Thanks to multiple graduations, rich development and a bountiful turn at the draft table, the Ottawa Senators top 20 list features a number of fresh faces. And the organization’s future is suddenly ripe with potential, despite seeming hopeless and bleak just six months ago.
When Ottawa’s previous top 20 list was published in February, the farm system was depleted due to many recent graduations to the big club. The team’s lack of depth could also be attributed to the Bobby Ryan trade; two of the system’s best prospects (Stefan Noesen and Jakob Silfverberg) and a 2014 first round pick (Nick Ritchie) were sent to Anaheim in return for the former 30-goal scorer.
In the short time since, the farm system has come full circle. The emergence of Andrew Hammond as a bonafide NHL backstop allowed team GM Brian Murray to send Robin Lehner to his nephew Tim in Buffalo in exchange for the 21st overall pick in the draft. The move neatly accounted for the team’s lack of a first-round selection in 2014.
The team was also able to beat out a field of suitors to sign up Boston University phenom goaltender Matt O’Connor, who saw potential for advancement in Ottawa’s system that he did not see elsewhere.
Ottawa’s farm system is enhanced by the rapid development of its players, some of whom have moved up on the team’s depth chart—despite the numerous talents garnered at the draft table in June. In total, the list features eight players that were not there last February.
It is an exciting time for the Senators, and the team will have some pleasant decisions to make in camp—both Ottawa’s, and Binghamton’s.
20. (NR) Francis Perron, LW, 6.5 C
Drafted 7th round, 190th overall, 2014
Francis Perron is one of the organization’s greatest success stories of 2014-15. His 29 goals were just short of double his draft-year total of 16, and he finished the year with 76 points. Although that production is promising, the Senators have a glut of talent on the left side—so he is years away from the big club. Perron will return to Rouyn-Noranda this season.
19. (13) Ryan Dzingel, C, 6.5 C
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2011
Although Dzingel had some trouble adjusting to the professional game, he showed a dramatic improvement in the second half of 2014-15. He will be hard-pressed to uproot any of the centers currently ahead of him on the depth chart, but he should continue to develop positively this season—and he is versatile enough to play the wing in a call-up to the big club.
18. (NR) Max McCormick, LW, 6.5 C
Drafted 6th round, 171st overall, 2011
McCormick and Dzingel have done everything together; they were drafted together, they went to Ohio State together, and they shared the team Rookie of the Year award in Binghamton together. On this list however, McCormick gets the slight edge. Although Dzingel’s 34 points were better than McCormick’s 20 in 2014-15, the latter’s edgy, speedy play in camp over the last few years has caught the eye of team executives—and they like what they see.
17. (14) Mikael Wikstrand, D, 6.5 C
Drafted 7th round, 196th overall, 2012
It looks like Mikael Wikstrand will get his chance to make the Binghamton Senators this season, after remaining in Sweden for the past three. There, he has steadily moved up from the SuperElit through the Allsvenskan, and finally landed in the SHL for good last season on loan to Frolunda. After summer development camp, the Senators loaned Wikstrand to Farjestad so he could participate in Champions Hockey League group stage games, ensuring that he will get to camp in September ready to compete for playing time.
16. (12) Chris Driedger, G, 6.5 C
Drafted 3rd round, 76th overall, 2012
It says something about Ottawa’s organizational growth that Chris Driedger has dropped from 3rd to 16th on this list in the past year, despite remaining a worthwhile prospect. Driedger was blasted in the defensively sloppy ECHL last season, until he was suddenly called up to the NHL when both Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner fell to injury.
After collecting several NHL paychecks in a front row seat to Hammond’s heroics, Driedger got the chance to start in Binghamton upon Anderson’s return. There, his numbers improved drastically over his time in Evansville. His 2.55 goals-against and .923 save percentage all but guarantee him the chance to battle with O’Connor for playing time in Binghamton this season.
15. (19) Buddy Robinson, RW, 6.5 C
Signed as a free agent, March 2013
Buddy Robinson is the logical choice to supplant Chris Neil in Ottawa when the aging forward’s contract expires at the end of 2015-16. Robinson is a hulking (6’5, 236 lbs) right winger that can hog plenty of real estate in front of the net, and punish opposition along the glass. If Robinson gets called up to Ottawa, it will be a return of sorts; he developed with the CCHL’s Nepean Raiders (Ottawa Jr. A team) for 19 games in 2010-11.
14. (NR) Gabriel Gagne, RW, 7.5 D
Drafted 2nd round, 36th overall, 2015
Gabriel Gagne has more goal-scoring potential than most of the players on this list. He has a great wrist shot, soft hands, and incredible agility for a 6-foot-5 forward. Unfortunately, he is also underweight, avoids physical play and shows little desire to play defence—a problem in today’s NHL. If he can develop a mean streak and play with more intensity, he could move into the top-five on this list very quickly.
13. (NR) Matt O’Connor, G, 7.5 D
Signed as a free agent, May 2015
Boston University’s Matt O’Connor had the collegiate hockey world’s attention in 2014-15, and his 25-4-4 record is reminiscent of another goaltender who made opponent heads shake last season—Ottawa’s own Hammond. Although the late-blooming O’Connor let in a couple of groaners during the Frozen Four, his size (6’5, 205 lbs), reflexes and athleticism make him one of the best goaltending prospects to exit the NCAA in recent memory. Expect him to rise on this list quickly if he continues to dominate in the AHL, where he will compete with Driedger for playing time.
12. (NR) Christian Jaros, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 5th round, 139th overall, 2015
Christian Jaros is a shutdown defenceman, similar to fellow Sens prospect Andreas Englund. He can throw big, timely hits and block shots when he has to. Unlike Englund, his offensive tools have room to grow, but they are currently very raw. He helped Slovakia win the bronze medal at the 2015 World Junior Championships, and he should feature again this year. Jaros is a long-term project, and will return to Lulea for the 2015-16 season.
11. (5) Fredrik Claesson, D, 7.0 C
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2015
Fredrik Claesson’s path to NHL was much clearer last season. With the Senators system suddenly flooded with great defensive prospects, and Wideman ahead of him in priority, it is unclear when Claesson will get his turn. He also had a tough 2014-15 on Binghamton’s blueline, and suffered some growing pains as the team’s top defensive player. Claesson is still a great NHL prospect, but not quite as assured of moving up to the big club in the near future.