Nobody knows at this point for sure whether or not there will be an AHL champion. The season is suspended until May at the earliest, and at the rate the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved, it's getting increasingly difficult to believe we'll get a proper conclusion to the campagin.
If the league was to resume, however, the Belleville Senators would be one of the clear-cut favorites for the Calder Cup. Through 63 games, the Senators sit tied for fourth place in the league with 81 points and sit atop the North Division, a big improvement from the sans-playoff effort the outfit turned in in 2018-19. The uprising is coming at the perfect time, too. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the Ottawa Senators have an absolutely brutal season on the ice, so their farm club showing signs of improvement is an indication that all is well in the system. It also doesn't hurt that the big club's struggles are coming at a time when the 2020 draft is talent-laden. With two early first-round picks, there's no better time to turn in a substandard season.
That said, how are things shaping up and what glimpse can we get into the future by way of the Baby Sens? Consider the roster. Erik Brannstrom, Josh Norris, Alex Formenton, Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Maxime Lajoie and Vitali Abramov were among prospects who have earned minutes at the NHL level over the past two seasons. While most of those names prospects probably could have cracked the roster on a full-time basis, it's clear the club was playing the long game, taking a patient approach and allowing each player to come into his own.
In the cases of Norris, Batherson and Formenton, few players have been able to hang with them in the AHL's scoring race this season. Assuming the league doesn't return this year, they'll finish fourth, sixth and seventh in scoring, respectively, with Norris looking like the favorite for the top rookie award with 31 goals and 61 points (Formenton sits second among freshmen with 53). Batherson already wreaked havoc in 2018-19 with a 62-point season and, had he played a full campaign in the AHL this season, he'd be the No. 1 choice to lead the league in scoring. All signs point towards those three making the jump up after bringing Belleville fans so much joy – and all three could easily contend for top-nine, if not top-six, spots given the Senators' limited depth up front.
And that doesn't even take into account who Ottawa will pick at the 2020 draft. When the draft does happen, the Senators are looking at the potential of two top five picks. In theory, that could land two game-changing forwards such as Alexis Lafreniere and Marco Rossi, or even Lafreniere and star defenseman Jamie Drysdale. Heck, we can't even rule out the possibility the Senators go 1-2 and grab Lafreniere and Quinton Byfield. Add to it that the Islanders aren't currently in a playoff spot and that's a third potential high pick – it's top-three protected and nothing more – followed by six additional selections in the following rounds. The Senators should make out better than any other club at the draft, further sprucing up a lineup that already has plenty of young talent.
Of the current roster, 12 players will become free agents this summer, while Ryan Callahan, Clarke MacArthur and Mark Borowiecki, all currently on injured reserve, would be free of their deals, too. The Senators have room to play with some of the young pieces they already have – Brady Tkachuk, Colin White and Anthony Duclair come to mind – and build around it up front.
Just think of this hypothetical forward group next season:
- Brady Tkachuk – Colin White – Bobby Ryan
- Alex Formenton – Josh Norris – Drake Batherson
- Anthony Duclair – Quinton Byfield – Connor Brown
- Rudolfs Balcers – Chris Tierney – Jayce Hawryluk/Vitali Abramov
That's an intriguing group up front, and it's bolstered by an equally interesting defense corps, led by one of the game's top younger defenders, Thomas Chabot. We already know Erik Brannstrom is a favorite to earn a full-time shot as one of the NHL's top defensive prospects and will be a valuable two-way to a blueline in need of some fresh meat. The back end should get even better when Lassi Thomson and Jacob Bernard-Docker arrive, as well, although both are still at least another year or two away.
Looking at next season:
- Thomas Chabot – Nikita Zaitsev
- Erik Brannstrom – Christian Wolanin
- Mike Reilly – Maxime Lajoie
But that leaves one big question: the crease. Marcus Hogberg had an extended stay in Ottawa and did the best he could given the team's spot in the standings. Is he the long-term answer? He's had three years to prove that he can be and hasn't taken the opportunity. There's still some hope for 21-year-old Filip Gustavsson, although his AHL numbers weren't that impressive. WHL star Mads Sogaard has shown some promise, but he's still a few years away. The goaltending depth at the draft is weak after Yaroslav Askarov, so unless they pick up Askarov with their second or potentially their third pick, the Senators are still going to have more questions than answers in the crease, especially if Craig Anderson calls it quits this summer.
It's not a perfect team, but it's one that provides Ottawa with some genuine hope at a time when reasons for optimism have been few and far between.
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