Deep Senators depth chart tested early in 2015-16 season

By Kristopher Bras
Photo: Chris Driedger is 3-1 through four starts with the Binghamton Senators in 2015-16, posting a 2.50 goals-against and .917 save percentage. (Courtesy of Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: Chris Driedger is 3-1 through four starts with the Binghamton Senators in 2015-16, posting a 2.50 goals-against and .917 save percentage. (Courtesy of Steven Kingsman/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

The Ottawa Senators depth chart is far deeper than it was two years ago. With fresh faces in Binghamton, an impressive haul at the 2015 draft, and a few overachievers in the CHL, the organization is piled high with talent—and injury trouble has already created a few opportunities at the NHL level.

The Senators lost three players to concussion in the first seven games—Curtis Lazar, Clarke MacArthur, and Marc Methot. Meanwhile, Mike Hoffman also ended up on the shelf after suffering an undisclosed lower-body injury. That meant Chris Wideman and Shane Prince, who began the season in the press box, were quickly promoted to the game-day lineup. Meanwhile, Matt Puempel and Max McCormick were called up from Binghamton, both appearing in four games for the big club.

Although McCormick was returned to Bingo after Lazar and Hoffman were cleared for contact, the indeterminate length of MacArthur’s respite means that Prince stays in the lineup, and Puempel will stick around as the team’s thirteenth forward. After all of the fuss, the Senators remain in the playoff picture with a relatively comfortable 7-4-2 record—and the farm has passed an important test. Here is a full breakdown of the organization’s depth by position.

Centre

When most Canadians (outside of the OHL’s audience) got their first taste of Nick Paul, he was a left winger for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, but it’s clear that the Senators view him as the eventual big centre the team needs. Although he has yet to score, he has been an effective second-line centre in Binghamton, racking up five assists in his first eight games as a professional.

Also playing in the AHL is Ryan Dzingel and Travis Ewanyk. Dzingel has shown a marked improvement in his sophomore professional season, and has been utilized on the top line along with the freshly acquired Eric O’Dell. Ewanyk, on the other hand, hasn’t been so lucky, scoring just two points in eight games. With Paul ahead of him on the depth chart, it’s unlikely that he will get the chance to continue his NHL career anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Vincent Dunn began his first season as a pro with the Evansville IceMen. Compared to guys like Sean Avery due to his racist remarks and locker-room distractions, Dunn has a lot of proving-himself to do before he ever gets a chance in the NHL. Although Ottawa felt that he could be a next-level pest when they selected him in the fifth round in 2013 (138th overall), he hasn’t yet shown that he can play the game well enough for that to matter.

In the NCAA, 2015 first-round pick (21st overall) Colin White has begun his collegiate career in solid fashion, scoring eight points (three goals, five assists) in just seven games. He should figure into the U.S. National Team’s plans at the World Junior Championships this winter.

Robbie Baillargeon and Quentin Shore continue to develop positively, and both should eventually get to Binghamton—although their NHL ceiling is questionable. Shore will complete his senior year with the University of Denver this season, and he could get a few games in the pros this March. Baillargeon returns to the top line in Boston University after an off year in 2014-15, when he suffered from a bout of mono. He will finish his degree before he takes the next step.

Import player Filip Chlapik is the team’s only centre in the CHL. He has recovered from a slow start without the benefit of his former linemate, Daniel Sprong, and leads the Charlottetown Islanders in scoring with 19 points in 16 games. Although he isn’t a flashy player, he has the potential to be a very good two-way second-line centre in the NHL.

Right Wing

The Senators don’t have many right-wingers in the system, but the ones they do have are quality prospects. Towering 6-foot-5 prospect Gabriel Gagne has the talent to be a top-line sniper, and if he gets stronger and meaner, will be a nightmare for checkers to contain. It will take a few years for the QMJHLer to get to the pros, but when he does, he will be one of the team’s better prospects.

Tobias Lindberg and Buddy Robinson are already well known at the professional level, and for different reasons. Robinson is a big, tough customer who is an imposing presence both on the glass and in front of the net. His potential caps as a bottom-six checker that can chip in the odd goal. Lindberg on the other hand, has top-shelf offensive skills to go along with his size. A member of the Memorial Cup-winning Oshawa Generals in 2014-15, he is a strong winger with soft hands and a heavy shot. The sky is the limit for him, but he is probably best-suited among the middle-six forwards due to his size and willingness to play the body.

That leaves Chris LeBlanc, who the Senators drafted in the sixth round of the 2013 draft (161st overall). Unfortunately, he failed to show much improvement during his sophomore year last season, dropping to nine points (from 12 in 2013-14). He will need a better showing for Merrimack College in 2015-16 to get back on the team’s radar.

Left Wing

The Senators have two left wingers who could very well graduate from HF’s prospect criteria this season. Injuries have gotten both Prince and Puempel into action for the big club, and both of them have the talent to be deployed anywhere in the lineup. Although both have had difficulty putting many points on the board, they look like they belong.

McCormick is listed as a left winger on HF tentatively—he performs capably at any forward position. The Senators called him up during their early season injury troubles, and he played well in a checking role. The call-up confirms the general perception that he should figure into  the team’s future plans. Alex Guptill has battled injury and the press box, and hasn’t been effective in the games he has played in. He will be hard-pressed to get a contract this summer.

