Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion has said he doesn’t want to rush their development, preferring longer-term rebuilding, and Belleville coach Troy Mann agrees with that philosophy.
TAMPA, Florida — After a bumpy start, things are starting to fall in place quite nicely for the red-hot Belleville Senators, who have rapidly climbed the American Hockey League standings.
The best news for the Ottawa Senators organization is that the offensive charge is being led by a crew of high-profile prospects that includes 21-year-old Drake Batherson, 20-year-old Alex Formenton and Josh Norris and 22-year-old Rudolfs Balcers.
“A lot of the reason for the slow start was because we have a lot of young guys, and we’re one of the youngest teams in the league (an average age of 23.1),” Belleville coach Troy Mann said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “We certainly have some high-end talent up front, but it takes time to build chemistry.”
Batherson, who played only two games with Ottawa to start the National Hockey League season before being assigned to Belleville, leads the AHL in scoring with 11 goals and 23 assists in 25 games.
Balcers, who injured a leg during Ottawa’s training camp, has been on a roll since being sent to the AHL, with six goals and 12 assists in a dozen games.
Norris, acquired along with Balcers in the Erik Karlsson trade in September 2018, has adapted quickly to pro hockey, registering 11 goals and 10 assists in 25 games.
Then there’s the speedy Formenton, who, in Mann’s estimation, has been the biggest surprise of all.
“He’s very coachable. He is progressing from week to week,” Mann said. “When he first started in October, he lacked some detail in his game. It’s typical for kids that come out of major junior at 19 years old to have some bad habits because they can dominate at that level.
“Speed is his No. 1 asset, and that creates offence for him, but I didn’t expect so much offence so early.”
After going 10-3 in November, Belleville is off to a 3-1 start in December.
Naturally, all of the above might have some wondering why those young forwards remain in Belleville rather than joining the likes of Nick Paul and Logan Brown into the National Hockey League.
Senators general manager Pierre Dorion has said he doesn’t want to rush their development, preferring the longer-term rebuilding process, and Mann agrees with that philosophy.
In the case of Batherson, who had some bright moments with Ottawa last season, it could certainly be argued that he could help the Senators offence immediately. The organization, however, has bigger plans for him. They’re pushing him not to not cut corners defensively, so that, when he does return to Ottawa, it’s permanent.
Mann says Batherson has the potential to be like Washington Capitals star Jakub Vrana.
Vrana has 15 goals and 14 assists in 35 games this season after producing 24 goals and 23 assists last season. All of that came after he learned to grind his way through the AHL with the Capitals’ affiliate in Hershey, then coached by Mann.
“He spent more than two years in the American League and now he’s a borderline superstar,” Mann said. “It’s just an example of what can happen if you do it right.”
Meanwhile, on defence, it has been a juggling act for Belleville since the start of the season because of injuries both there and in Ottawa.
With Nikita Zaitsev, Dylan DeMelo and Christian Wolanin sidelined, Erik Brannstrom, Andreas Englund and Max Lajoie were all in Tampa for Tuesday’s game against the Lightning.
Christian Jaros, who played 61 games with Ottawa in 2018-19, has been in and out of Belleville’s lineup with his own injury problems, but Mann was hopeful Jaros would return to action for Friday’s game against Syracuse.
Belleville has plugged the holes with several minor-league signings.
In goal, Filip Gustavsson has stepped into the top role while Marcus Hogberg replaces the injured Craig Anderson with the NHL Senators.
While Mann is still looking for more consistency, he says Gustavsson (7-3-1 record, 3.64 goals-against average and .881 save percentage) has improved since the season began.
As part of the chain reaction resulting from Hogberg’s promotion to Ottawa, Joey Daccord has been sharp since joining Belleville from Brampton of the ECHL. He has allowed only one goal in two AHL starts.
It is important for Belleville to win as much as possible now because of the road schedule it will face in the new year.
Beginning on Jan. 10, the AHL Senators will endure an eight-game, 14-day road trip to Rochester, Utica, Winnipeg (two games), Grand Rapids, Rockford, Milwaukee and back to Utica.
After playing Utica at home on Jan. 25, Belleville will go back on the road for three more games before finally returning home for an extended stretch starting Feb. 7.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Mann said.
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