Struggling Binghamton Senators still developing talent in the AHL

By Tony Androckitis
Matt O'Connor - Ottawa Senators

Photo: Binghamton Senators goaltender and Ottawa Senators prospect Matt O’Connor has spent most of the 2015-16 season in the AHL, but did manage one NHL appearance early in the season (courtesy of Jason Kopinski/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

It’s been a rough start to the season for the Binghamton Senators. After a 3-2 start to the 2015-16 campaign for the Ottawa Senators‘ top minor league affiliate, they have gone 8-16-3-0 since and now find themselves sitting in last place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference as the new year begins.

Following a recent win over the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, head coach Luke Richardson was hoping to carry the momentum from that win into the following weekend’s games and beyond.

“Right now, any win is a big win for us, but this is huge because we have to sit on this for five or six days,” Richardson said after the win over Lehigh Valley, adding, “This is better than sitting on another loss. We have a lot of hockey coming up after the break, so coming out of this – this is going to be momentum that we are going to try to carry into the last few days of December and into the new year.”

Still, the AHL Senators – more commonly referred to as the BSens – have talented young prospects on the roster developing their respective games such as forward Ryan Dzingel, rookie forward Nick Paul and first year pro goaltender Matt O’Connor.

Dzingel, in his second full year at the professional level out of Ohio State University, is becoming a more reliable two-way player for Binghamton. Dzingel’s attention to detail and increased focus on playing both sides of the puck has seen him tally 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 32 games – earning Dzingel his first NHL call-up and making his NHL debut with the Ottawa Senators on December 22nd.

Paul, a highly-regarded prospect acquired in the trade that saw Ottawa send Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars, is a winger with a good combination of size and skill making the jump to the pro ranks this season with Binghamton. It has been a bit of a struggle in the scoring department for him 25 games into his pro career, but he was able to tally his first career AHL goal – the game winner – in the game against the Phantoms.

“It feels really good, especially the way the team played [Saturday],” Paul explained of his first pro goal. “Pucks haven’t been going my way lately, but coach kept telling me to keep going hard and that’s what I’ve been doing. It finally went in for me.”

“Didn’t expect it to come this late,” Paul added of his first one. “To get that definitely helps the confidence. Instead of being a little shaky with the puck, I have a little bit more confidence now.”

The way Richardson talked about Paul, it seemed like he has been doing some good things on the ice but, like most of his teammates, not getting the results.

“That was probably his best game of the year,” Richardson said of everything coming together for Paul. “He’s been weighing on that goal for a while and I think it’d been affecting his play a little bit, but [Saturday] he was really good.”

Ottawa was able to sign highly sought after free agent goaltender Matt O’Connor over the summer. The former Boston University netminder had an incredible 25-4-4 season in the Hockey East Association last year and, with his size (6-5, 205 pounds) and athleticism, O’Connor projects to be an NHL-level goaltender.

O’Connor, like many first-year goalies at the professional level, has had growing pains adjusting to the speed and skill at the next level to the tune of an 0-7-2 start to his pro career with a 4.22 goals-against average and .863 save percentage.

“I’m definitely more prepared to stay even keel if bounces don’t go our way,” O’Connor said, adding, “Being able to be resilient for 60 minutes has been huge for us the last couple weeks.”

In his last five starts, however, O’Connor is 3-2-0 which has helped improve his numbers to a 3.44 goals-against average and a .886 save percentage – perhaps a sign that he is starting to figure things out in the AHL.

“The last few games, we’ve seen a lot of improvement,” Richardson said of his rookie goaltender. “He’s working at his game every day. We’re happy he’s starting to get results.”

It’s certainly been a bit of a learning process for O’Connor, but that learning process was interrupted in a game on Dec. 30th in which the goaltender tweaked his knee, knocking him out of action in the near term. Nevertheless, it appears that he is turning the corner as 2016 begins. His coaches are happy with his continued efforts to work on his game.

“I think the pass-first mentality with players having that option with cross-seam passes east to west,” O’Connor explained of his biggest adjustment to pro hockey so far. “With my size, playing deeper in the net is now helping me a lot because I could still make that save on the shot and be in a better position to get across the net.”

Binghamton has dug themselves in a bit of a hole in the early parts of the season, with the team currently sitting 12 points out of a playoff position. But the Senators have shown the ability to score goals in bunches which, with continued improvement in their own end, should translate into more offensive zone time and production.

“Our team hasn’t been winning a lot,” Paul said of his team’s current situation. “Going into Christmas break, everybody wanted to win to get the ball rolling and get the good vibes going. It’s a huge win and we hope to come back from the break and be a new team and start winning games.”

Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey