Senators AHL prospect season review

By Sean Keogh

Expectations were high for the Binghamton Senators in 2004-05. They were the pre-season favorites to take the Calder Cup, boasting a roster with at least half a dozen players who would have spent this year in the NHL if not for the league’s work stoppage.

After a slow start, the club gained steam in the New Year, and by the end of the season, only two teams were ahead in points. The club easily led the league in goals, and Jason Spezza took home league MVP honors.

But disaster struck for Binghamton in their first playoff round series against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, as the club fell in four straight games after taking a quick 2-0 series lead.

Regardless of their early exit, most of the Senators prospects had great seasons. Thirteen prospects played regular roles in Binghamton this past season. Here’s a look at how they fared.

Goaltenders

Since June 2001, when the Senators took Ray Emery in the fourth round of the annual NHL Entry Draft, the hybrid goaltender’s stock has climbed. That is until this past season, when Emery struggled and ended up platooning with fellow prospect Billy Thompson for much of the year. Fans, media and Ottawa General Manager John Muckler were all turned into critics, pointing to him as the club’s only weak link.

Several players who might have otherwise been in Ottawa also struggled in Binghamton, but Emery’s problem seemed to be more complex. For Emery, it seemed to be more a lack of mental preparation and trouble with his technical game. Emery, a former CHL goalie of the year and two-time AHL All-Star, did set a career high in wins with 28, but was fluctuating around .500 for much of the season. His goals against average finished a respectable 2.65 as did his save percentage of .910. Despite his poor play for much of the season, Emery began to turn it around in the last third of the season, winning AHL Goalie of the Month to close out the regular season. Ultimately, while the club’s playoff disappointment was blamed on many factors and players, Emery was not one of them. The Cayuga, Ontario native was fantastic in the playoffs, with a 2.05 goals against and .925 save percentage. This can only be a positive for Emery, who will likely be in the NHL whenever it resumes play.

Long lost in all of the hype surrounding Emery has been Thompson, a second-year pro who played his junior hockey in Prince George. Of course, when Thompson began to thrive, the spotlight remained on the struggles of the supposed goaltender of the future. Like Emery, a big goaltender with decent athleticism, Thompson forced the club to give him more playing time when Emery struggled. Acquired from Florida in a deal for Jani Hurme, the Saskatoon native played in 34 games for the second season in a row, but this time around, put up sparkling numbers. His 19-8-2 record was impressive, as was his 2.44 goals against and .920 save percentage. Thompson does not possess the upside that Emery does, but has definitely improved his stock within the organization, and is no longer a long-shot prospect. In the event that the NHL resumes play next year, Thompson would likely be the starter in Binghamton as Emery would graduate to the big club. He is forcing his way into Ottawa’s long-term plans though, continuing to improve at an impressive rate.

Defensemen

Last year at the draft, the Senators used their top two selections on defensemen, as the club’s stable of prospects was lacking on the blueline. Since Anton Volchenkov graduated and Tim Gleason was traded, no defenseman in the system had really stepped forward and shown significant promise. A year later, with both Andrej Meszaros and Kiril Lyamin in the fold after the Senators successfully acquired two good defense prospects in the draft, the club has also seen two of its minor pro blueline prospects emerge.

Christoph Schubert has always been long on talent and short on consistency. After two disappointing seasons in Binghamton, the German put it all together this past season. Long considered one of his country’s best prospects, there was a time where Schubert and San Jose top prospect Christian Ehrhoff were very comparable prospects coming out of Germany. Ehrhoff bloomed early and already has some decent experience in the NHL, whereas Schubert struggled out of the gate in North America. After this season, the gap has closed.

Possessing good size at almost 6’3 and almost 220 pounds, Schubert definitely has the size to play in the NHL. In 2004-05, he started to play more a more bruising style, as his 110 PIMs suggest. Even though the Munich native did have bad games like in years past, they were few and far between. While Schubert was not quite as productive offensively as Brian Pothier or Anton Volchenkov, both of whom played in the NHL last year, his 32 points did almost triple his total from the previous season. Perhaps most impressive was that down the stretch and in the playoffs, Schubert was perhaps the club’s best defenseman. His biggest weapon offensively is his cannon of a shot, which can get him some goals from the point, and his passing has improved significantly. Whenever the Ottawa Senators resume play, Schubert will push very hard for a roster spot.

The other blueliner who made a significant improvement this season was Jan Platil. Even though the former seventh rounder put up identical statistics to his rookie campaign in Binghamton (one goal and four points), the big blueliner made huge strides in just about every aspect of his game. The former Barrie Colt was more of an offensive blueliner in his junior days, but has had to simplify his game tremendously to adapt to the professional game. A dangerous open ice hitter who feasts on unsuspecting players in the neutral zone, Platil piled up 198 penalty minutes this past season. That total was aided by the fact that Platil dropped the gloves more than ever before and more than once destroyed an opponent in a fight.

Unlike last year, he was very steady in his own zone, which compliments his nasty disposition perfectly. Platil is also a willing shot blocker that is quite effective on the penalty kill. The Czech native likely needs another year in the AHL before pushing for regular duty in Ottawa, but could very well see a few call-ups during the next season.

