Senators 2008 system audit

By Josh Chenoweth

After years of being a contender on paper and only one trip to the Stanley Cup Finals to show for it, many think that the Senators’ best chance to win the Stanley Cup is behind them. While there are issues to address on the NHL team, GM Bryan Murray has been working on improving the AHL farm team in Binghamton, and restocking the prospect cupboard. After a last-place finish in the AHL in 2006-07, Binghamton showed improvement last season with 82 points. Much credit goes to Murray for putting his nephew, Tim Murray, in charge of managing Binghamton. Also signed were key Senators prospects such as Ilya Zubov and Alexander Nikulin along with AHL veterans like Matt Carkner to help right the ship in Binghamton.

Furthermore,Murray has added key building blocks for the future in the last two drafts, and attempted to build a new mentality for the team from the ground up by drafting and signing players. This vision of the team is one that is difficult to play against: a hard-hitting, defensively responsible, accountable team.

Right Wing

Right wing is the Senators least stocked position as only four of their prospects play the position naturally.

While he naturally plays center, Jesse Winchester has been shifted to the wing with Ottawa. After a strong four-year career with Colgate in the NCAA, Winchester turned pro and signed with the Senators last season, suiting up for one game. A strong rookie camp and training camp this year impressed the Ottawa brass, and earned Winchester a spot on the big club. Due to his one-way contract, even if Winchester struggles during his rookie year, he is unlikely to be sent down to the AHL, as he would likely be picked up on waivers by another team.

The other top right wing prospect in the organization is Notre Dame senior Erik Condra. Leading his team in assists and scoring in each of his three seasons, Condra is a proven offensive talent at the NCAA level. Condra is off to a solid start to the season with six points in five games. How that production could translate to the AHL, and perhaps one day the NHL, remains to be seen, but with his success in college it would seem to be a given that the Senators will sign him to an entry-level contract once he completes his senior year.

The only other right wing prospect currently in the system is second-year pro Jim McKenzie. After completing a four-year college career, McKenzie was signed by the Senators last season. Not much of a scorer until his final two years at Michigan State, when he posted respectable numbers, McKenzie struggled at the AHL level, notching two goals and one assist through 18 contests. There wasn’t much of an improvement when he was sent to the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals, recording 19 points in 43 games. Unless McKenzie breaks out this season, there would be little reason for the Senators to retain him. He would appear to be a career minor leaguer at best.

Another natural center, Russian prospect Igor Mirnov has been tried on the wing with great success (21 goals and 45 points in 49 games with Moscow Dynamo in 2006-07). He struggled in 2007-08 with injuries and play in general, and was traded to Metallurg Magnitigorsk. There, he was able to regain some of his scoring touch. Until Mirnov comes over to North America, it is difficult to evaluate how he could perform in a more North American game. This may be unlikely, as the current feud between Russia and the NHL in regards to player transfers continues. If Mirnov is never seen in an Ottawa uniform, it will hardly be a surprise.

While proven AHL scorer Ryan Shannon has been added to Bingo’s ranks, via trading Lawrence Nycholat to Vancouver, and gritty forwards Jeremy Yablonski and Danny Bois are also in the mix on the farm, they are unlikely to crack the Ottawa roster in the near future, if ever. As a result, Condra and Winchester remain as the only legitimate prospects on right wing for the team to hope for. That being said, there is a lack of elite talent on the right wing, as there is with all the forward positions for the Senators.
   

Center

With Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly all locked up to long-term deals, being a centerman in the Senators prospect pool does not look very enticing. Still, there are some noteworthy prospects who may make decisions for Senators brass difficult ones in the future. Names like Peter Regin, Jim O’Brien and Zack Smith may see time in Ottawa in the next few years, while there is already a center prospect with NHL experience in Cody Bass waiting for an opportunity to get back to the NHL soon.

However, Alexander Nikulin was thought of as the most NHL ready of the group, but failed to even play in one preseason game this year, and was thoroughly outplayed by fellow Russian Ilya Zubov in training camp. A rarity, in that he was a Russian player who decided to stick it out in the AHL last year, Nikulin was reportedly upset with his lack of opportunity in the camp, and requested a trade, or else he would return to Russia. While he has not been traded, and has played in two games with Binghamton after sitting the first three out, do not be shocked if Nikulin is no longer a Senator by year’s end, whether it be through trade, or returning to Russia.

