The Ottawa Senators have embarked on a makeover, and that process is well underway with their Belleville affiliate in the American Hockey League.
The first step in Belleville was bringing in Troy Mann as coach. He is a proven developer of talent at the AHL level.
Mann was a critical piece of the rich talent pipeline the Washington Capitals built through the AHL. The Washington-Hershey connection supplied 14 players to the 2018 Stanley Cup championship team, including goalie Braden Holtby and defenseman John Carlson. Mann was an assistant in Hershey for four seasons before coaching for four more.
Forward Drake Batherson is already one product of the Mann era in Belleville. He had 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 14 AHL games before departing for Ottawa, where he has fit into the NHL lineup well.
Belleville is off to a 10-12-1-0 start, but a quality base of veterans and an infusion of young talent should have it positioned to compete in the tough North Division.
Here is a look at some of that young talent:
When trading franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson, a player like Balcers must deliver as part of the return.
So far, so good for Balcers, a forward who came to Ottawa in a multiplayer trade with the San Jose Sharks on Sept. 13. After a strong AHL rookie season in San Jose, Balcers is repeating the performance in Belleville with 13 points (seven goals, six assists) in 23 games.
Balcers (5-foot-11, 175 pounds), led the Barracuda with 48 points (23 goals, 25 assists) in 67 regular-season games last season and represented Latvia at the 2018 IIHF World Championship with six points (four goals, two assists) in six games.
The 21-year-old has taken a different path to Belleville. He played two seasons in Norway's top pro league with Stavanger and the Sharks chose him in the fifth round (No. 142) of the 2015 NHL Draft. Balcers then played Kamloops of the Western Hockey League for one season and had 77 points (40 goals, 37 assists).
Playing one game and then missing more than a month of key development time is not how Brown nor the Senators envisioned his start.
The 20-year-old forward was out with a lower-body injury, a disappointing beginning for the No. 11 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Healthy again, his size (6-6, 220) is certainly NHL-ready and time in Belleville will allow him time to adjust to the pro game.
Health also haunted Brown last season in the Ontario Hockey League, where he had 48 points (22 goals, 26 assists) in 32 regular-season games between Windsor and Kitchener. However, he put together a strong postseason with Kitchener (27 points; five goals, 22 assists in 19 games).
Brown returned to the Belleville lineup Nov. 16 and has five points (three goals, two assists) in nine games.
Chlapik is another talent Ottawa is counting on as part of its future base at forward.
Through a difficult season in Belleville last season, the 21-year-old forward managed to thrive. He had 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists) in 52 AHL regular-season games and managed to get into the NHL lineup for 20 games with Ottawa, where he had four points (one goal, three assists).
A second-round pick (No. 48) in the 2015 NHL Draft, Chlapik has good size (6-1, 196) and plays a reliable game. With more time playing for Mann, a stickler for the smallest details, Chlapik will be able to refine his game and should make a bid for work in Ottawa before long.
Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson is 37, so the Senators have a need to develop some talent at the position.
They are hoping that Gustavsson, 20, can be a part of that solution. Much like Balcers, he came to the Ottawa organization in a major trade. The Senators acquired him from the Pittsburgh Penguins in a three-team trade that also involved the Vegas Golden Knights and cost Ottawa veteran forward Derick Brassard on Feb. 23.
Gustavsson (6-2, 184) already had four seasons of Swedish Hockey League experience before landing with Ottawa. He was 9-11-0 in with a 2.07 goals-against average and .918 save percentage in 22 games last season for Lulea. He also won a silver medal for Sweden at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship and was a member of the gold-medal team at Worlds.
The AHL is a different beast, especially for young goalies trying to adjust to the North American game. Veteran Mike McKenna was brought in to be a mentor for Gustavsson, 20, but he has spent considerable time with Ottawa this season. That has left the bulk of the work to Gustavsson, who is 5-8-1 with a 3.61 GAA and .886 save percentage in 14 games.