Senators lament ‘missed opportunity’ after AHL season is cancelled

Ottawa Senators defenceman Erik Brannstrom (26) is just one of several prospects who will miss an important development opportunity now that the AHL season has been cancelled. (Sam Hodde/AP)

Everyone expected it and still the news stung — Monday’s announcement that the American Hockey League season has been officially cancelled.

Out went the lights on one of the best and most surprising seasons of the Ottawa Senators AHL farm team, the Belleville Senators.

“I’d much prefer talking about a playoff series win at this time of year,” said Belleville head coach Troy Mann, who spent much of the day speaking to reporters by phone about the demise of the AHL’s 2019-20 campaign.

Icing an extremely young lineup built for development, not necessarily for grinding out victories, the B-Sens stunned the league by finishing first in the North Division and third in the Eastern Conference with a record of 38-20-4-1, a .643 winning percentage and 81 points as of March 12. Belleville had played 63 games when the games were stopped due to COVID-19 and was assured of a playoff spot for the first time since the franchise moved to Belleville from Binghamton three years ago.

Mann, who deserves coach-of-the-year consideration for bringing his youthful team along, was as disappointed as anyone when the other shoe dropped Monday.

“It’s certainly a missed opportunity that we can’t see what the team could do, potentially, down the stretch and in the playoffs,” Mann said.

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A few weeks ago Mann told me that after ten AHL seasons, including six as head coach, this was perhaps the most special group of players he’s been around, largely because they liked each other so much. They were almost like a college team — young, fearless, like-minded.

“The guys were a really tight-knit group,” Mann says. “A lot of coaches talk about that in terms of how to win, and that is a huge component of it. We did have good vets, but the ability of these young kids to come together, and play through some adversity was vital.”

Injuries and setbacks hit every aspect of the B-Sens. The goaltending wasn’t great at the start, and then starter Marcus Hogberg was gone to the NHL Senators by Dec. 1. At various times, callups and injuries rendered the B-Sens short on defence, and then at forward.

“We went 11 (forwards) and seven (defencemen) for about two months and guys like (centre) Logan Brown were playing 25 to 27 minutes a night and we were still managing to win hockey games — on the road,” Mann says. A total of 16 different defencemen suited up for Belleville.

Not even a crazy, eight-game, 16-day January road trip could derail a team that seemed to laugh in the face of impossible tasks. With stops in Rochester, Utica, Winnipeg (for two games), Grand Rapids, Rockford, Milwaukee and back to Utica — the B-Sens took 13 of 16 possible points on that marathon stretch.

Belleville led the AHL in road wins with 23 and had an overall road record of 23-5-3. The B-Sens also led the league in goals scored, with 234, and shorthanded goals, with 18.

For Mann and the entire Senators organization, the most painful part of the season ending is the lack of playoff action for their developing players.

On a conference call last month, Senators general manager Pierre Dorion called the pending cancellation of the AHL season a big blow.

“That hurts our organization more than anything going on right now,” Dorion said, while firing off the names of the young talent, such as forwards Josh Norris, Alex Formenton and Drake Batherson, defenceman Erik Brannstrom and others who would be missing out on playing in the Calder Cup playoffs.

Mann concurs.

“You’d love to see every player get that playoff opportunity, but you start thinking about the four or five guys closest to playing in the NHL– that comes back to Batherson, Norris, Formenton, Logan Brown, Brannstrom,” Mann says. “These are the types of guys we wanted to see perform under pressure when the stakes were so high.

“It’s unfortunate for the whole team in general but specifically to those four or five guys.”

Mann says he wouldn’t rule out any of those players still making the jump to Ottawa next season, “but from a developmental perspective, a playoff run would have helped them.”

Norris, 21, who came to Ottawa as part of the Erik Karlsson trade, was the AHL’s top rookie scorer with 31 goals, 30 assists and 61 points in 56 games. Batherson was sixth in points, despite being with Ottawa for long stretches. He had 54 points in 44 AHL games. Formenton was seventh in AHL scoring with 53 points in 61 games.

Mann believes it is important for Norris to get in a strong off-season of training so he can compete against bigger, stronger players in the NHL.

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When the news became official, Dorion extended a tip of the cap to his players and staff in Belleville.

“We want to congratulate our players, coaches and the staff in Belleville for their great work this season,” Dorion said.

“We were eager to see a significant part of the organization’s future play important late-season games and to experience what we anticipated to be a lengthy playoff run. Without question, this season’s team in Belleville was composed of our best group of prospects in some time and their success remains key to our rebuild.

“I’m additionally disappointed for the fans in Belleville as I know many shared in our excitement of competing in the Calder Cup playoffs.”

B-Sens and Ottawa Senators franchise owner Eugene Melnyk also issued a statement, thanking fans for their patience during the coronavirus.

“We are continuing to do everything possible to bring Senators hockey back as soon as it is safe to do so,” Melnyk said. “As we continue to face extraordinary challenges related to the COVID-19 we are grateful for the continued loyalty of our fans and we appreciate the patience and support you have shown during this unprecedented time.”

The Belleville operation assured fans they would not lose the value of any tickets they had purchased for the remaining scheduled games.

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