O’Brien is coming into his second year with Seattle in the WHL. After a solid showing in his rookie year with 55 points in 70 games, a big year should be in the cards this season. The 2007 first rounder, 29th overall, has good size and speed to go with solid defensive instincts and a good offensive touch. Of all of Ottawa’s prospects, O’Brien is the closest one to a power forward. The former University of Minnesota player will not be in Ottawa full time next season though, as he will most likely need a season in the AHL to adjust to the pro game. He may get a call-up, but the realistic expectation is to see him arrive in the 2010-11 season at the earliest.

Regin, a product of Denmark, is entering his first season in North America, after an exceptional showing in several international tournaments, and a breakthrough season for Timra in the Swedish Elite League. The 2004 draftee, third round at 87th overall, has slick offensive skills and good skating ability. He began the year with Binghamton injured with a concussion, but is back now. He will probably need a full two seasons in Binghamton before he is ready for NHL duty. But after a solid season in Sweden, which included nine points in 11 playoff games, the Senators are excited to finally have him over in North America.

Josh Hennessy returns for his third year in Binghamton, after a disappointing 2007-08 season. He was expected to make the NHL roster after receiving a 10-game call-up in 2006-07, but failed to get more than a few minutes of playing time per game, and was promptly sent down to Bingo. At this point, Hennessy is teetering on the verge of being a bust, which would leave Ottawa without any lasting pieces from the Martin Havlat trade, with Tom Preissing signing with the Kings, and Michal Barinka returning home to play in the Czech Republic.

Zack Smith rounds out the centermen in Binghamton. A late bloomer passed over in his first two years of NHL draft eligibility, his breakout year of 69 points with Swift Current of the WHL caught the eyes of Senators scouts, and resulted in him being drafted in the third round, 79th overall in the 2008 draft. He impressed the Sens brass to the point of being one of the last cuts from the NHL club’s training camp, ahead of more experienced prospects like Nikulin and Zubov. He continues to impress by leading Binghamton in goals with five through six games.

Bass is also waiting on the farm team. A victim of the numbers game with the NHL squad, Bass was sent back to Binghamton to start the season. With 21 regular season games, and four playoff games in the NHL under his belt, Bass is a certainty to be one of the first call-ups from Binghamton in the event of injuries. His hard-nosed, fast-paced, defensive style has already placed him in Bryan Murray’s good books, as witnessed by his extended call-up last season as a first-year pro. He may not have soft hands, but he has the intangibles that all coaches love in a third or fourth liner.

Ottawa also has NCAA players Louie Caporusso and Colin Greening, and BCHL player Derek Grant in the mix. All are more long-term projects at the moment, especially 2008 draftee Grant, but the 5’9 Caporusso did receive and invite to Team Canada’s World Junior Team training camp during the summer (though his chances of cracking an always deep Team Canada are small), and Newfoundland native Greening had a breakout year for Cornell last season. While Grant will move on to the NCAA next year, and Caporusso will likely stay there as well, Greening is a good possibility to be signed to an entry-level contract.

Left Wing

The closest left wing Ottawa has to being NHL ready is actually a natural centerman. Ilya Zubov has been moved to the wing though, and appears to be adjusting well, recording six points in seven games to start the season with Binghamton. After fading towards the end of the 2007-08 season with Bingo, Zubov spent the entire summer training in Ottawa, and it seems to have paid off. His dedication in the offseason caught the eye of the GM, and he has seemingly surpassed Alexander Nikulin on the depth chart and. Murray noted through training camp how much improved Zubov looked. This was not just referring to on-ice play, as Zubov dropped close to 15 pounds while training over the summer. A wizard with the puck, Zubov could become the skilled second liner needed to help take some scoring pressure off the top line in Ottawa, but will need at least one more year in the AHL.

After completing a standout year with the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors which saw him score 40 goals and 34 assists, Kaspars Daugavins will join the minor-pro ranks this season. It was expected that he would be in the AHL last season, but the Sens opted to return him to the OHL for a final season. The Latvian plays a hard-nosed style with some offensive flair, but Murray suggested that he may not be conditioned well enough yet to be a go-to player in the AHL. Thus it would appear the Senators’ plans for Daugavins are more long term.

The Senators are not as lucky getting some other prospects to North America. After leaving the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts to head back to Russia, where he received minimal playing time, the Senators’ brass were furious with 2007 second-round draft pick Ruslan Bashkriov. When Bashkirov arrived for the prospect development camp in the Ottawa during the summer, he was told if he wanted to have a chance at signing an NHL contract he would have to return and play junior hockey in North America. It was understood that he would do so, and the Peterborough Petes of the OHL drafted him in the CHL’s European import draft. However, he did not report to Peterborough’s camp, and remains in Russia with slim chance of return.

