Ottawa Senators top 20 led by trio of Swedish prospects

By Jason Chen

Mika Zibanejad - Ottawa Senators

Photo: Forward Mika Zibanejad is one of several talented Swedish players in the Ottawa Senators prospect pool. (courtesy of Jay Kopinski/Icon SMI)

The Ottawa Senators pipeline features plenty of homegrown talent, including Kanata's Mark Borowiecki, and nearby Hull's Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Cody Ceci and Shane Prince both played in the Senators' backyard for the Ottawa 67's.

The title for best prospect is a two-horse race between goal scoring winger Jakob Silfverberg and the more defensively responsible but equally talented Mika Zibanejad. The two Swedish imports are expected to spearhead the Senators offense, along with highly touted netminder Robin Lehner, who is expected to eventually take the reins from current starter Craig Anderson. Chris Driedger is also showing NHL starter potential and should push Lehner for the job in the future.

There is also Mark Stone and Matt Puempel, two natural goal scorers just waiting for their chance in the NHL to make the red light sing. Eric Gryba and Borowiecki are looking to find regular spots on the Senators blue line, while others like Fredrik Claesson and Derek Grant will have to stand out a little more to get their call-ups.

1. (1) Mika Zibanejad, C, 7.5B
Drafted 1st round, 6th overall, 2011

Zibanejad got his feet wet in the NHL in 2011-12. He recorded his first NHL assist, but he looked overmatched in his nine-game audition and was sent back to Djurgarden. Back in Sweden, Zibanejad had a tough season, appearing in just 26 of Djurgarden's 55 games as the team was relegated to HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden's second-tier league.

For 2012-13, Zibanejad has looked like he belongs in the NHL. He finished fourth in team scoring, just one point ahead of rookie teammate Jakob Silfverberg. More of a playmaker than Silfverberg, Zibenajad's 13 assists were behind only captain Alfredsson and Kyle Turris among the team's forwards. Drafted as Jason Spezza's left winger, Zibanejad was moved back to center position in Spezza's absence. In the future, should head coach Paul MacLean want to give his team a little more depth, Zibanejad would be a great option as a number two center, though he has to improve his currently atrocious faceoff abilities.
   
2.  (2) Jakob Silfverberg, RW, 8C
Drafted 2nd round, 39th overall, 2009

Without Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson kick starting the offense from the blue line, the Senators had difficulty scoring all season, with only New Jersey and Florida scoring fewer goals than Ottawa. Jakob Silfverberg made his NHL debut last year in the playoffs, and while he showed flashes of skill, it was quite obvious he needed more experience, not just to adapt to North American-sized ice, but also the more physical style of play.

Silfverberg did not have a breakout season in 2012-13, but without the help of Karlsson or Spezza, he still finished fifth in team scoring and tied for second with 10 goals. The total is not an eye-catching amount, but the puck handling skills and offensive awareness Silfverberg displays on the ice on a nightly basis is exceptional. The most encouraging part of his play is that he has not had any significant rough patches in his first NHL season.

3. (3) Robin Lehner, G, 7.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2009

Ben Bishop played well for the Senators, but Robin Lehner was otherworldly. One of the lowest scoring teams in the league, the Senators have been buoyed by strong goaltending, from starter Craig Anderson to Nathan Lawson in Binghamton. But with Bishop dealt to Tampa Bay, Lehner is the Senators' goalie of the future.

Lehner is not going to get a lot of playing time with Anderson, so he will be eased into the starting role. Lehner has just 25 NHL starts under his belt, compared to Cory Schneider's 68 when he took over the reins in Vancouver. Considered to be one of the top goalies currently not an NHL starter, the title for the top Swedish goaltender after Henrik Lundqvist's reign will be a battle between Lehner and Jacob Markstrom (FLA).

4. (NR) Cory Conacher, LW, 7.0B
Trade with Tampa Bay Lightning, April 3rd, 2013

Reaction to the Senators landing Cory Conacher, an unheralded, undersized yet offensively talented player, was mixed. Some scouts believed that Bishop was too high of a price to pay. Others believed Conacher was worth the price given the skill and speed he brought to the Ottawa lineup. Locked into Tampa Bay's top six with the Lightning's lack of depth on the left wing, Conacher flew out of the gates and posted 24 points in 35 games before getting traded, a move that even surprised him.

In Ottawa, with no Steven Stamkos or Martin St. Louis to play with, Conacher's production dropped, recording two goals and three assists through 12 regular season games with the Senators. He has however been productive in the playoffs so far, producing three goals in four games.

Conacher's size and his medical condition, diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at eight years old, are his challenges, but his on-ice production shows that he can be a serviceable second line left winger down the road.

5.  (4) Stefan Noesen, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 21st overall, 2011

A hard-working player in the Chris Kelly-mold, Stefan Noesen is a tough winger who is not afraid to go into the corners. He is versatile to play on both the power play and penalty kill, but unlike Kelly, Noesen lacks the ability to win faceoffs. Averaging over a point-per-game for the third straight year on an excellent Plymouth Whalers squad, Noesen is one of the team's leaders, with head coach Mike Vellucci naming him as the team's alternate captain.

