Senators AHL prospects update

By Derek Cheng

In 2006-07, the Binghamton Senators hit rock bottom.  With the worst record in the league, there was nowhere to go but up.  With a roster full of new players, a new head coach, and even new uniforms, Bingo is on pace to double its previous season win totals.  Their resurgence is important for Ottawa, who will need an influx of young talent in the not too distant future. 

Nearly halfway through the regular season, the Baby Sens are on the cusp of a playoff spot.  Picking up points in their last five games (3-0-2), the club sits fifth in the East Division with an 18-16-7 record.  They are creeping up and are now just three points behind the Albany River Rats and Hershey Bears, and five points behind the second place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.  The most notable progress has been in the club’s own zone, where they have allowed 120 goals against.  Pro-rated, that is nearly a 90-goal decrease from last season.  But while defense has remarkably improved, offense continues to struggle.  The club has scored just 113 goals to date, sixth worst in the Eastern Conference.

With a number of top Ottawa prospects and a parade of fresh faces, there was a fair share of optimism for Binghamton entering the 2007-08 season.  But with so many new and young players in the lineup (ten regulars are in their first pro seasons), the club is naturally going through some growing pains and has several more hills to climb before they can return to the top of the East division.

Goaltending

Last season, Binghamton had the worst team GAA in the league (4.04) and no goalie was above the 90 percent save margin.  This season’s improvement in goal has almost single-handedly vaulted the club out of the cellar.  At the halfway point, the club’s goals against is on par with the average in the league.  While the team is still struggling to get into the playoff hunt, it’s clear that goaltending is not an issue, as it was in 2006-07.  Jeff Glass has shared the starter role with first-year pro Brian Elliott

Glass, one of only two returning players from 2006-07, is much improved from last season.  The former CHL goaltender of the year has rediscovered his game and has posted excellent numbers.  Appearing in 25 games, 23 as the starter, he has posted a .922 save percentage, good enough for fourth in the league, and a 2.46 GAA, placing him 15th.  While the team in front of him has been wildly inconsistent, Glass has been a pillar of strength for the most part, posting a 10-10-3 record with two shutouts.  He’s accomplished this in the face of an average of nearly 30 shots per game. He’s been pulled from two contests and made two relief appearances.  At about this time last year, Glass had a sub-.900 save percentage and a GAA near 4.00, emphasizing how much he has improved.

Drafted second last in 2003, Elliott has come a long way.  His road to the NHL was quick and unexpected as he earned his first NHL start, a win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Oct. 10, just weeks into his pro career.  Re-assigned to Binghamton on October 14, 2007, Elliott struggled early on, but has since improved.  After earning just one victory in his first six starts, while posting a 3.82 GAA and .892 save percentage, Elliott has since become a much more consistent netminder.  Since December, he’s backstopped six victories and four losses while posting a 2.65 GAA and 0.918 save percentage bringing his totals to 3.05 GAA and .912 save percentage, second among rookie goaltenders.  The former Wisconsin Badger is 7-9-0 through 18 appearances, 16 as the starter.  He was pulled from two contests.

Neither Glass nor Elliott is considered to be elite goaltending prospects, but both have decent upside.  Elliott has a slight edge having already made an NHL start and appears to be Ottawa’s goaltender of the future.  But don’t discount Glass, whose resurgence so far this year has helped appreciate his stock.  Expect the two to continue battling for playing time as the season progresses.

Defense

When a team’s GAA is cut down by more than a goal per game, a lot of the praise goes to the masked men between the pipes.  But the defense deserve a fair share of credit as well.  The group is led by 2006 trade deadline acquisition Lawrence Nycholat, who currently leads the team in points.  Matt Carkner, Matt Kinch, and Greg Amadio round out the group of veterans primarily patrolling Binghamton’s blueline.  The club’s defense also features three prospects, one of which is considered to be among Ottawa’s top prospects.

Brian Lee is Ottawa’s only top 10 pick since 2002.  The North Dakota product is in his first pro season but has already become an integral part of the Binghamton’s defensive unit.  One of just four players to play in all 41 contests thus far, Lee has registered 19 assists and 21 points.  Both his goals were scored on the power play, where he has been a mainstay.  Though he is a -6 on the season, he often carries a heavy workload and is on the ice for key situations.  Lee is one of Ottawa’s top prospects and there are high hopes for his continued development.

