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Ottawa Senators Development Path: Prospect Curve vs Project Curve

After playing their last three games with a seriously depleted lineup, the NHL officially put the Ottawa Senators season on pause until at least November 20th to allow its players to clear COVID-19 protocol and return to the lineup.

While missing as many as 10 players from the active roster due to COVID-19 protocols and others such as Shane Pinto, Colin White and Clark Bishop out with injuries, the Senators did manage to put up a respectable 1-2 record. However, having been shutout in their two losses and as they were about to cross the US border to play the Devils on November 16th, the league’s brain trust mercifully put a temporary halt to the Sens season.

To say this season has been underwhelming thus far would be the understatement of all understatements. Patience has been wearing thin among the fan base (myself included) regarding lineup decisions from Head Coach DJ Smith prior to this outbreak. Smith’s hand was ultimately forced by the sheer attrition from his lineup, which also included his associate coach, Jack Capuano. Sens Nation may ultimately end up thanking the league for putting the season on pause.

Lassi Thomson - Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The last three games have given the fan base a glimpse at some players that were not supposed to be up here at the moment but rather developing in Belleville. Players like Filip Gustavsson, Erik Brannstrom, Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Dokker and Egor Sokolov have been on display during this stretch (Gustavsson even prior to Matt Murray's injury). This small sample size and the frustration with the on-ice product has led fans and media to start filling up the lineup card for the post-COVID Sens to include some of these players.

While these players may be, in some way, capable of playing in the NHL, I don’t believe any of them are capable of being what they were acquired to be by being in the NHL right now. The question becomes, do the Senators want them to follow the AHL Prospect Curve or the NHL Project Curve?

Here are my thoughts on all five.

Filip Gustavsson – of the five in that list, Gustavsson is the most NHL ready player. His performance last season showed he may ultimately be “The Guy” fans all hoped he would be when the Sens acquired him in the Derrick Brassard trade.

My problem is this. Gustavsson has never been “The Guy" at the AHL level. The season prior to COVID-19 rearing its ugly head, he was sharing time with Joey Daccord in Belleville and Daccord had better numbers.

Given how Gustavsson played while Murray was injured (and even after he came back), it's given rise to the belief he should be starting up in Ottawa as “The Guy”. The small sample sizes can create the appearance of superiority. However, you don’t know how good a goalie can be until you see him struggle and come out of it. We haven’t seen that yet.

The Sens didn’t acquire Gus The Bus to be a back-up goalie. They acquired him to be a starting goalie and I need to see him be “The Guy” in Belleville and hopefully lead them to a playoff spot. If he does that, then we can talk about him coming up to Ottawa next year.

Follow the Prospect Curve.

Erik Brannstrom – I am already on record that Brannstrom is NHL ready. He has the most experience of any of the five players from that list.

Unlike Gustavsson, he has been “The Guy” at the AHL level. He's been a #1 defenseman and delivered on that more than once. I don’t need to see him do that anymore.

Unlike Josh Brown, Victor Mete and Michael Del Zotto, Matt Murray and Anton Forsberg, believe it or not, are more than capable of playing in the NHL and have proven it before. Brannstrom is playing behind inferior players who aren't as capable of getting it done consistently at the NHL level. I was at the LA game last Thursday and Brannstrom’s game still needs to evolve, but he is a solid puck possession defenseman with good compete level. He gives the Sens a valid 2nd team QB for the power play.

I maintain the Sens should be exploring trade value for Brannstrom but his 6-8 week hiatus with a broken hand won’t help that any.

For now, of those five, had Brannstrom stayed healthy, he is the player that should have remained with the team after the roster was restored. He has followed the Prospect Curve. It was time for him to get on and stay on the Project Curve.

Lassi Thomson – Of the players who were recalled, the most fanfare came for Thomson who played his first three games in the league.

I would be the first to say he acquitted himself admirably. He moved well and competed in all three zones and even got on the score sheet against the Penguins.

This is where the small sample size is dangerous. The Twittersphere has been buzzing with the idea of Thomson staying with the Senators after everyone gets healthy. That would be a mistake.

If Thomson did stay, it would be as a 6th or 7th defenseman at best. He was a first round pick in 2019. In his draft year, he scored 17 goals in the WHL playing for the Kelowna Rockets.

Thomson wasn’t acquired to be a 6th or 7th defenseman. He was acquired to be a top four pairing defenseman with some offensive upside on the power play. He has only just begun to show any offensive upside at the pro level in North America and he needs to travel Brannstrom's path. The Sens can afford to wait.

Thomson won’t save the season. The Sens need to save him from their season. He is playing on adrenaline and fan adulation. When he struggles at the NHL level – and he will – the good that's been done in the AHL could be lost or set back.

Two words for Sens Nation with this kid – Curtis Lazar. Prospect Curve please.

Jacob Bernard-Docker – Some had JBD penciled into the lineup this year based on a brief resume of five games at the end of last year.

He acquitted himself well in those games, but management did the right thing by not throwing him to the wolves to start the season. He had never played 82 games in a season before and to do that for the first time at the NHL level would have been unwise.

Like Thomson, JBD was drafted to be a top 4 or 5 defenseman. He needs to be that effectively at the AHL level for at least one season before making the jump to the NHL.

It was good to see him get another couple of games in the NHL and record the first point of his career. Now it’s time to get him back where he was just starting to tap into his potential rather than playing for a team destined for another good shot at the draft lottery.

Prospect Curve for this young man.

Egor Sokolov – the comments about Sokolov since being brought up have been largely positive.

You hear those common catch phrases such as: “Doesn’t look out of place”, “Uses his size to his advantage” and “Moves well for a big man”.

The one thing that hasn’t been heard in the four games he's played is, “He Shoots He Scores!”

Sokolov had six points in nine games prior to his recall. However, he hasn’t scored a goal since the 27th of October and both goals he has this season came in that game.

Last year in the abbreviated AHL season, Sokolov caught everyone by surprise with 15 goals in 35 games.

You don’t hear much talk about keeping him around once COVID has passed and that much is a positive. The general belief is he needs more time to develop but this has been a good experience for him.

This is true if the experience ends now. If the league had allowed this to continue, he likely would have gone on even longer without scoring and his confidence could begin to fade. He needs to go back to being a top line power play guy who can impose his will on games. If he stays in the NHL, he becomes a Project and that isn’t what they want with this future power forward.

Aside from forcing Eugene Melnyk to incur another $6-7 million in real payroll, the best thing that can be said about all the COVID protocol impacts is the fan base got a glimpse of something to look forward to.

That said, in the case of Thomson, Bernard-Docker and Sokolov, it's clear to me there remains work to be done. At the AHL, they are on the Prospect Curve trajectory.

As for the other two, Brannstrom will remain in purgatory while he recovers from his broken hand which will eventually mean another tour of duty in the AHL. Hopefully, he can get back to a point where he can garner some interest from potential suitors so the Senators can make room for Jake Sanderson.

Gus The Bus needs to go back to riding the bus until he can be a #1 AHL goaltender and possibly a bit of a playoff run before being ordained the next Sens #1 goalie.

Don’t worry about the parent club, there is nothing these five can do to save them from this season.

Maybe the league just saved them from it.

By Pat Maguire - Sens Nation Hockey


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