Noesen was suspended 10 games by the OHL this year for leaving his feet to hit a player, a suspension which was upheld by the IIHF and cost Noesen an appearance at the 2013 World Juniors for Team USA. Given his size and the way he plays, he should be able to withstand the physicality in the NHL. For now though, his development should focus on his skills and on-ice awareness.

6. (20) Chris Driedger, G, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 76th overall, 2012

An under-the-radar pick by the Senators in the third round of the 2012 draft, Chris Driedger was coming off a season where his win totals were a product of him playing on a good Calgary Hitmen team and not necessarily his ability to stop pucks. In 2012-13 however, Driedger has been outstanding, shaving his goals against average by nearly half a goal and improving his save percentage by 20 points from .896 to .915. In the WHL playoffs, Driedger raised his game and posted a .931 save percentage. In the Eastern Conference final against the heavily favored Edmonton Oil Kings, he was peppered with shots every night but made spectacular games to keep his team in the series, though the Hitmen ended up bowing out in seven games.

Driedger is just 18, and if the slow development of goalies like Markstrom and Lehner are any indication, he still has a long road ahead of him. That gives him a lot of time to develop, but with the amount of pucks he has seen this year with a porous Hitmen defense and another two years of junior hockey, his development could progress faster than expected.

7. (9) Patrick Wiercioch, D, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2008

After acclimating well to the pro game with Binghamton after two years at the University of Denver, including an eight-game call-up to the big club, Patrick Wiercioch took a step back in 2011-12. However, this is quite common for young defensemen and proved to be little reason for concern for Wiercioch, as he had a very successful 2012-13 season in the AHL. After scoring 10 goals in 32 games for Binghamton, Wiercioch was called up to the Senators and stayed there ever since.

It is difficult to project how well Wiercioch would have played in a full NHL season, but through 42 games he emerged as an effective powerplay weapon in Karlsson's absence. After Sergei Gonchar, Wiercioch was Paul MacLean's second option and he responded with 19 points. Wiercioch's defensive awareness and physical play needs work, as those were the two main reasons he was held out of the lineup for the two opening games against the Canadiens in Round 1 of the playoffs. Moving forward, he projects to be a second-pairing defenseman with good offensive instincts.

8. (5) Cody Ceci, D, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 15th overall, 2012

A pure offensive defenseman, Cody Ceci put up gaudy offensive numbers once again in the OHL, but the general consensus among scouts is that his overall game has not improved as much as they thought it would. His defensive zone coverage, for example, has regressed. He fared much better in Owen Sound after getting traded near the OHL trade deadline, but the Attack had a more veteran and experienced team. Ceci was a key member of the Attack's playoff run, scoring 10 points in 12 games.

After the Attack were ousted by Plymouth, Ceci immediately reported to Binghamton. He has not looked out of place in the AHL, though he has only played six games. Expectations for Ceci have been tempered a little this year, but his skating and offensive abilities will make him a top four defenseman in the NHL. Coaches do want to see Ceci use his 6'3 frame a little better.

9.  (10) Matt Puempel, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 1st round, 24th overall, 2011

Like Ceci, Matt Puempel immediately reported to Binghamton after his season with the Kitchener Rangers was over. A consistent 30-goal scorer in the OHL, Puempel gets his goals by going into the high traffic areas. He possesses a good shot with a quick release, though his playmaking abilities are above average as well.

Puempel has also made quite a seamless transition into the AHL so far, though this is not his first rodeo. He appeared in nine games last year, scoring one goal. Having finished his OHL career, Puempel will most likely spend a year in the AHL before making the NHL. Puempel has the potential to be a consistent second-line scoring threat, something that Senators GM Bryan Murray wanted to address in particular after trading up to draft him.

10. (6) Mark Stone, RW, 7.0C
Drafted 6th round, 178th overall, 2010

Mark Stone is a goal scorer who is not blessed with the best skating ability, but just has the innate ability to find the soft spots on the ice and capitalize from in close. Stone was drafted upon the insistence of former Wheat Kings coach Bob Lowes, who now works as a scout for the Senators, when Ottawa was looking for players with some size in the later rounds. The bonus was that Stone was an excellent goal scorer, but the drawback was his skating.

The Senators drafted Stone anyway and had him work with strength and conditioning coach Chris Schwarz. The improvements were noticeable, and not only did Stone dominate in his final year of junior hockey in 2011-12, he scored 15 goals in 54 games this season as an AHL rookie this season, and even earned a four-game call-up to the big club. Stone was the Binghamton Senators best player in the playoffs, leading them with three points in three games. He should be an NHL regular in a couple of years.

11. (12) Shane Prince, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd round, 61st overall, 2011

A slick offensive winger, the Senators plucked Shane Prince right from their backyard after breaking out with the 67's in his third year of junior hockey. Prince's stock fell at the 2011 draft, mostly due to concerns about his size, before the Senators took him with the last pick of the second round. A player who plays with a lot of jump and aggressiveness in his game, Prince is just as fiery off the ice, voicing his displeasure at USA Hockey for being biased against CHL players after getting cut from the 2012 World Junior squad.

