Welcome back to Top Shelf Hockey Prospects. As the summer progresses, I will be featuring each NHL team’s top prospects, following the order of the first round of the 2015 NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) —you can find all the articles here.
Because we already published an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in 2015, as my reports on them will not have changed — I will, however, link you to those articles. Instead I will focus on prospects that were acquired in past drafts, examining their progress and their chances of making the 2015-16 roster of their respective NHL team. I will also choose one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the fourth round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a darkhorse to make the NHL.
For those wondering, the determining factors for defining who is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not set in stone, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
In February it seemed that the Ottawa Senators season was dead and buried. The team was well out of the playoff chase, and both Robin Lehner and Craig Andersson were injured. The team was forced to call up unheralded AHL goaltender Andrew Hammond, a goalie whose numbers both at the AHL and college level were mostly mediocre. No one could have predicted the incredible run of “the Hamburgler” as the Senators went on a long winning streak, and eventually took the top wildcard spot. Andrew Hammond’s magic would eventually run out as he lost the first two playoff games to the Montreal Canadiens, and the Senators would lose the series in six games.
The Senators would end up re-signing Hammond in the off-season, and trade Lehner to the Buffalo Sabres for a first round pick. While the Senators re-upped many of their players, their big acquisition was signing top college free agent goalie Matt O’Connor. However they didn’t lose much either, with Erik Condra being the closest thing to a big name to leave the Senators. Improvements for this team must come internally, and so that means either the improvement of a young roster, or the graduations of new prospects.
2015 Players Drafted: Thomas Chabot, Colin White, Gabriel Gagne, Filip Chlapik, Christian Wolanin, Filip Ahl, Christian Jaros, Joel Daccord
Graduations: Curtis Lazar, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Mark Borowiecki
Top Ottawa Senators Prospects
Top Prospect: Matt Puempel, Left Wing
Born Jan 24 1993 — Windsor, ONT
Height 6.00 — Weight 196 — Shoots Left
Selected by Ottawa Senators round 1 #24 overall 2011 NHL Entry Draft
After putting up 30 goals in his first season of pro hockey, Matt Puempel hit the dreaded sophomore slump in his second AHL season, with just 12 goals and 32 points in 51 AHL games. However he did improve his assist numbers, something that we indicated we were looking for him to do in this column last year. He did get some NHL time with Ottawa, with 13 NHL games, and scored his first two NHL goals.
Puempel is a pure sniper. He has a tremendous wrist shot and very quick and deceptive release. He also has a powerful and accurate one-timer. Puempel’s shooting ability is NHL ready, and is the envy of some players already playing in the league. He also has the quick and soft hands to bury pucks on rebounds and tip ins. In junior he showed flashes of great vision and passing ability, and the ability to add a playmaking option to his game, but he seems to have developed a bit of “shooting tunnel vision” in his first AHL season. He corrected that in 2014-15, picking up 20 sassists in 51 games. This secondary option will help to keep defences honest and may lead to even more scoring chances going forward.
Puempel has a smooth skating stride which leads to him having great top end speed, and acceleration. He is extremely dangerous off the rush, with his ability to drive wide and to the net. Good puck protection, and solid stickhandling aid him in this area as well. Puempel also brings good balance, and is agile, and has strong edgework.
Puempel’s defensive game has been steadily improving in Binghamton. Where he was once considered a defensive liability, he has shown much more of a willingness and the ability to backcheck. He played responsible hockey covering his point man and cutting down passing and shooting lanes. He reads the play well and can cause turnovers with good anticipation. Its not perfect and he can still improve, but he is getting there.
I believe that Matt Puempel will make the Sens out of camp this year. However, even if sent back to the AHL, he will likely be amongst the first players the Sens recall if injuries hit.
#2 Prospect: Nick Paul, C/LW
Born Mar 20 1995 — Mississauga, ONT
Height 6.03 — Weight 221 [191 cm/100 kg]
Drafted by the Dallas Stars in round 4, 101st overall in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Traded to the Ottawa Senators as part of the Jason Spezza deal (summer 2014)
Nick Paul had 37 goals and 66 points in 58 games with the North Bay Battalion, helping the club to another solid season. He added 15 points in 15 playoff games as the Battalion made it to the OHL Eastern Conference final before they fell to the Oshawa Generals. Paul also played on Team Canada’s gold medal winning squad at the World Juniors, picking up three goals in seven games in the tournament.