There is still hope though for some Ottawa prospects in Europe. 2008 draft picks Andre Petersson and Emil Sandin, while lacking in size at 5’9 and 5’10 respectively, show promise offensively. Petersson, who the Senators staff asked Erik Karlsson for an assessment on, is an offensive magician. As Karlsson stated at the draft, there are not too many players who can do what he can with the puck. The knock on Petersson is that he is lazy, and lacks defensive awareness. Regardless, his offensive abilities are impressive, as he currently leads HV 71 of the J20 SuperElit Södra in Sweden with 17 points in 13 games. Sandin, a 20-year-old draftee, is putting up more modest numbers, six points in 15 games for a veteran Brynas club in the Swedish Elite League.

Rounding out the left wing prospects is Shawn Weller. The Clarkson University standout struggled initially with Binghamton, but came back strong after being sent down and later recalled from Elmira in the ECHL, finishing with 8 goals and 16 points in 58 games with Binghamton. While Weller had a strong last season with Clarkson, scoring 40 points in 39 games, he would appear more suited for the role of a third liner with some offensive touch if he makes it to the NHL. A big body with a strong physical aspect to his game, Weller has the tools to be a solid grinder. Much will depend on the strides he does or does not make this season in determining his future with the organization. After returning with a strong second half to last season, a consistent season from start to finish is what Weller needs this year.

Defense

While the change to Ottawa’s current blue line has been extensive, its future looks bright. Ottawa has some skilled defensemen. While none of them are currently seen as superstars, many have the potential to make an impact in the future. This new wave of defensemen is led by two first-round choices: Brian Lee and Erik Karlsson, both with the potential to be solid top-four defensemen, if not potential first pairing D-men.

Lee, the ninth overall pick in the 2005 draft and former Minnesota Mr. Hockey award winner, turned pro after just two years at the University of North Dakota, where he posted solid numbers. In his first professional season, Lee got off to a fast start with Binghamton, before cooling off somewhat. Regardless, he maintained a high enough level of play to be selected to the AHL All-Star Game for PlanetUSA. He was soon felled by an injury, but when he returned, was given his first taste of the NHL. Lee would play with poise and maturity that forced Bryan Murray to bump veteran D Luke Richardson from the line-up for the playoffs. Lee finished the year with 25 points in 55 games in the AHL, and six regular season games, in which he recorded one assist, to go with four playoff games in the NHL. 

While he would make the NHL club out of camp, and went on to record one assist in five games, Lee was recently demoted back to the AHL being told by the organization that they wanted him to get more playing time than he was getting on the third pairing with Alexandre Picard.  While this is a snag in Lee’s career, more seasoning is probably best for him, as he looked at the time lost through the first five games of the year, though this has not been uncommon for the rest of the Senators this year. Expect to see Lee back in the NHL as soon as a couple of months from now.

Karlsson, Ottawa’s first-round selection at 15th overall in the 2008 entry draft, is a smooth-skating, offensive blueliner. Compared to Sergei Zubov and Niklas Kronwall, the Senators hope that he can one day be the quarterback for their power play. Smallish at 5’11 and 165 pounds, he will need some time to grow and add muscle to his frame. When he does though, the Sens have high hopes for him. A Senators scout went as far to say that, mentally, Karlsson is NHL ready now, but needs time to grow.

Another 2008 draftee is second rounder Patrick Wiercioch. Another offensive defenseman, he has gotten off to a fast start at the University of Denver, recording four goals and two assists through five games. Originally, Wiercioch was going to wait a year before making the jump to the NCAA, but decided to enroll this year. At 6’4, Wiercioch has fantastic size to go with his skill-set.

Three other noteworthy defensemen, all currently playing for Binghamton, are Thomas Kudelka, and Mattias Karlsson (no relation to Erik). Kudelka split the year with Binghamton and Elmira of the ECHL, not seemingly strong enough to keep up in the AHL. Still, the tall, lanky rearguard has potential, as seen in his 41 points with the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the WHL in 2006-07. He has also seems to have made encouraging progress for this season, starting off the year with three assists in seven games with Binghamton.

Karlsson was pencilled in to start the previous season in Binghamton, but a freak injury to his leg while goofing off in a practice put him on the injury list for the start of the season, and he was sent back to Sweden to play the rest of the year once he was healthy. He rebounded with a solid year, being called up to play the last 13 games for Farjestad in the SEL scoring two goals and two assists, while recording one goal and three assists in 12 playoff games. He should be in Binghamton for the full season this year.

