In a memo issued by the AHL’s board of governors earlier this week, it was announced that the league was cancelling the remainder of the season including the 2020 playoffs.
The statement was to be anticipated given the Covid-19 pandemic and the uncertain specifics as to when an eventual state of normalcy shall return, but that that does not mean it’s not disappointing for a Senators organization that was relying upon the kids being alright to generate some enthusiasm. More than anything, ownership and management have to justifiably earn back every inch of trust and confidence that has eroded over the past few years.
Things looked better on the farm.
The Belleville Senators led the North Division with a 38-20-4-1 record for 81 points, six more than the second-place Rochester Americans. And probably for the first time since the Binghamton Senators’ 2011 Calder Cup championship, the Senators’ AHL affiliate was giving fans a reason to believe in this new wave of prospects.
Josh Norris (31 goals, 30 assists in 56 games) and Alex Formenton (27 goals, 26 assists in 61 games) were not only the two-highest scoring rookies in the league, they, along with teammate Drake Batherson (16 goals, 38 assists in 44 games), also finished the season ranked amongst the league’s top-10 scorers.
Although Batherson’s offensive upside has been heralded for some time, the emergence of Norris and Formenton as capable offensive professional players is one of the best stories of the Senators’ season. (As an aside, the best story of the Senators’ season is undoubtedly the collapse of the San Jose Sharks. Between an aging roster, injuries to a few of its key players and Martin Jones posting the league’s worst five-on-five save percentage and goals saved above average mark in the league among goalies who played more than 1,000 five-on-five minutes, the Sharks’ implosion gift-wrapped the Senators a second high-end lottery pick.)
Affording prospects like Erik Brannstrom, Logan Brown, Rudolfs Balcers, Vitaly Abramov and some combination of goaltending from Marcus Hogberg, Filip Gustavsson and Joey Daccord the opportunity to experience playing meaningful playoff games would have been ideal, but AHL postseason success should not be mistaken as a precursor to NHL success.
The 2011 Calder Cup champion B-Sens are not necessarily a perfect parallel simply because their roster composition was different. Unlike this Belleville team whose success was predicated on the performance of the team’s youngest players, that Binghamton team was laden with strong AHL veteran depth and a mix of youngish prospects.
Although Jared Cowen, Patrick Wiercioch and Robin Lehner were early round picks from their respective draft classes and players like Colin Greening, Erik Condra and Zack Smith wound up being decent professionals, none of these players really developed into a cornerstone player that a franchise could build around. Mike Hoffman has enjoyed the best career out of anyone from that roster, but it’s plainly obvious even at that time, the 2011 Binghamton team lacked the blue-chip talent that Belleville has now.
In terms of young talent, a more apt comparison could be drawn between this year’s Belleville team and the stacked 2004-05 Binghamton Senators squad.
Thanks to an NHL lockout, players on entry-level contracts were eligible to be sent to the AHL and because of it, the Binghamton roster was highlighted by Jason Spezza, who was coming off a 22 goal and 55 point sophomore season in Ottawa. In addition to Spezza, Anton Volchenkov, Antoine Vermette, Chris Kelly, Ray Emery, Brian Pothier and Chris Neil all appeared in games with an Ottawa team that posted a 43-23-10-6 record during the 2003-04 season.
The 2004-05 Binghamton Senators riddled off a 47-21-4-8 record capturing the East Division’s first place seed with 106 points before they were upset in the first round by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Things could have been worse. They could have lost to the St. John’s Maple Leafs.
Despite the disappointment and obvious lost opportunity for playoff development time, it’s not like any of the Senators’ prospects were adversely affected by this loss to the Penguins. Jason Spezza eventually developed into the most productive centre in franchise history while Anton Volchenkov partnered with Chris Phillips on the team’s shutdown pairing. The rest of these prospects developed into important supporting cast players who remained with the organization for quite some time.
When it comes to this kind of situational development, I believe in the idea that talent ultimately prevails and hopefully when we’re looking back at this 2019-20 Belleville Senators team in a few years, we will be saying the same thing.
If there is anyone to feel bad for, it’s head coach Troy Mann.
Mann has had AHL success before while coaching the Hershey Bears. With the Bears, he took the team to the Calder Cup Final in his sophomore campaign and finished with a 162-102-22-18 record across four seasons. After his Bears failed to reach the playoffs in the 2017-18 season, Mann was let go thereby allowing him to join the Belleville Senators.
In the AHL, it is relatively uncharacteristic for young teams to have the kind of regular season success that Belleville enjoyed this season.
At the NHL level, it is a young man’s game now with a player’s prime typically occurring between 22 and 27 years of age. Knowing that, it is paramount for NHL coaching staffs to be able to manage, relate to and motivate young players to help them fulfill their potential without getting lost in the distraction and celebrity that comes with being young and wealthy professional athletes.
For Mann to help guide the Belleville Senators through their season, it would have been interesting to see this team perform in the postseason. If they carried that success through a round or a few rounds of the playoffs, maybe that would have opened more eyes around the NHL and given Mann’s resume an important boost that could help land him a job at the game’s highest level.