A power winger, Paul has a long and powerful skating stride. While his speed is just average, it is the power and balance that will be his biggest assets as he goes forward. Paul can fight through checks, and protects the puck extremely well down low, due to his size and skating ability. He wins battles along the boards, and is difficult to move from the front of the net, due to that strength and balance. His agility and edgework are also decent.
As mentioned Paul is very good at maintaining puck possession. He can make solid passes or take the puck to the net off the cycle. He battles in the corrners for loose pucks and goes to the front of the net without it. Paul could stand to work on his stickhandling though, as he will need to improve this or will be limited to being a grinder at the next level. He does have a good shot, and strong release, as well as the ability to tip in pucks and pounce on rebounds in front.
Paul plays a strong two-way game. He is willing to block shots, and cuts down passing lanes extremely well. Paul has been strong in the face-off circle and has been used on the penalty kill for the Battalion.
Paul will likely be in the AHL this year. The Sens will hope to further develop his offensive game in the minors over the next year or two before he eventually gets a full-time NHL spot.
#3 Prospect: Shane Prince, Left Wing
Born Nov 16 1992 — Spencerport, NY
Height 5.11 — Weight 190 [180 cm/86 kg]
Drafted by Ottawa Senators in round 2, 61st overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Now in his third pro season, Shane Prince had a big year for the Ottawa Senators. He scored 28 goals and 37 assists for 65 points in 72 games. He also got a small stint in the NHL as well, getting his first NHL point (an assist) in his two games with the Senators.
Prince is a very good skater. He has very good top end speed and excellent acceleration. As a result, Prince is a real threat off the rush. Defenders must back off and respect that speed or risk being burned to the outside. He can make quick cuts and take the puck to the net, something that he has done with more frequency this year. Smith’s balance and the power in his stride have improved as he has added lower body strength, and he can fight through checks.
Prince is a talented playmaker. He can control the puck with strong moves along the perimeter, slowing the game down, and allowing teammates to get open. Prince has been criticized for being too much of a perimeter player in the past, but has added an element of getting to the dirty areas to score goals and create chances this year. He has soft hands, and a very good release on a wide variety of shots.
Prince is knocking on the door to make the Sens this year. While competition in camp will be tough, I do think his time is now. He does not have a whole lot more to learn in the AHL, and it may be time for the Senators to find out exactly what they have here.
Sleeper: Matt O’Connor, Goaltender
Born Feb 14 1992 — Toronto, ONT
Height 6.06 — Weight 204 [198 cm/93 kg]
Signed as an undrafted free agent, May 2015
The 23-year-old put up a 2.28 Goals Against Average and .928 save percentage for a strong Boston Terriers team this season. He helped Boston University win the annual beanpot tournament, and took them all the way to the NCAA final, where they unfortutanetly lost to the Providence Friars. However, his strong season got the attention of NHL scouts, and O’Connor was considered college hockey’s hottest free agent this spring.
O’Connor has excellent size, and uses its extremely well. He gets out of the crease and cuts down the angle, giving shooters very little to look at. O’Connor has very good lateral movement and tracks the puck well, cutting down a lot of cross-ice plays in the zone. He also has very quick legs, and a tight, efficient butterfly style. He’s so big there is little room upstairs even when he goes down. He could stand to work on his rebound control going forward to the pro ranks, but even then, he is more advanced than most college goalies.
Expect O’Connor to start the season in the AHL, where he will continue to refine his game. He could be NHL ready by the time training camp rolls around in 2016.
Trades and graduations have really ravaged the Senators prospect system in recent years. Once one of the top groups in the NHL it has fallen significantly. However, this really should not be seen as a bad thing, as players like Mika Zibanejad, Curtis Lazar, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Cody Ceci and Jean-Gabriel Pageau are now making significant contrthat adibutions at the NHL level. Graduating talent from the prospect pool to make them NHL contributors is the goal, and the Senators have done that as well as any team. Looking beyond the four prospects listed above, we must make mention of a strong Senators draft that added five of our top 100 draft prospects. We must also acknowledge players such as Ryan Dzingel, Mikael Wikstrand, Tobias Lindberg, and Andreas Englund. They may not be big names, but they do have talent. Given the Sens ability to develop prospects into NHLers in recent years, don’t count out the chances of these projects make an impact.