Ottawa Senators Top 20 highlighted by deep and skilled group of forwards

By Peter Morrow

Ottawa Senators v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Five

Photo: Forward Mika Zibanejad had a solid rookie season in the NHL, managing seven goals and 13 assists in 42 games for a low-scoring Ottawa Senators team. (Courtesy of Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Ottawa Senators continue to have a deep and talented group of prospects even after trading forwards Stefan Noesen and Jakob Silfverberg to the Anaheim Ducks in part of a package for Bobby Ryan.

Mika Zibanejad and Cory Conacher have all but cemented spots after impressive campaigns in 2012-13, while other young players such as Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mark Stone are close to regularly contributing at the NHL level. Robin Lehner continues to post great numbers in goal, while fellow goaltender Chris Driedger continues to raise his stock in the WHL. The defensive pipeline is also deep, with defensemen such as Mark Borowiecki and Patrick Wiercioch looking to further establish themselves in the NHL.

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

Mika Zibanejad's shaky NHL debut as an 18-year-old in 2011 is ancient history. When Senators star Jason Spezza's injury erased him for most of 2013, Zibanejad helped fill the void, playing second line duties behind Kyle Turris for most of the season.

With increased playing time, Zibanejad was better adjusted to the game's speed, while his big frame kept him from getting knocked around. He finished plus-nine with seven goals and 13 assists in 42 games. Great hands, decent speed, and top-notch playmaking ability sound a lot like Spezza, but Zibanejad does not quite project to that level. For an established two-way player, his faceoffs are still the most visible weakness. The 20-year old still has room to grow, and he will have time to do so playing third line center minutes behind Spezza and Turris.

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

The 22-year-old Robin Lehner already has some prestige under his belt, winning a 2011 Calder Cup ring and capturing the AHL playoff MVP that year. Last season in the NHL, Lehner earned a handful of starts due to a mid-season injury to starter Craig Anderson. In 12 games he posted a .936 save percentage and 2.20 goals against average.

With Ben Bishop gone via trade, the backup role to Anderson is Lehner's to lose. The big Swede will not be rushed into a starting role however, as Anderson has two years left on his contract.

3. (NR) Curtis Lazar, C, 7.5C
Drafted 1st round, 17th overall, 2013

Curtis Lazar is a dynamic forward who can consistently score, create plays, and inflict hits. His numbers are good, but not outstanding: 38 goals and 23 assists with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL last season; with nine goals and two assists in 22 playoff games. The former included a 13-game scoring drought from November through to early December.

Scoring slump aside, Lazar's finishing ability is an asset, and it is only a fraction of his game. He is an excellent skater who plays both sides of the ice, hits often, and even drops the gloves once in a while, exemplified in his scuffle with Edmonton Oilers prospect Darnell Nurse during last year's CHL Top Prospects game. With added strength, Lazar could be NHL-ready by 2014-15.

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

Cory Conacher arrived in Ottawa after an early offensive outburst, scoring 12 points in seven games to kick off his rookie NHL season in Tama Bay. Once the magic wore off, Conacher notched 17 points in his next 40 during his time spent between Tampa and Ottawa. The latter stat line served as a clearer indication of Conacher's realistic offensive output.

In the playoffs Conacher played third line duties when he was not a healthy scratch, scoring three goals and no assists in eight games. During the first-round Montreal series he played an agitator role, taking 31 penalty minutes and drawing nearly as many.

Conacher can produce offensively, and when he is not scoring he can wreak havoc for the opposition. If he can do both while staying out of the box, he could be a nice addition to the Senators top-nine.

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

A forward before his junior career, Cody Ceci boasts elite offensive instincts, puck movement, and vision. As his pro career approaches, those strengths give the 19-year-old a real chance, albeit a small one, at making the Senators roster at some point this season.

Red flags above Ceci's defensive abilities are still raised, but are being lowered gradually after a solid end to the AHL season last year. He struggled early in the OHL with the Ottawa 67's, going minus-14, before being traded and settling down with a more experienced Owen Sound team. Scoring 10 points in 12 playoff games before being eliminated, Ceci was a key offensive weapon during that run. He joined the Binghamton Senators for the season's remainder, earning praise for his solid defensive play. If Ceci can build off his momentum last year, he is bound to play in Ottawa in the near future.

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

Patrick Wiercioch exploded last season to capture 19 points in 42 games, on top of a plus-nine rating and 39 penalty minutes. His 2012-13 season landed him a three-year contract worth $2 million per year.