Shane Eiserman began his sophomore season with the University of New Hampshire, and his three assists in five games show that he is likely to improve statistically. The power forward is a fast enough skater to ply his trade in the NHL eventually, but he has a long road ahead of him.

Francis Perron is having a career year for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, who he has led to a 15-1-4 start—tops in the QMJHL. In doing so, he leads the league in scoring with 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists), despite missing four games while participating in the Senators’ main camp, where he was also a top performer. Although Perron only weighs 165 pounds, his skill is high enough to make him a very interesting NHL prospect. 

Over in Europe, Filip Ahl is lighting up the SuperElit with 10 goals and seven assists in just nine games, but has struggled to produce for HV71 in the SHL—similar to his performance last season. The versatile forward can play either wing, and his 6-foot-3, 212-pound frame easily lends itself to his competitive, physical game. Ahl will improve his potential drastically when he comes to North America, where his skills may be better utilized.

Defensemen

Featuring 2015 first-round draft pick (18th overall) Thomas Chabot, the Senators have a deep and diverse group of defenseman in the system. The only one of them that plays in the CHL, Chabot has progressed this season after impressing the team in camp. While producing similar results offensively, he has been more consistent in his own end, and should improve on last year’s plus-6 rating. The fleet-footed transition player has a future in Ottawa, perhaps as early as next season.

Unfortunately, Mikael Wikstrand’s future with the team is in doubt. The smart two-way defenceman left the team during training camp to return to Sweden, against the wishes of team GM Bryan Murray, who then suspended him. News that Wikstrand returned home to be close to an ailing family member (his brother was diagnosed with leukemia) has not caused the team to lift the suspension as of yet. Wikstrand has the potential to be a very good middle-pairing defenceman, but he will have to sort things out with the team if wants to play hockey this season.

Also in Europe, Christian Jaros and Andreas Englund are two very promising stay-at-home defencemen. Both players are 6-foot-3 and around 200 pounds, and can similarly end plays with emphatic hits. Although Jaros has a bit more offensive upside, Englund is better defensively and has the potential to play higher in the lineup. Englund could be the best pure defenceman in the system.

In the AHL, Fredrik Claesson and Ben Harpur are regulars in the lineup, despite the team’s sudden wealth of veteran defenceman (the team signed Patrick Mullen, Mark Fraser, and Michael Kostka during the offseason). Claesson has been ready for the NHL for a year or so, but a logjam in Ottawa has limited the number of opportunities available. Harpur will benefit from a few years in the minors before he takes the next step, but if a guy like Jared Cowen doesn’t work out for the big club, Harpur is an obvious candidate to replace him due to his 6-foot-6, 215-pound frame.

With the team so deep on the blueline, tough 6-foot-4 rearguard Michael Sdao has yet to find his way into the lineup in Binghamton. Meanwhile, Troy Rutkowski finds himself with the Evansville IceMen for the second-straight season. His chances of making it to the NHL are not extinguished by any means, but he is a longshot at best.

The team has some very interesting prospects in the NCAA. Speedster Miles Gendron, who went to the RBC Cup with the Penticton Vees last season, could be one of the fastest players in the NCAA. He has already scored twice for the University of Connecticut during his freshman season. Sophomore Kelly Summers, also a product of the CJHL who has competed in the RBC Cup, isn’t as fast as Gendron but is just as dangerous thanks to his great shot from the point. Summers succeeds by keeping his game simple and making sure the puck is directed at the opposing goaltender as often as possible.

2015 pick Christian Wolanin has been dynamite for the University of North Dakota, scoring four points (two goals, two assists) in six games. He certainly has big-league potential, and he has the right pedigree too (his father Craig had a 14-year NHL career as a defenseman). 

Goaltenders

Thanks to the team’s signing of Matt O’Connor and the emergence of Andrew Hammond as a bonafide NHL goaltender, the team is suddenly stacked in goal.

O’Connor was one of the best goaltenders in the NCAA last season, leading Boston University all the way to the Frozen Four Championships before a soft goal weakened his hype somewhat. He started a game in Ottawa early this season due to a short-term injury to Andrew Hammond, and he turned heads with a good performance against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. Since then, he has had a tough go of it in Binghamton this season—but don’t expect that to last for very long. He easily has the potential to be an NHL starter.

Also in the AHL, Chris Driedger has begun to show the talent that the Senators saw when they drafted him in the third round (76th overall) in 2012. Although the perception is that O’Connor is ahead of him on the depth chart, Driedger has clearly been the better goaltender this season—and he’s two years younger to boot.

The signing of O’Connor means that it is uncertain when the team will finally be able to reach an agreement with European goaltender Marcus Hogberg. A big, steady goaltender, Hogberg also has the potential to be a starter, and he has taken on the lion’s share of the starts for the SHL’s Linkoping HC this season.

Last is Joey Daccord, who committed to Arizona State University after a dominant season as the captain of Cushing Academy in 2014-15. Also seeing potential was the Senators, who made Daccord their seventh-round pick (199th overall) in June. Daccord is experiencing some growing pains in the USHL this season, but with an NCAA career ahead of him, he will have plenty of time to adjust to higher levels of competition.

 

Follow Kristopher Bras on Twitter via @KristopherBras