Off-season free-agent signing Derek Smith expected to be a regular top six rearguard for club but has been plagued by injuries.  The undrafted Lake Superior State graduate suffered a concussion early in the season and was recently sidelined with an upper body injury.  He made his return just after the new year and has since recorded his first AHL goal.  In all, Smith has been limited to just 16 games, recording three points.  The smooth-skating offensive-minded defenseman should put up better numbers in the second half if he can stay healthy.

Tomas Kudelka has had a roller-coaster ride thus far in his first full professional season.  He’s split his time between Binghamton and ECHL affiliate Elmira Jackals, reassigned four times.  Kudelka has been unable to garner much AHL success through 18 games, having posted just one goal, but his offensive skills are clearly visible at the ECHL level where he has notched 10 points in 13 games.  In a recent interview with Hockey’s Future, he acknowledged that adding size is required for him to stay in Binghamton.

"It’s my disadvantage because I weigh just 195 lbs," said Kudelka. "Maybe it’s one of the reasons why I’m here. I’m skilled enough to play in the AHL, I just have to get bigger and play with big guys."

Forwards

With improvements in goal and on defense, Binghamton has managed to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.  But if they are to get over the hump, they will need more production from the forward group which features veterans Denis Hamel, Niko Dimitrakos, Greg Mauldin, Danny Bois, Justin Mapletoft, and Jeremy Yablonski.  The group also boasts several of Ottawa’s top prospects.

The last remaining piece of the Martin Havlat trade of 2006 is top-ranked prospect Josh Hennessy.  He started the season with Ottawa but failed to gain the confidence of head coach John Paddock.  After playing just a few shifts through two games, Hennessy was reassigned and has worked his way to the top of Binghamton’s stat sheet once again.  Never one to pile up a ton of points, Hennessy is quietly on pace to another average season.  His 28 points currently leads all forwards, but he’s still prone to periods of inconsistency.  He was even a healthy scratch at one point.  Turning 23 in February, Hennessy may be running out of opportunities with Ottawa, especially with the rise of Nick Foligno, who seems to have surpassed him on the prospect depth chart.  Foligno has spent most of the season with Ottawa and has been fairly productive.  He was recently reassigned to get more ice time and has totaled nine points through his first 12 AHL games.

Much of the raw skill up front rests in the hands of Russians Ilya Zubov and Alexander Nikulin.  Both are rookies in their first North American seasons and both are relied upon to provide offense.  Zubov, a fourth-round selection in 2005, has played in all 41 contests, recording 10 goals and 26 points.  He recently earned his first recall to the NHL.  Nikulin, who was called up for two games earlier in the season, is one of the club’s top performers in terms of points per game.  His production could be better though had it not been for a pair of injuries that forced him out of action for some time.  Nikulin has dressed in 35 matches and registered 23 points.  The two Russians often play on a line together, making them the club’s most potent offensive duo.

The responsible and physical grinding style played by rookie Cody Bass has earned him a temporary spot in Ottawa.  He was called up in mid-December and has not looked back since, potting his first career goal and assist through 12 games.  The loss of Bass is a blow to Binghamton’s forward group, which often relied for energy and in penalty-kill situations.  It’s possible he could return to the club if Ottawa returns to full health, but for now, Bingo will have to do without him.  Through 24 games, he had posted 8 points and was a +7, leading the team.

Other forwards who could make an impact in the second half include Tyler Donati, Shawn Weller, and Jim McKenzie.  Donati, who went undrafted and was signed as a free agent in the off-season, recently went to Elmira for a one-game stint.  He has been inconsistent in his first pro season after a dominating his final year in the OHL.  The shifty offensive dynamo has been unable to produce the way he did in junior posting just 6 goals, 7 assists, with a team-worst -7 through 35 games.  Weller has played in 23 games for Binghamton, potting 2 goals in the process.  The product of Clarkson University spent some time with Elmira in mid-November, but was recalled after 4 goals, 5 assists in 10 games.  His development is expected to be slow as he took three seasons to break out with Clarkson.  McKenzie played a string of games with Binghamton in December, going pointless in seven games.  He has spent most of the season in Elmira where he has not produced offensively (7 points in 25 games). 

Holly Gunning contributed to this article.