He is 6'5 yet without much of an on-ice physical presence, and uses speed to make defensive plays. He is an excellent puck-mover who showed he can make game-changing passes both on the breakout and in the offensive zone. He is also very good on the powerplay, with 10 of his 19 points last year coming off the man-advantage.

For the 2013-14 season, he projects as a number five or six defenseman this season with power play duties.

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

At 24 years old, Borowiecki has moved up the organization's depth charts by sticking to a very simple formula: play sound defense with a physical edge.

The Kanata native has enjoyed brief NHL stints between 2011-12 and 2012-13, compiling eight total games. Last year Borowiecki was named captain of the Binghamton Senators after teammates Andre Benoit and Eric Gryba earned spots above him in Ottawa. To endear himself with Coach MacLean, Borowiecki needs to improve his puck-handling. If he can execute error-free passes and adapt to the quicker game speed, he should crack the third pairing or stick around as a seventh defenseman.

8. (10) Jean-Gabriel Pageau, C, 7C
Drafted 4th round, 96th overall, 2011 draft

J-G Pageau's name echoed Ottawa's Scotiabank Place arena on May 5th as the young native of nearby Gatineau, Quebec, trounced Carey Price for his third goal of the game. He finished with six playoff points in 10 games to cap off a remarkable year of ascension through the organization's ranks.

In the AHL, Pageau went from the fourth-line to the third-line and eventually made his NHL debut by April 11th. By that time, he proved he could also score in the big leagues, posting two goals, two assists in nine regular season games.

Pageau projects as a top nine forward with offensive flair. He will soon play more games with the Senators, but another year spent in Binghamton might be in store despite his playoff heroics.

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

If four years, Matt Puempel lit up the OHL, posting 213 points in 195 regular season games. Those totals could have been higher if not for nagging injuries along the way. The dynamic winger is a natural goal-scorer who possesses decent size and speed. Once considered a defensive liability, he worked hard to change that during his last season with the Kitchener Rangers, finishing plus-five – the first plus rating over his entire junior career.

Depending on how his first full pro season goes in Binghamton, Puempel could earn an NHL audition sooner than later. A realistic outlook has Puempel playing in Ottawa by 2014-15 if he can remain healthy and keep filling the net.

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

Chris Driedger keeps on getting better, culminating into last year's breakout success in the WHL. The Calgary Hitmen starting netminder posted a 2.51 goals against average, along with a .915 save percentage – good enough to earn a 36-14-4 record in regular season play. His playoff numbers were outstanding, upping his save percentage to .931 to carry Calgary into a seven-game Eastern Conference finals series. Calgary fell in the series, but Driedger's calm and steady play gave them hope despite their underdog status.

The 6'2, 193 pound goalie is consistently improving, and at 19, he will have another season to grow in Calgary before his makes his mark in the AHL. His name is expected to be in discussions for Canada's 2014 World Junior team.

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

As he showed with astonishing success during his WHL career, Mark stone can score, create chances, hit, and fight. Most notably he tallied 41 goals and 82 assists in 2011-12 with the Brandon Wheat Kings to finish second in WHL scoring. The big winger can do it all extremely well – except one thing. He is not particularly fast.

His relative lack of acceleration did not hamper him in his first AHL season, where he notched 15 goals, 23 assists and a plus-21 rating in 54 games to lead the team in points and plus/minus. He did not impress during his scoreless four-game NHL stint last season, managing his only NHL point during a 2012 playoff game assisting on a Jason Spezza goal.

Stone still has plenty of time to improve at the AHL level, though he could get a chance in Ottawa as early as this season.

12. (9) Shane Prince, C/W, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 61st overall, 2011.

Shane Prince is already well known in Ottawa's hockey circles as an exciting high-scoring forward from his OHL career with the Ottawa 67's. Prince boasts world class hands, good speed, and scoring ability.

If Prince can add more pounds to his 5'11, 185 pound frame, he will be better prepared for his NHL debut. He will likely need at least another season with Binghamton, earning top line minutes to improve upon last year's 18 goals and 17 assists.

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

Mike Hoffman is somewhat of a late-bloomer who continues to show good progression. He is an exciting player with NHL-calibre speed, who has produced above-average numbers in the AHL. In 2011-12 he led Binghamton with 49 points in 76 contests, followed by last year's 28 points in 41. But at 5'11 and 176 pounds, Hoffman joins Pageau and Prince as a smaller, skilled forward type offering minimal physical play. His three-game NHL stint last year ended after he suffered a broken collarbone.

Hoffman should get a chance to play in the NHL at some point this coming season.