With 18 goals in 65 games with the Binghamton Senators, size will not be holding Prince back from playing in the NHL. Given his current development and production, and with Ottawa's above average pipeline, Prince figures to play in the AHL for a few more years before making his mark in the NHL.

12. (16) Eric Gryba, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2006

A Boston University-grad who collected 224 penalty minutes in his final two years with the Terriers, Gryba is a classic stay-at-home defenseman. With limited offensive abilities, Gryba will not be counted on to provide offense, though given his 6'4, 222-pound frame he can put some zip behind his slap shots. As already displayed in the series against Montreal, what Ottawa wants from Gryba is physical play. To get more minutes and earn confidence from the coaching staff, however, Gryba will need to work on his gap control since he is not considered a strong skater.

13. (17) Jean-Gabriel Pageau, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 96th overall, 2011

Speedy and opportunistic, as expect 5'9 players to be, Jean-Gabriel Pageau was never considered a dangerous threat on the ice, so his ability to adjust to the NHL's speed and physicality so quickly and effortlessly is quite surprising. Smaller players tend to be played on the wings because bigger players can cover more ice in the middle, but Pageau has played center under MacLean and only second to Zack Smith in faceoff winning percentage. It is tough to see where Pageau will fit into the lineup in the future, but if he can continue to show off his speed and scoring ability, it will be hard to keep him out of the lineup.

14. (7) Mark Borowiecki, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 139th overall, 2008

Another from a long line of players the Senators have plucked from their backyard, Mark Borowiecki played with Smiths Falls before playing three seasons at Clarkson University. In his first professional season, Borowiecki impressed and was called up for a two-game audition in January. A physical, stay-at-home defenseman, with the emergence of Jared Cowen and Gryba, Borowiecki has an uphill battle to become an NHL regular.

15. (8) Andre Petersson, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2008

It was supposed to be a fantastic second season for the Swedish winger, after scoring 23 goals in 60 games for the Binghamton Senators in his first pro season. Unfortunately, Petersson underwent season-ending hip surgery after just 17 games in which he looked uncomfortable. The good news is that Cowen underwent the same kind of surgery and fully recovered.

Petersson's main weakness is his defensive play. He can score goals and help set up teammates in a hurry, but his game is far too one-dimensional.

16. (14) Stephane Da Costa, C, 6.5C
Signed as a free agent, March 31st, 2011

Much hullabaloo was made about the Senators' prized free agent. Born in France, Da Costa made waves after two spectacular years at Merrimack College, but has found adjusting to the NHL a tough challenge. Through 35 NHL games, Da Costa has just seven points and minus-13. Although a skilled playmaking center in college hockey, he has had trouble adjusting to the speed and physicality of the NHL. He might have benefitted from staying one more year with Merrimack and as it stands does not really factor into the Senators' long-term plans.

17. (13) Mike Hoffman, C, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 130th overall, 2009

One of the fastest skaters in the Ottawa system, Hoffman lives and dies with his speed. Versatile enough to play all three forward positions but best used as a winger, Hoffman also possesses an above average shot. While it will never be mistaken for Brett Hull's, which Saint John Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant once compared it to, Hoffman has the potential to be a 20-goal scorer in the NHL. He will however need to work on his strength and awareness if he wants to be an NHL regular. His two-way play needs work too, although that is something that can be developed with good skaters.

18. (18) Fredrik Claesson, D, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2011

A stay-at-home defenseman who plays an easy, off-the-glass-and-out type of game, there is nothing flashy about Fredrik Claesson. Unlike other Swedish defensemen of his size, Claesson's puck skills are not as good as his peers. He has an above average shot, but does not use it often, and he rarely takes risks with his passes. He has acclimated himself well to the North American game, having made a seamless transition from Djurgarden, but Claesson needs to add an extra element to his game to make him stand out a little more or risk getting replaced with a player with a more dynamic game.

19.  (15) Derek Grant, C, 6.0C
Drafted 4th round, 119th overall, 2008

A Michigan State alum with two full years of AHL hockey under his belt, Derek Grant is only now finding his niche as a checking forward. After suffering a shoulder injury in his rookie season, Grant more than doubled his goal total from eight to 19, while improving by 18 points in the plus-minus category. Grant already has gotten a taste of NHL hockey this season with the Senators ravaged by injuries. Given his skill set, he will feature as a bottom six or spare forward going forward.

20. (NR) Robbie Baillargeon, C, 6.5D
Drafted 5th round, 136th overall, 2012

An unheralded playmaker who left the New England prep leagues to play in the USHL, Robbie Baillargeon is an offense-first type player in the David Krejci-mold. Playing for the Indiana Ice for most of the past two seasons, Baillargeon was often the youngest player on the ice. Nicknamed "Mystery Man" by his teammates for his quiet nature, he finished the 2012-13 season with the Omaha Lancers. Still considered a project, Baillargeon will suit up for Boston University in the fall.