Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Top 10 Prospect Stories to Watch in 2009-10

10) Poor Man's Chris Neil

Cody Bass has some of the same skills as (too) highly paid Chris Neil, a little less heavyweight pedigree, less offensive flair (possibly the first time Chris Neil and flair have been used in the same sentence) and much better defensive play. Bass's skills project into a very good depth player, the type of bottom 6 player that exhibits heart, tough defense and sacrifice to energize his team and frustrate the opposition. The question is, do the Senators have any room for him? With 3 bottom six forwards making good money (Kelly, Neil, Ruutu) and as many as 7 other forwards who might play on the 3rd or 4th lines (Mike Fisher, Nick Foligno, Ryan Shannon, Shean Donovan, Peter Regin, Jesse Winchester, Zack Smith) there doesn't appear to be much opportunity for Bass this season. Bass might need to wait for trades, injuries or roster losses next off-season for a real shot at the role he looked so effective at during his late-season audition in 2007-08, during which he was one of the team's better players in their 4 game playoff sweep by the Penguins.

9) Power Forward?

Zack Smith was the final cut from the Senators in the fall of 2009 and is expected to push for a spot in the lineup again this year, but he faces the same bottom 6 congestion that Cody Bass does. The difference is that Smith has a modest chance of passing through the bottom 6 and eventually establishing himself as a 2nd line player, playing a power game. He's gritty enough, big enough, fast enough and talented enough to project as that 2nd line power guy, but to do so he needs to continue to improve most aspects of his game. The question is, which challenge will he earn the right to face? Will he be trying to dominate the AHL or earn minutes among a plethora of depth players on the big club? For his development, I hope he spends one more season in the AHL and forces the Sens to make room for him on the big club in the future.

8) Go East Young Man

Jim O'Brien is remarkably similar in some ways to Zack Smith. He's a year younger, and a bit faster and a bit more of a shooter, but perhaps a little less gritty, although that could just be age. O'Brien projects to the same role as Smith, and has the character attributes to justify the projection, but faces the same long-term challenges. In the short term, O'Brien will be attending his first camp as a professional and while he'll probably play the season in Binghampton, he needs to show more than his recent modest incremental improvement to continue to justify his first round selection in 2007. But taking a step back from the immediate challenge, sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

7) Russian Roulette

Ilya Zubov is at a critical juncture in his career. He has one more year under contract and should be pushing to establish himself as a bona fide NHLer. It's not that the organization would give up on his development in Binghampton after next season, but it would be hard to imagine him signing another 2-way contract when the KHL beckons. And the Senators have a policy against paying NHL contract dollars to players on the AHL roster. So if he hasn't established himself then he'll most likely leave. By the end of the season we should know with reasonable certainty in which league he'll play for the next few years. But we'll have strong indications ahead of time, including how well Zubov produces in training camp in September. If he's given little or no time playing with top 6 forwards, or performs poorly in general then the writing will be on the wall, in pencil.

6) Poor Man's Zetterberg

Peter Regin has a mature game at both ends and had an excellent debut in the AHL last season. He may push for a spot in the bottom six in Ottawa this year, or establish himself as the offensive leader in Binghampton. If he can establish himself as the first call-up from the farm team and get 20+ games in Ottawa then it will be a solid season, but depending on possible trade returns for Dany Heatley, and any associated trades dictated by salary cap considerations, Regin could conceivably establish himself as one of the bottom 6 forwards that slides into the top 6 as circumstances warrant.

5) Havlat Returns

Patrick Wiercioch is the last remaining return from the Martin Havlat trade, drafted with Chicago's second round pick in the 2008 draft. As such, he represents that last chance for Ottawa to regain some ground in a trade that returned 2 non-NHLers and one season of waiver-fodder Tom Preissing. Despite that heavy burden, Wiercioch has impressed the organization with his freshman season in college and received an invite to the Canadian 2009 WJC selection camp in late 2008. He's been invited back for the August training camp this year and has a more realistic shot of making the team than he did last year. The interesting story lines this season are the WJC selections and what role Wiercioch might earn on that team, and whether he experiences a sophomore slump in college, or continues to establish himself as one of the top college D-men.

4) Backup or Injury Replacement

Brian Elliott signed a very attractive two-year deal (cap hit $850K/yr.) as a backup for projected #1 Pascal Leclaire. Given Elliott's solid debut as a fill-in starter in 2008-09, and Leclaire's injury history, we may see more of Elliott than expected. Any even if Leclaire is healthy, he may find himself pushed for the starting job, more likely in 2010-11 than the season upcoming.

3) Towering, But No Pillar (or Pilar)

Jared Cowen, a large and (once and future) mobile defenseman, could be the first round steal of 2009 draft. Players who fall due to short-term injury issues have a chance to demonstrate that injury doesn't eliminate potential. Cowen was originally projected to go in the top 5, and has the size, speed, talent, and makeup to be a very good player for a long time. But for him, this season will be about re-establishing himself and validating the Senators faith in picking him at #9. He should be very close to 100% by the end of summer and faces two big challenges. First he'll participate in the Canadian WJC training camp in August, and is expected to be receive plenty of consideration as an integral part of the 2010 WJC team. Cowen will also attend the Senators training camp in September, which will provide an excellent opportunity to measure him against NHL players, and for him to truly grasp the scope of the challenge in front of him. In all likelihood, he'll play this season back in the WHL and press for a spot on the Senators blueline in 2010-11.

2) Third Time's The Charm?

Each of Brian Lee's last three seasons has been one step back, two steps forward. His first training camp with the Senators in 2007 resulted in being sent down to Bingo, and a brief but impressive call-up at the end of the season. In 2008, new coach Craig Hartsburg demonstrated no confidence in the young blueliner and Lee was sent down to Bingo early in the season, where he underperformed. Slowly but surely, Lee clawed his way back up the depth chart and demonstrated that when playing with competent partners, he was a positive addition to the NHL roster. The challenge he faces this year is to impress in training camp and solidify a spot in the top 4, at least the even-strength top 4. Each of the last three season's Lee has gained strength and weight in the summer. Perhaps his slow starts have reflected adjustments to his new body, and the new playing styles he is now capable of. Regardless, if Lee can continue to take notes from the Jason Smith school of gritty hockey then he'll be well on his way to earning an everyday role with decent minutes.

1) How Swede It Is

Erik Karlsson is the most offensively skilled defense prospect this team has ever had. He had a solid but unspectacular season in the SEL last season. This year he'll be pushing for a role on the Senators blueline. While it's not likely he'll establish himself there this season, he'll get the opportunity and if he impresses in camp he'll jump ahead of more established D-men. With Karlsson there are two big questions, will he make the team, and where will he play if he doesn't? A season in the AHL would be valuable, but so would another season in the SEL, playing in a skill-focused league, and with more responsibility than he had last season.

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