With the Binghamton Senators set to take on the Toronto Marlies in an AHL regular season contest this Friday night at the Canadian Tire Centre, Senators assistant general manager and Binghamton general manager Randy Lee joined TSN 1200’s ‘In the Box’ today to promote the event and some of the prospects who’ll be representing the Senators organization in the game.
There’s a ton of prospect content within the interview and none of it is spent talking about veteran AHL fodder, so even if you’re the kind of fan who ignores management’s shameless self-promotion of its prospects, it’s still a great listen.
To listen to the full interview, use the embedded audio at the bottom of this post.
As always, my thoughts are in bold.
On Nick Paul having 12 points in his last 15 games and whether those numbers are indicative of improved performance…
“Absolutely. He’s been a bit of an enigma this year. We expected a lot more out of him, but I think we challenged him. Sometimes players do plateau a bit, so we went right after him. Kurt (Kleinendorst) has gone after him, I’ve gone after him, Shean Donovan’s gone after him and even his agent has gone after him. Nick is a great kid. He is a really good kid and a good person, but we expected a lot more. We wanted him to be pissed when we were calling up guys and he wasn’t in the discussion for that. We brought that to his attention that he’s got to be in the mix to be a call-up guy. So this weekend was a great weekend and like you said, that stretch has been really good. He played Friday night. I was in Toronto and I saw him play. He was hard. He played the type of game that we want to see out of Nick Paul where he was hard on the puck, he finished checks, he was a tough guy to play against. The Saturday game, the 1:30 (pm) game, he played very well, put up some points and was in the dirty areas, so it was good. Sometimes guys don’t go on the path that you want them to go on, but he’s starting to figure it out now.”
Of all the prospects within the Senators’ ranks, Paul’s the one who has faced the most public scrutiny from management. Senators general manager Pierre Dorion referred to him as his biggest disappointment in Binghamton earlier in the year, so with Paul finally demonstrating that he can put up some points (albeit, it’s over a small sample size of games), it feels safe to assume that management will give Paul some credit for turning his season around after their proverbial boot in the ass.
Why Paul is under the magnifying glass isn’t really a mystery.
Not only was he viewed as a key piece of the return in the horrendous Jason Spezza trade, having played for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, that vehicle provided him with a huge platform to boost his profile and make his name recognizable to even the most casual of fans.
The truth is, most scouting reports dating back to Paul’s draft years have projected him to be a modest player. There’s nothing wrong with a player who safely projects to be a third line player, but it’s kind of weird to see one face this kind of constructive criticism through public channels.
Sure, Paul played NHL games last season, but there’s certainly a case to be made that his six goals and 17 points in 45 AHL games didn’t merit a promotion last year. At the NHL level, it’s not the like the Senators benefitted much from having him on the ice. Paul was not very productive and at five-on-five, the Senators were outshot, outchanced and outscored with him on the ice.
On what position he thinks Nick Paul would be best suited for at the NHL level…
“Both (centre and wing). I know that Guy (Boucher) likes him as a winger. I know a lot of us like him as a centre because he can skate well and distribute the puck. He’s a big body, so he’s played both in Binghamton just out of necessity. But with injuries, he’s played both – which has helped him – but, I think he can challenge for a centre spot. But, I think Guy envisions him being a big winger for him.”
If you’re suspicious as to why the Senators are so concerned with Paul’s development, it probably begins and ends with the fact that he is listed at 6’4” and 234 lbs.
On the players in Binghamton being able to anticipate call-ups for a prospective playoff run with the parent club…
“Absolutely, I mean, there’s talk about it now. They know that we’re thinking about it and putting together some mock rosters of who deserves to be on that black aces group. So they definitely think about it and they’re excited because they know a lot of our staff is going to be in the building and will stay for the game and see them play on Friday night (at the Canadian Tire Centre) against the (Toronto) Marlies.”
If I had to guess who the black aces will be, I’d assume that Andreas Englund and Ben Harpur will be the defencemen. Nick Paul, Max McCormick, Michael Blunden, Phil Varone, Francis Perron, and Casey Bailey make sense as the forwards, but in terms of the goaltenders, Chris Driedger has had a better season than Matt O’Connor.
On Andrea Englund’s development and how the offensive side of his game came along…
“You’re right, he’s a shutdown, stay-at-home (defenceman) who loves that role and he’s hard to play against. He started off very strong and I thought he would have struggled a bit more, but he’s done well adapting to the North American ice. He likes that role of being the competitive guy. He boxes guys out, he’s been in a couple of fights and he’s done pretty well in them which is really surprising. But offensively, his puck skills are good. I mean, he’s really worked hard at it. We do have a tough situation in Binghamton: we’ve got all left-shot (defencemen). When we traded Michael Kostka in the (Curtis) Lazar deal, that was our only right-shot (defenceman), so we have some guys playing on their off-sides, so it is tough for breakouts and stuff. But for him, he’s done very well and it’s great that we got him into a game this year. He played well and he’s been a top-four guy in Binghamton all season long.”
