Ottawa Senators prospects turn disappointing season into a historical triumph

By Kristopher Bras
Photo: Ben Harpur logged 31 points in 57 games during his final year of junior hockey. (Courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

Photo: Ben Harpur logged 31 points in 57 games during his final year of junior hockey. (Courtesy of Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

 

 

It was a tumultuous season for the Ottawa Senators. While GM Bryan Murray and Assistant Coach Mark Reeds battled cancer (the latter succumbing in April), the injury bug hit the team’s game day roster hard. In spite of the adversity (and perhaps because of it), the team’s prospects—led by new bench boss Dave Cameron—helped the organization back into the playoffs with a miracle push in the season’s final months.

In February, the Senators were down and out; 14 points away from a wild-card spot, and both of the team’s goalies on the shelf with indefinite-length injuries. Then, along came a Hamburglar, whose record-setting season spurred the team on to a magical surge in the standings and the first Eastern wild-card spot. Although the Senators would eventually suffer a painful first-round loss to the Canadiens, Andrew Hammond and the rest of the team’s prospects sent fans into the offseason with pride, and excitement for the future.

With the Ottawa youth movement in full swing, several Binghamton depth prospects saw their roles expand as they waved goodbye to graduating teammates and ascended the depth chart. Meanwhile, other assets in the OHL and Europe developed tremendously, making Senators Director of Hockey Operations and Player Development Randy Lee’s job an extremely tough one this fall. Similarly, I had my own difficulty deciding which player should get each of my year-end awards. In one case, I stopped deliberating in favour of a tie.

Hardest Worker: Jean-Gabriel Pageau

Jean-Gabriel Pageau started the year in the minors, but it wasn’t long before he got the chance to contribute in Ottawa. When Lazar left to play in the World Junior Championships, recently anointed head coach Dave Cameron was quick to give Pageau a call. Although it took a while for Pageau to get going offensively, his hard work made it impossible for Cameron let him go. And in the dying minutes of Ottawa’s six-game loss to the Canadiens, it was Pageau who almost saved the team—though his two scoring efforts had to be waved off by officials.

Hardest Shot: Ben Harpur

In hindsight, allowing Zdeno Chara to walk via free agency has been one of the team’s worst decisions in its young history. Fortunately, the Senators have Ben Harpur developing in the wings—and his shot could rival Chara’s eventually. The monster 6’6 defenseman already has a terrific slapper, and once he fills out, he could develop one of the most feared shots in the NHL. Binghamton fans will get to see him in action next season.

Fastest Skater: Shane Prince

Shane Prince has a lot of tools, and speed is one of them. With his quick feet and NHL shot, Prince became the sixth-leading scorer in the AHL this season, finishing with 28 goals, 37 assists, and 65 points. The AHL named him to the Second All-Star Team, and in February the Senators rewarded him with a brief two game call-up. Although his efforts did not help Bingo to a playoff berth, management is keeping a close eye on him—so as not to lose him in a blur.

Best Defensive Prospect: Chris Wideman

The Senators have a handful of defensemen who had great 2014-15 seasons, but Wideman was a cut above the rest. Wideman finished with 61 points in 75 games, tops among AHL defenseman. He participated in his first AHL All-Star Game, and was named a First-Team All-Star early in April. He was called up to the big club earlier in the season to fill in during a brief moment when the Senators did not have six healthy defenceman (they usually have eight). The Senators have an abundance of defensive prospects, so expect Wideman to spend at least another year in Binghamton.

Breakout Player for 2015-16: Matt Puempel

Matt Puempel might not be as developed a prospect as Shane Prince at the moment, but Cameron seems to prefer him anyway. When injuries forced the Senators to call a forward up from Bingo, Prince was given a two-game audition before he was sent back in favour of Puempel. Until a late-season injury, Puempel was impressive, scoring 3 points in spot duty through 13 NHL games. He could be the team’s only graduate next season.

Most Improved Prospect: Nick Paul

Nick Paul was not a bad player last year, it is just that this year he has been so much better. Although Paul was not taken until the mid-rounds of both the OHL and the NHL drafts, he is now held in the same regard as players who were selected in the first round. He racked up 37 goals for the North Bay Battalion this year, while winning a roster spot with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships over blue-chip prospects like Michael Dal Colle, Dylan Strome, and Mitchell Marner. He currently has 14 points in the playoffs, where his Battalion currently lead the Oshawa Generals in the third round.

Overachiever: Andrew Hammond

The Senators were 14 points out of a playoff spot when they sent Andrew Hammond into the net in place of a concussed Robin Lehner, and the only excitement in Ottawa at the time was draft and trade speculation. After a few quick wins, fans waited for what they thought was beginners luck to break—but it did not happen. Eventually, a couple of games became double-digit wins, and a wild card position in the playoffs.

Hammond finished with an incredible 20-1-2 record—the best start for any goalie in the history of the NHL. He also helped the Senators win three straight games on a ‘Death Valley’ road trip (Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose), a first for the team. He was nominated for the Masterton Trophy late in April, an award that honours perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to the game. Andrew Hammond was an inspiration to teammates, fans, and even his opponents.

Underachiever: Alex Guptill

Acquired in the trade that sent Spezza to the Stars, Guptill failed to impress during his pro rookie season in Binghamton. Although he had committed to developing his game and improving defensively, he was not effective enough at either end of the ice. Bench boss Luke Richardson auditioned him on the top lines early on, but was forced to bench him later on. The Senators need a huge improvement from him next season.

Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Ben Harpur

The most intriguing thing about Harpur is that he grew up playing as a right wing, and did not start playing defense until his last year of minor hockey. After four years learning the position in the OHL, he has turned into a special prospect—a huge player who can rifle the puck from the point and surprise people with his speed. Unfortunately, he has a habit of making costly errors, either due to a lack of hockey smarts or his inexperience as a defenseman. Nobody knows for sure where Harpur will be in five years, but the Senators will stick around to find out.

Prospect of the Year: Tie – Mark Stone and Andrew Hammond

Hammond had a special year, but Mark Stone deserves to share this award with him. Stone was one of the best players in the NHL from December to April, and his 64 points made him the highest scoring rookie in the history of the team—ahead of the legendary Daniel Alfredsson. He also led the entire NHL in takeaways, which has some wondering why he was not nominated for a Selke Trophy. Give it a few years; if he keeps this up, he will take it home sooner rather than later.

Prospect of the Month: Mark Stone

Mark Stone - Ottawa SenatorsStone was a lifesaver down the stretch. He scored 18 points in his last 13 games, and four huge goals in his last three. Hammond or not, if you take that clutch scoring away, the Senators would probably have missed the playoffs for the second-straight season. Montreal saw it the same way; they seemed to key in on him early on in their playoff round. Although he suffered a fracture and ligament damage to his wrist when P.K. Subban swiped at him with his stick—an act the Canadiens defenseman received a match penalty for—Stone played through the pain and contributed four assists in the six-game playoff series.

Stone led all rookies in scoring with 64 points, he led the league in takeaways, and he grew into an offensive catalyst over the course of the season. In honour of his accomplishments, the NHL named him a finalist for the Calder Trophy.