The other blueline prospect who played in Binghamton this season was Neil Komadoski, who certainly was not as successful as Schubert or Platil. Only five days younger than Schubert, the big Notre Dame graduate definitely struggled with the pace of the professional game in his first year out of college. He only dressed for 36 games all year, notching two goals and three points. Komadoski did not dress for any playoff games. A classic stay-at-home type who relies on both size and intelligence, Komadoski needs to improve his foot speed, which should in turn reduce the frequency of poor decisions that plagued him when he was in the line-up. Next year will be very important for him because in he should be handed a top four role.

Forwards

When Antoine Vermette was drafted, he was considered a pure offensive talent. At the conclusion of his tumultuous junior career, there were questions about his offensive upside. He squashed those questions with a fantastic rookie year in Binghamton two years ago, and then subsequently played a full year in Ottawa, but as a fourth liner and penalty-killing specialist. This past season in Binghamton, Vermette really showed all his colors. Although the speedster took a while to get going offensively, he was one of the league’s top scorers in the second half and his 73 points (28 goals and 45 points) tied him for 14th in league scoring by the end of the year.

There are many things to like about Vermette’s game. The speedy former Victoriaville Tigres star is both an outstanding playmaker and a dangerous sniper. Of course, what Ottawa fans know about Vermette is that he’s also an amazingly hard worker who works is stellar in his own zone, and has a motor that never stops. There were stretches where Vermette was Binghamton’s best player, especially after the NHL season was officially cancelled. He admitted to being distracted by the uncertainty of the NHL work stoppage at times during the season, because he has been penciled into Ottawa’s line-up for years to come. The St-Agapit native also led Binghamton in scoring in the playoffs.

While Vermette’s success surprised no one, Brandon Bochenski turned more than a few heads this past season in Binghamton, as a rookie. He came out of college early after being a Hobey Baker nominated scoring dynamo at the University of North Dakota, but there were many questions about how he would adjust to the professional game. A former seventh round pick with average size and notable flaws such as skating and attention to detail defensively, Bochenski managed to not simply adjust, but thrive in his first professional season. The native of Blaine, Minnesota led all league rookies in scoring and was 18th in scoring overall, putting up 70 points, 34 of them goals.

Bochenski’s shot is definitely NHL caliber, and his hands in close are fantastic. A pure sniper, he played most of the year with AHL MVP Jason Spezza, a triggerman for the gifted playmaker. Like many pure snipers, Bochenski is not as dangerous with the puck as he is when trying to get open to be given the puck. With the pure instincts of a goal scorer as well as tremendous hand-eye coordination, he has a chance to earn a spot in Ottawa when the chance next comes up, but there are enough things in his game to work on that another year in the AHL would not hurt.

One player who is more than ready to make the jump to the NHL is the captain Chris Kelly. In his fourth professional season, Kelly was given the huge responsibility of wearing the “C” on a team laden with numerous NHL caliber players. Binghamton’s demise in the playoffs was surely not the fault of 24-year-old Kelly, who is one of the few players capable of matching Vermette’s work ethic. The Toronto native put up 24 goals and 60 points, both easily career highs, but his plus/minus rating of +30, which ranked fifth in the league, was telling of how he was most valuable. After seeing four games last year in Ottawa, Kelly has nothing left to prove in the AHL, and has all the tools to put together a lengthy career as a checking line player in the NHL.

To some players though, being a checking line player is hard to accept. That was part of the problem for Charlie Stephens this past season. Stephens was perhaps the AHL’s best player for a stretch of time last year with Binghamton, but the infusion of talent because of the NHL lockout resulted in Stephens playing mostly on the third line all season. It was not until late in the season that the London, Ontario native, who once went first overall in the OHL Priority Selection, really started using his size and speed to create things other than offense. Of course, at that point, he also started scoring more. He only put up seven goals and 28 points all season, but the potential is always there with Stephens. It is always hard to predict what will happen with the talented center, but if nothing else, he should return to being a top scorer in the AHL sooner rather than later.

The other four Senators prospects who played in Binghamton, Grant Potulny, Greg Watson, Danny Bois and Brian McGrattan, combined for a total of 16 goals. They did however combine for 1010 penalty minutes, 551 of which can be credited to McGrattan, who proudly set a league record with that total.

Potulny and Watson are both big body players with good skating ability and some potential. Potulny in his rookie season after an illustrious career at the University of Michigan, was more or less simply a victim of being a first-year player on an incredibly deep team, and never had a chance to play much above the fourth line. While Watson played a very similar role, this was his second year with the club, and he began to show signs of understanding his limitations and playing more to his strengths, which are speed, size and physicality.

The fact Bois played in 72 games is something of a surprise considering the former Colorado third rounder appeared ticketed for ECHL duty after signing as a free agent from the London Knights of the OHL. McGrattan easily got the most press of the four guys, simply because he a behemoth of a fighter that seems to take a misconduct for every time he gets a shot on net. It is worth noting that McGrattan has some good skills for a player with such amazing penalty minute totals, although he will have to become a lot smarter before he expects to stick in the NHL.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.