With just 16 games left to go in the regular season, the Ottawa Senators sit well outside the playoff picture. While season-ending runs have happened, it’s all but impossible for them to make their way in. The recent signing of prospect Jake Sanderson after the conclusion of his National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) season shows that Ottawa is working on getting prospects into the development pipeline. The Senators appear to be working on getting the pieces into place to continue their rebuilding efforts. Here are a few of the key prospects working their way through the system.
Ridly Greig – Center/Left Wing
Ridly Greig is currently playing out his fourth season with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League (WHL). Wearing the “C” this time around, he has been scoring at a strong pace – amassing 63 points in 39 games. He ranks second in the league for points per game.
Greig has been playing lengthy minutes and continues to be a legitimate scoring threat. Initially sought after for his ability to throw momentum-shifting hits and get under the opponent’s skin, he’s been able to elevate his scoring and work on his transition game. Now with a physical game rounded out by a high-level shot, he’s a threat in all areas of the ice. During the 2020-2021 season, he spent seven games with the Senators’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Belleville Senators. In those games, he was able to score once and pick up 2 assists. The Wheat Kings currently sit in the playoff hunt, but should they miss out, expect Greig to see some ice time in the final run of Sens games or with Belleville on their playoff push.
A natural center, Greig has spent much of his time this year playing left wing. Loosening off the responsibility as well as growing into his body has seemingly accelerated his development. With an under-developed left wing group for the Sens, Greig will need to earn his spot on the roster. Brady Tkachuk is really the only lock for the top-line left wing right now. Alex Formenton, Grieg, and deadline acquisition Mathieu Joseph will be competing for minutes once he makes the transition to the big league. Greig projects to be the best of the three but has not yet proven that his game will transition when playing against men. The Sens do not have an abundance of center talent in their pool, so if he can make the jump back it would quickly elevate his role with the team.
Jake Sanderson – Defenseman
The aforementioned Sanderson had a breakout year in his development during his 2022 campaign. Easily the highest touted prospect in the pipeline right now, he looks to be ready to jump into an NHL role almost immediately. Proving he was the right choice at #5 in the 2020 draft, Sanderson collected 26 points in 23 games playing top-pair for the University of North Dakota. A creative, mobile, and intelligent defender, Sanderson has been a key player for UND. With the Senators making the signing official, they will lose a year of his contract due to his age. However, locking him in and highlighting their commitment to talent is crucial for a team that has struggled to retain players in the past.
Sanderson was set to put on a show at the World Junior tournament before it was scuttled and rescheduled. In his sole game, he looked fantastic with strong gap control and great puck movement. By all accounts, Sanderson is almost a lock to move right into a top-four role on most NHL rosters. He recently underwent wrist surgery and is expected to be out for four to six weeks. Unlikely to return before the end of the NHL regular season, Sanderson could be a very impactful player for Belleville as they currently sit in the Calder Cup playoff picture. The Senators lose a year of contract control by signing him now due to his age so getting him into games this year has to be a top priority. Whether with Belleville or the main club, working on development and getting that test against tougher competition needs to be the focus of the rest of this year.
Tyler Boucher – Left Wing
Choosing Tyler Boucher at 10th overall remains something of a mystery. His play in NCAA action wasn’t a standout, but Boucher has started to find his own since joining the Ottawa 67’s this year. Offensively talented, but primarily sought after for his bruising physical game, Boucher’s style is akin to the power forwards of previous years. A strong net-front presence and the ability to turn around a game’s energy with a single hit, Boucher has seen improvement since joining the 67’s campaign. Electing to leave Boston University early to play for the 67’s, Boucher had issues with injuries and COVID-19. While using the 10th selection on him was still definitely a reach, he’s trying to change the conversation about him.
His development, like many others, has been delayed due to shortened seasons and a myriad of issues. For the Senators’ rebuild to continue progressing, Boucher has to take some serious steps in the next year or two. As Boucher is signed and it’s looking like the 67’s year will end with the regular season, he should get some time with Belleville, but it’s not expected that he makes the jump up to Ottawa just yet. More development is needed, but it’s time to see what he brings to the table when playing with a higher level of teammates and competition.
Leevi Meriläinen – Goalie
The Finnish goalie was primarily a question mark when drafted in the third round is still early in his development stage. While questions abound, Leevi Meriläinen posted strong numbers through his time in juniors in Finland but has struggled to transition that success to the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Playing for the Kingston Frontenacs, he currently carries a .891 save percentage and a 3.36 goals-against average.
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Thankfully, he is picking up wins as the forward group provides heavy goal support. His stock as a prospect is on the rise as he’s made a number of game-winning saves and has been able to keep the Fronts out of trouble more than once. The Frontenacs are not a defensive powerhouse, so Meriläinen does face a large number of dangerous shots. As the team currently focuses on a run and gun style, he’s regularly left to handle two-on-one situations. He is highly athletic, but can sometimes seem to get lost on the ice.
Most recently registered with the league at 6-foot-3, his stature is right around the NHL average for height. Meriläinen is likely finished gaining height but could stand to add on some more mass as his 174-pound frame sits just below the league average of 198 pounds. He had very good numbers in the single game played at the 2022 WJC and will be one to watch when the tournament restarts this summer. Playing with the Finnish national team certainly makes his job easier as that roster is deep for defensive players. Goalies are often unpredictable: it’s difficult to track their trajectory unless they are that rare, legitimate superstar right out of the gate. Meriläinen needs to settle down his game, or he risks being bumped out of a pipeline that already has AHL level goalies in spades. The Frontenacs are on their way to the OHL playoffs, so Meriläinen will likely spend the rest of this year backstopping for them.
As the trade deadline has come and gone, with general manager Pierre Dorion making some lukewarm moves at best, it should be heartening for Senators fans to know that the prospect pool has some quality talent. While this season has not been a great showcase, the future still holds promise for this team. Seemingly perennial underdogs, Ottawa is closing the gap on what it takes to be a real competitor.