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

Fredrik Claesson's recent "Hardest Worker Award" at the 2013 Ottawa Senators Development Camp speaks volumes about his game. The late draft pick is a stay-at-home defenseman who prevents scoring chances through any means necessary – shot-blocking, hitting, great positioning, and uncompromising hard work. The 20-year-old Swede resembles Borowiecki in his style of play: an effective nuisance in the defensive zone who needs to work on puck-handling. However, unlike Borowiecki, Claesson is still very young and has many years to grow.

For now Claesson is a solid stay-at-home d-man who plays a simple game, and projects to be a depth player on a Senators team loaded with offensively gifted d-men.

15. (13) Stephane Da Costa, C, 6.5C
Signed as free agent, March 31st, 2011

Stephane Da Costa owns a rare offensive skillset for a hockey player who was born in Paris, France. His world class hands, vision, and playmaking ability earned him 35 NHL games to date, where he has managed four goals and three assists. Da Costa is undersized without much speed or defensive ability, but his drive to improve complements his unique talents. He has strung together two consecutive strong AHL seasons, recording 74 points in 103 outings.

Unless he can translate some of that success in his next NHL stint, Da Costa might soon run out of time to prove himself with the Senators. He joins an extensive list of other small, skilled forwards, and at 24 years old, his upside is diminishing.

16. (16) Derek Grant, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 119th overall, 2008

In just over 43 minutes of play spanned over five NHL games, Derek Grant compiled no goals, no assists, and a minus-one rating. Still an under-the-radar prospect at 23 years of age, Grant was nearly a point-per-game player through two seasons with Michigan State University before joining Binghamton in the AHL, where he has played two seasons just below 0.5 points per game. A strong skater and a regular penalty killer under AHL Head Coach Luke Richardson, Grant's size, speed, and defensive awareness could land him a place in Ottawa's roster quite soon.

He projects as a bottom-six NHL grinder in the near future.

17. (NR) Marcus Hogberg, G, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 78th overall, 2013

Since the age of 16, Marcus Hogberg has been a successful component of Sweden's national junior teams – building an expectation of pedigree for the 18-year-old. Last season he made his pro debut in Sweden's Elitserien, appearing in three games for Linkoping.

The giant Swede has a long road ahead of him as he is just beginning to transition to professional duties in Sweden. He also faces stiff competition in the Senators goaltending pipeline and only time will tell whether the he can maintain elite form on North American ice. In the meantime, Hogberg is on loan to Mora of Sweden's Allsvenskan league, where he will earn regular minutes and valuable professional experience at a young age.

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

Andre Petersson had a 2012-13 season to forget. Before suffering a season-ending hip injury, Petersson managed only two goals and three assists in 17 games, far off the his 44 points in 60 games in 2012-12.

Last year's slow start may have been a blip in his production, but the hip injury nonetheless damaged his progress. A smooth skater with wicked hands, Petersson can be a top-six forward, but his chances of playing an NHL role may hinge on whether he can rebound and stay healthy in the AHL this year.

19. (NR) Mikael Wikstrand, D, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 196th overall, 2012

Mikael Wikstrand is a mobile defenseman who is currently playing Swedish minor-league hockey with Mora. At 6'1 and 183 pounds, the smooth skater does not play a physical game, but works hard to be a force in the defensive zone. His eight goals and 14 assists in 45 games last season tied him for fifth in league defenseman scoring – a big step up from his three points scored in 2011-12. He also collected four assists in six games with Sweden's WJC team last winter as the only Senators prospect to skate in the entire tournament.

If he continues his progression, or even maintains those numbers again with Mora, his next logical step would be the AHL.

20. (NR) Vincent Dunn, C, 6.5C
Drafted 5th round, 138th overall, 2013

Deeper down the Ottawa Senators list of smaller, skilled forward prospects, Dunn is one of those with added grit. A native of nearby Gatineau, Quebec, Dunn is a major nuisance to play against. Over his first two seasons with Val D'Or in the QMJHL he has posted 192 penalty minutes in 109 regular season games while dropping the gloves 14 times.

The 18-year-old has already grown offensively, one point shy of posting a point per game last season compared to his 13 points in 52 games during 2011-12. During the NHL's annual summer rookie tournament, he excelled playing alongside fellow prospect and good friend J-G Pageau. Dunn posted two goals in the 6-2 tournament final victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs rookies – his strong tournament play resulting in an invite to the Ottawa Senators training camp.

Traded in June to the Gatineau Olympiques, Dunn will look to earn his spot in the AHL with the Binghamton Senators after another hopefully impactful QMJHL season.