It’s not like the Binghamton Senators have only had to endure this same-handedness problem recently. It’s something that’s been going on for the better part of the whole year and as the general manager who’s responsible for bringing players into the fold, it seems like something that Lee could have remedied or accounted for last summer.
Randy Lee always makes mention of the fact whenever a non-fighting prospect drops the mitts. He romanticizes it and I don’t know why.
On the development of first-year pros like Francis Perron…
“Yeah, two guys that are from that category are (Francis) Perron and Gabriel Gagne. Franky’s been good. He’s worked his way up in the lineup. He’s a really good power play guy and there are certain aspects of his game that we want him to work on. It’s definitely a transition from going to junior hockey to playing against men and I think understanding how tough the American (Hockey) League is. But, Franky’s game has continued to improve and he’s been elevated to some pretty good lines and he’s responded. Gabriel Gagne is a guy that we’ve moved up and down. We don’t want him sitting because he’s a pretty important prospect to us. He’s 6’5” and he can skate. He’s got to fill out and get a lot stronger. So he played a lot of games down in Wichita (of the ECHL) and I don’t think he knew where Wichita was, but he figured out what it was like to be a part of the ‘Mighty Thunder’, and he performed well down there. He’s been a really promising guy for us. He’s starting to really compete, get his nose dirty and get involved. This guy has got hands and he can score. He’s just got to be willing to get in that traffic area and he understands that. He understands how big of a summer this is going to be for him in the offseason for him to have a really good season next year. Like, two really good rookies and two guys that we’re really excited about for their progress.”
It would not be surprising to see Perron take the Mike Hoffman development path where it takes him a couple of seasons in the AHL before the organization trusts him enough to allow him to showcase his offensive skills at the NHL level. At the very least, Dorion singled out the presence of Perron as being one of the reasons why the organization was flexible in its decision to trade Jonathan Dahlen to Vancouver in the Alex Burrows deal.
In regards to Gagne, the Senators are gambling on Gagne’s projectability because of the blend of size and skill that he brings to the table. Maybe he gets there eventually, but some pundits have panned his future outlook because of his skating and commitment to work hard on and off of the ice. As we’ve seen with litmus tests like Mark Stone, prospects can improve their stock with hard work and dedication, but not every prospect is Mark Stone.
On Gagne being a project pick and how the organization understood how his development was going to take some time…
“Exactly and we talked about this after the game on Friday because I went down to congratulate him on a really good performance on some really positive things I saw in his game and we talked about it. I said, ‘(Gabriel), what was the write-up on you? When we drafted you, some of the reports said that you were one of the biggest dogs in the draft. You work hard. Like, you come to practice, you’re dedicated, you work hard off the ice,’ and I said, ‘You can’t tell those people to go away, but you have to prove with your effort on the ice and your performance that you’re a competitive guy and a hard-worked,’ and he’s done that. He’s erased all those (comments) and what people are saying about him before, he’s erased that. I give the kid a lot of credit and he’s really receptive to our group. You can tell when you talk to Shean Donovan, he sees a lot of positive things in (Gagne). His skill is so high, but it’s just understanding how hard you have to work, how consistent you have to be every single day and what it takes to be a pro.”
Hopefully Gagne puts in the work, but with six goals and 11 points in 19 ECHL games and him being goalless in 29 games in Binghamton, it seems like he’s got a long path ahead of him.
On how Chris Driedger and Matt O’Connor’s development has been impacted because of the wrinkles that the Nicole and Craig Anderson situation created…
“That’s a great question because that situation did screw them up. I mean, it’s unfortunate what happened, but you have to respond and respect what the organization did. (It respected) Craig’s wishes to take care of family and that’s wonderful, but these kids were both playing very well and they were in good grooves and they were in good routines. Then we’d bring them up and sometimes they’d have to sit for two or three weeks and then we’d flip-flop them back and forth. We definitely took them out of their rhythm, but we challenged them both saying that, ‘You have got to be better.’ I mean, I know that’s part of the game. Sometimes if you’re going to be a National Hockey League goaltender, you might be a backup and you might be sitting for eight games out of ten and you’ve got to be willing and able to perform when you get the call. And that’s one thing they sort of struggled with and the biggest thing is that sometimes they play a great game one night and we reward them with a game the next night and they don’t respond. So, it’s a learning curve, but we have a really good goalie coach in Cory Cooper who’s down there. He’s with them all the time and he’s giving them feedback. He’s been a really good ally for them and he’s challenged them as well that they’ve got to perform better.”
In fairness to the goaltenders, it’s not like they were playing behind one of the most talented squads in the AHL these past two years either. I mean, Binghamton hasn’t reached the postseason since the 2013-14 season when they finished first in the East Division.
Considering Lee already discussed the complications created by the same-handedness of the team’s defencemen, maybe the goaltenders’ consistency would have benefitted from the team not spending so much time in its own end.