Rounding out the prospects on the blue line are second-year pro Derek Smith, a free-agent signing last season from Lake Superior State University, and Russians Kiril Lyamin and Vitali Anikeyenko. While Anikeyenko and Lyamin have shown promise, they need to come over to North America to hone their game for the NHL. Whether they want to chance having to play in the AHL is another matter, one that is a common worry among NHL clubs with relations with the KHL in their current state.

Overall, Ottawa’s defense is has possibly their deepest position of prospects. It is just a matter of being patient with the higher profile prospects such as Lee and Karlsson (and possibly Wiercioch?) to reach their potential. When that happens, Ottawa should be in a good position to add to a defense at the NHL that includes defensive stalwarts Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. Add in AHL veterans Matt Carkner, and Ottawa native Brendan Bell, and the Senators appear in solid shape for this season and beyond.

Goaltending

With the Ray Emery saga now behind them, the Senators are placing their hopes for the future in Brian Elliott. Drafted second to last in 2003 (291st overall), the fact that Elliott has made it as far as the AHL would be surprise in itself. After a stellar four-year career at the University of Wisconsin, which saw him finish as runner-up for the Hobey Baker award in 2006, Elliott was forced to play backup to Martin Gerber to start the 2007-08 season, as Emery was still recovering from off season wrist surgery.

Soon afterwards, Elliott was reassigned to Binghamton, where he initially struggled. However, he regained his form, and by season end was Binghamton’s No. 1 goalie, and the best player in their playoff push. Elliott compiled a solid 18-19-1 record, with a .915 save percentage, and 2.81 GAA on a Binghamton team that struggled to find offense many nights. His season was brought to an end though against the Syracuse Crunch, when an opposing player fell onto him, injuring his knee. The B-Sens would go on to miss the playoffs that season.

With Elliott recovered from the injury, a big year is expected from him. GM Bryan Murray wants Elliott to play the entire year in the AHL as a started, but if Martin Gerber falters for the third season in a row, and Alex Auld is unable to carry the load, Elliott may get a serious shot at the No. 1 job sooner rather than later.

The backup to Elliott this season is former Canada World Junior Team gold medal winning goalie Jeff Glass. A WHL product, where he played for the Kootenay Ice then coached by current Binghamton coach Cory Clouston, Glass is now in his fourth year with the organization. After a promising junior career, Glass played on the weakest of Binghamton teams, right after the lockout. As a result, his statistics look horrid to anyone gazing over a stats sheet. This isn’t completely due to the team in front of him, as Glass would look shaky on his own part many a night.

Glass rebounded nicely last season, starting off at a torrid pace before falling back to Earth towards the end of the season, finishing with a 15-20-4 record with a .913 save percentage. He would subsequently lose the starter’s role in Binghamton to Brian Elliott only to be forced back into the spotlight when Elliott went down with a knee injury. Glass was re-signed by the Senators in the off-season to a one-year contract, and is expected to back up Elliott for the season, barring outstanding play, or faltering on Elliott’s part.

The other goalie in Ottawa’s system is Mitch O’Keefe, a Ferris State University alumnus that the Senators signed as a free agent in the off-season. He produced decent numbers in NCAA, and played a total of two games with the Iowa Stars of the AHL last season. He will start the season in Elmira, and most likely remain there the entire year. Aside from Elliott, Glass and O’Keefe aren’t going to turn many, if any heads. Thus, there is a lack of depth in the goaltending pool for the Sens, both at the minor-pro and NHL levels. While he has had a brilliant college career, and respectable numbers on a sub-par AHL team, Elliott has yet to produce star numbers at the minor-pro level. That will be the ultimate test for him this season, and if he does so, expect to see him in Ottawa in the near future, possibly pushing for the starter’s job. The potential is there, he just has to reach it. Murray and company are hoping he does so.

Overall

While there is little in the way of high end talent, there are some good supporting pieces coming along for the Senators, to go with their core of Spezza, Heatley, Alfredsson, Fisher, Kelly, Phillips and Volchenkov. There’s some top tier talents, such as Karlsson potentially, and supporting players in the mix like Zubov, O’Brien, and Regin who could give the Senators something they have lacked for the last several years: scoring depth. Still, few of these players are more than long shots at the moment, and most of the forward prospects are more likely to end up in the bottom two lines if they make it at all.

Ottawa does need to get back to landing an occasional steal at the draft, such as the days of Sami Salo and Alfredsson, to gain some top tier talent in order to reclaim elite contending status. Perhaps late round draft selections like Zubov, Regin, and especially Brian Elliott can pan out and be Ottawa’s a set of steals that Ottawa has needed for a few years now.