reasons for that. The team has been hit by a slough of long-term injuries, including top players Lassi Thomson, Philippe Daoust, and Angus Crookshank. They are also missing five players who are currently up with the NHL club, all of whom are important members of their roster. Despite being in the league for over a decade, head coach Troy Mann said, “I’ve never seen anything as drastic as that.”

However, with so many openings, some players have taken the opportunity to show their skills. One of those is Finnish speedster Roby Jarventie. Although he has just two goals on the season thus far, both came in the last three games. He also has five points in his last four games, making him one of the hottest players aside from Lucchini.

Mark Kastelic is also on a hot streak, scoring three goals and two assists in his last six games, this after going scoreless in his first four. Although advertised as a depth heart-and-soul type player at the NHL level, he was a deadly goal-scorer with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Calgary Hitmen, so it’s not surprising that he currently sits third in team goals and possesses one of the highest shooting percentages at 16.7%.

Canadian Hockey League

If Sanderson is the Senators’ best prospect outside of the AHL, then Ridly Greig is the best forward. He very nearly made the NHL this season, but was sent back to juniors on Oct. 3, just days before the 2021-22 season began. Back in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings, he was named team captain and scored twice in the team’s season opener. Over the next nine games, he put up five goals, 11 points, and 22 penalty minutes, making him one of the hottest players in the league. However, he took a hit from behind in a game against the Prince Albert Raiders and has been out of the lineup since Oct 29. Hopefully, he’ll be back to full health when the World Juniors commence, as he’s a favourite to make Team Canada.

Zach Ostaphuck was another late cut from the team, which was surprising given that he was picked in the second round of the 2021 draft. His size and speed made him a fan favourite during training camp, but back in junior he’s hasn’t had the same impact. In eight games with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants he has just one goal and two assists. Instead, he’s been overshadowed by fellow 2021 pick Carson Latimer, who’s excelling with the Edmonton Oil Kings. After 14 games, his six goals are tied for the team lead along with first-round pick Dylan Guenther, but his 20% shooting percentage dwarfs his teammates’ 10.5%.

Over in the Ontario Hockey League, Leevi Merilainen has emerged as one of the league’s best netminders, currently sitting fourth in save percentage among goalies with 10 games played and third in goals-against average. That performance earned him a spot on the Finnish U20 team, where he has an astounding 0.941 save percentage over four appearances, which puts him ahead of Juho Markkanen and Joel Blomqvist, two highly regarded prospects on the team. It’s a safe bet that he’ll be the national team’s choice when the World Juniors starts up in January.

College

As mentioned before, Sanderson is having an incredible season and cementing himself as the Senators’ top prospect in any league, let alone the NCAA. The rest of Ottawa’s college prospects, however, haven’t faired quite as well. Defenceman Tyler Kleven has started out fine, scoring twice over nine games and wracking up an impressive 29 penalty minutes in just nine games. But he’s also a plus-6, which is tied for the highest on the team alongside Sanderson. He’s taken a step forward this season, becoming more than just a player who can throw big hits. Senators’ fans are growing excited at the prospect of him on a middle pairing in the NHL.

Europe

Over in Europe, the Senators have several intriguing prospects who are gaining momentum. Victor Lodin, a fourth-round pick from 2019, already has eight points in his first 12 games with Timrå IK in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL). Timrå has had a rough season so far, winning just three of 17 games, but it’s not because of Lodin, who ranks in the top-five in points-per-game among U23 players and is regularly playing upwards of 20 minutes a night.

Translation: Timrå leads 3-0 against Brynäs. Here Liljewall hits the 1-0 goal after a pass by Lodin

Timrå boasts another Senators draft pick in Oliver Johansson, who was a third-round selection in 2021. While he hasn’t scored yet in his six appearances, he started the season on Timrå’s U20 team, where he scored an impressive five goals and 14 points in 13 games before getting the call to join the parent club. His ice time has also gradually increased as he adapts to the pace of the SHL. It may seem like a slow start, and it doesn’t help that his team currently sits in last place, but only a few dozen teenagers are playing Sweden’s top league right now, so to earn the trust of his coaches is a great step forward in his development. While it’s uncertain if that will translate to a World Junior appearance, it is at least a great start for the young player.

Prospects to Watch

There was a lot of criticism around the Senators’ 2021 draft class, and all eyes will be on Tyler Boucher, who they took with the 10th overall selection. He struggled with injuries last season, and so far, he hasn’t wowed too many critics with his two points in 10 games with Boston College. It also hasn’t helped that Cole Sillinger, who went two picks later to the Columbus Blue Jackets, already has six points. However, the season is still early and Boucher is a freshman at the college level. Hopefully, he’ll start to get more comfortable as the season progresses.

Ben Roger is also another 2021 selection to keep an eye on. The 6-foot-4 defender was named an alternate captain for the OHL’s London Knights and the team surged to a 9-1-1 record, but he hasn’t been a huge factor. In 11 games, he has two paltry assists and 12 penalty minutes. However, he’s shot the puck 17 times without lighting the lamp, making him the only Knight with more than 15 shots and no goals. The Knights’ offence is one of the lowest in the OHL; currently, the team sits 12th in goals scored. If that picks up, then Roger’s points will likely follow.

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Just like the Senators, many of the organization’s prospects aside from Sanderson and Greig haven’t jumped out of the gate to start 2021-22. But the season is still young and it follows a highly irregular 2020-21 season, so the hope is that these young players just need to get back to a regular rhythm, which explains all the recent injuries. As the season progresses, many of the team’s top prospects will pick up their pace and start to look like the players that they saw when they drafted them. There’s no reason to panic…yet.

That’s it for this edition of the Senators prospects report. Tune in next month as we gear up for the biggest under-20 tournament of the year, the World Juniors!


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