Binghamton Senators 2008-09 season preview

By Colin Barnicle

The Binghamton Senators are looking to improve upon last season’s 34-32-9-5 record, which landed them sixth in the East Division, and out of a playoff spot for a third straight year. 

This year’s squad appears to be a solid combination of second- and first-year pros with a veteran core.   The departure of such veterans as forwards Niko Dimitrakos, Justin Mapletoft, and Scott May to Europe, 2005 first-rounder Brian Lee’s expected full-time promotion to Ottawa, and the loss of some of the team’s other veterans will open the door for some new faces to make their mark when the B-Sens hold the Oct. 10 season opener in Toronto.

Goaltenders

Last year’s tandem of starters Jeff Glass and Brian Elliott will most likely begin the season in Binghamton, but either or both could make appearances with the big club.  The Martin Gerber/Alex Auld combination in Ottawa may not last all year.  If Gerber fails in the starting role, or if either go down with an injury, Elliott or Glass could get the call.  Both have proven to be strong, capable AHL goaltenders, and the two had nearly identical statistics in 2007-08.  Glass has more pro experience, but Elliott is considered the better prospect by Ottawa brass. 

If either goalie ends up in Ottawa for any stretch of time, former Ferris State standout Mitchell O’Keefe signed an AHL deal over the summer.  O’Keefe played a bit with the Iowa Stars last year with two AHL games under his belt.  It is likely O’Keefe will begin the season with the Elmira Jackals of the ECHL.

Defense

The 2006-07 B-Sens defense could, at best, be described as unreliable.  Although they will miss perennial AHL all-star Lawrence Nycholat (traded to Vancouver), and the likely promotion of Brian Lee to Ottawa, the B-Sens hope one of their young defensemen will offset these losses.

Unfortunately, offsetting losses never guarantees improvement, and, if the preseason is any indicator, there is not much in the way of encouraging news along the blueline.  Young offensive defenseman Tomas Kudelka will likely get his chance as a top-six defenseman, but he will have to provide the team with a better offensive output than the one-goal, one-assist performance he had in 35 games with the team last season.  Mattias Karlsson is coming off a solid season in which he saw time with Farjestad of the Swedish Elite League, but there remains some concern as to whether or not he will spend the year in Binghamton or return to Sweden for a full year in the Elite League.

Second-year pro Derek Smith will see more ice time and the B-Sens hope to see him improve upon the 2 goals and 11 assists he put up in 52 games with the club last season.  The hard-hitting Geoff Waugh is also back for a second season and will be relied upon to be one of the team’s top crease-clearers.  Veteran Matt Carkner will return to make life miserable for opposing forwards and free-agent pickup Brendan Bell is expected to put up some offensive numbers while playing a strong two-way game.  Elmira signing Chris St. Croix also looks to be a possibility for the opening-night roster.  The 29-year-old St. Croix, a fourth-round pick by Calgary in the 1997 draft, returns to North America after spending the past four seasons in Germany.

Another possibility on the blueline could be former Miami of Ohio puck-mover Mitch Ganzak.  Twenty-four years old, Ganzak took home the Most Outstanding Defensive Player honor from Miami in 2006-07 and signing an ATO with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL late last season.  He picked up one assist in two games with the Moose.

Forwards

The B-Sens of 2008-09 look to be a more dominant team up front than in previous years.  The team will continue to build offense around veteran left winger Denis Hamel, one of their most prolific scorers in recent memory.  Along with Hamel, veterans Greg Mauldin, Danny Bois, Josh Hennessy, and enforcer/fan favorite Jeremy Yablonski are also back with the club.  Twenty-five-year-old center Ryan Shannon was also added to bring in more offense in the Lawrence Nycholat trade.

The club is hoping second-year Russian centers Ilya Zubov and Alexander Nikulin improve upon solid rookie outings.  Despite being recognized more as a two-way center, Nikulin picked up 14 goals and 36 assists for 50 points.  The Senators seem to think that more down-low play in the heavy traffic areas would benefit Nikulin’s offensive numbers, provided it doesn’t negatively impact is defensive game.  Convincing him to be happy in his situation seems the first step.

Zubov continues to demonstrate success in learning the North American game.  After a 15-goal, 23-assist debut in the AHL last season, the B-Sens are hoping Zubov will polish his defensive game and continue building overall toughness while honing his offensive skills.

Second-year checking wingers Jim McKenzie and Shawn Weller will also be back again in Binghamton.  Although McKenzie is currently injured, he’s tenacious on the forecheck and smart defensively.  Weller will be looking to improve on an eight-goal, eight-assist rookie campaign and will likely continue to see some time on one of the B-Sens’ penalty-killing units.

Of the new additions to the Binghamton forward corps, the two showing the most promise for the year ahead are Danish center Peter Regin and 2008 draftee Zach Smith.  Referred to by many as a “late bloomer,” the 20-year-old Smith enjoyed a breakout season with the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL before being drafted in the third round by Ottawa. While Smith himself recognizes his role as checking forward, that didn’t stop him from scoring Binghamton’s only goals in a 2-1 preseason game against Syracuse.

Regin, a third-round selection in the 2004 entry draft, is a shifty, sharp-passing center with excellent offensive-zone sense.  While he still needs to round out his defensive game, his success with Timra of the Swedish Elite League in recent years demonstrates that Regin is clearly gifted.  He will be given every opportunity to crack the top two lines in Binghamton. 

As of this writing, there are still questions as to which forwards will also make the opening night roster.  Ottawa has veteran winger Brad Isbister under contract, but he has an out clause allowing him to take other offers if he does not make the big club.  Should Isbister choose to leave Binghamton, the door will open for exceptionally gifted Latvian winger Kaspars Daugavins, human steamroller Chaz Johnson, or any of a group of forwards who might otherwise spend the season in Elmira.