On Marcus Hogberg playing well in the SHL and O’Connor and Driedger realizing that Hogberg could play in North America and take one of their jobs…
“Absolutely. He had a really good year. We’ve gone over – Shean Donovan and I – to see him in Sweden and this player is ready to come over to North America. And he understands that he has to come over to take his game to the next level to adjust to North American ice. That’s what we want: we want competition and we want the best guys to get the job.”
As Steve Lloyd mentioned in the interview, the Senators have until June 1st to sign Hogberg to an entry-level contract. Failure to do so will result in the goaltender become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
On whether there are any other European prospects who may come over to North America next season…
“Christian Jaros will come over. We want him over and he’s ready. He could have played this year, but we just knew that we had a number of rookie defencemen this year. We need a righty and he’s a hard-righty. He’s like a European (Mark Borowiecki). He’s a very popular guy over in Lulea. He plays hard. He hits like a ton of bricks and he’s got good offensive upside and he wants to come (over). He’s a bright player and I think fans are really going to fall in love with this guy.”
Referring to Jaros as a “European Boro” isn’t going to endear the player to a certain sect of this fan base who prefer talent and on-ice performance to a player’s grit, intangibles and birthplace.
On Maxime Lajoie’s development…
“(He had a) pretty good year. We knew what he was and we saw a lot of upside in him, so we wanted to get him signed early to show him that we see what he can develop into. We’re not going to rush him. He’s had a pretty good year, but like every player, they have some setbacks, but definitely, he’s going to be a guy who’s going to push for a spot next year and we’ll have to make a decision next year on whether the best place for him is to be in the American Hockey League or to go back to junior, but he’s a really good prospect. The one guy that we haven’t talked about is Ben Harpur. Ben Harpur has seriously been one of the top defencemen in the American Hockey League this year. He has taken his game to another level. The knocks on Ben were always that he was a bit inconsistent and maybe he wasn’t as hard as you want him to be. He’s a 6’4” defenceman and he plays hard now. He plays hard and he plays big minutes and they lean on him. There’s some games where he’s playing upwards of 30-minutes a game and sometimes we play three (games) in three (nights) and he’s been playing 30-minutes a game. Teams are going after him because often he’s our best player. He’s sometimes our most important player and they’re challenging him and he’s standing up for himself. We’re telling him, ‘We need you on the ice, Ben. Like, it’s nice that you’re doing that and defending teammates.’ If you see his game, you’ll be really impressed, so he’s someone you should watch on Friday.”
Keep in mind, the Senators have a history of playing up their own prospects. This is the same group that once referred to Mikael Wikstrand as the best defencemen who isn’t in the NHL.
Through 57 games, Harpur has two goals, 26 points, 72 PIMs and 103 shots on goal. His point production is a marked jump from last season’s two goals and six points in 47 games, but it still seems kind of rich for him to be referred to as one of the best defencemen in the AHL.
I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into things, but with Lee waxing poetic about dropping the mitts, European Boros and going on at length about players who stand over 6’4” tall, it feels like he’s got a type.
On Colin White and offering up some insight on whether the team is negotiating a contract with him now that his season with Boston College is over…
“Yeah, we just don’t discuss contract negotiations and hopefully if something comes up, we’ll announce it and that’s all I can say.”
Just do it.
Sign White to an ELC and give him an opportunity to prove that he’s an improvement over a player like Tommy Wingels and/or Chris Kelly.
On the state of negotiations with NCAA free agents…
“Yeah, we definitely have stashed target guys. You’ve just got to make sure that you’ve got the right guy that fits your situation. We’re not one of those teams that go after every guy because we want to make sure we offer him a good opportunity. And we have gone after some guys and it’s just a matter of making the right fit. There’s still a couple of guys on our radar, but we try to target it and make sure that we don’t just go after everybody and make sure that it’s somebody that’s going to fit into our plans. And you’ve got to be careful because you have to overpay for these guys. It’s got to be the right guy, the right character guy and he’s got to be able to prove that he’s an NHL guy if you’re going to pay that money.”
Most of these NCAA UFAs sign for entry-level contract money with performance bonuses that could push their contract’s average annual value higher. The size of these bonuses vary from player to player (ie. Stephane Da Costa’s were approximately $850,000 while a guy like Kevin Hayes’ performance bonuses added up to $2.85-million), but unless you’re pushing up against the salary cap ceiling though, it should never be a problem.
Perhaps most importantly, if a collegiate free agent actually approaches their performance bonuses through their on-ice production, isn’t that a great thing to have happen?
I get the hesitancy to get in bidding wars over players who probably won’t be impactful NHL players, but every once in a while, good players slip through the cracks and become productive NHL players. But when all it costs is a little bit of money, it’d be nice to see the Senators aggressively explore this market and hopefully find a hidden gem or two.
These players are lottery tickets that only cost the Senators money, but maybe their hesitancy to make slashes here speaks to how much wiggle room there is in the budget.