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Belleville Senators end of season report

by Matt Tidcombe @matttidcombe

In a year in which they didn't even know if they would have a season, the Belleville Senators sure turned in an impressive campaign.

The Sens concluded its 2020-21 American Hockey League season with an 18-16-1 record that featured a 2-8 start but finished with a franchise best eight-game winning streak. Belleville finished third in the revamped Canadian division.

"The fact that we started the year 2-8 and finished over .500, with the progression of our prospects, and after 35 games, I think you have to view it as a success," head coach Troy Mann said. "One of the reasons our organization stuck with it was because of the amount of youth we had in the organization that needed to play. The 35 games gave our players, specifically our draft picks and prospects, a taste of what we can anticipate come October.

"To me that's the biggest win of the season: the progression of those players to get them ready for September's training camp."

Rookie Egor Sokolov led the team in scoring and was rewarded for his impressive year with a spot on the 2020-21 AHL Canadian Division All-Star Team. Despite having no playoffs, the full-season development of Sokolov, Jonathan Aspirot, Mark Kastelic, Parker Kelly, Kevin Mandolese, Cole Reinhardt, Lassi Thomson and others as well as the in-season arrivals of Angus Crookshank, Roby Jarventie and Mads Sogaard were crucial.

"This season served its purpose," Mann said. "Anytime your team gets better and progresses on a weekly basis, as a coaching staff, you feel good about it."

After a slow start to the season, which Mann categorized as unsurprising, the Sens began to find their scoring touch. After scoring just 18 times in the first 10 games, the Sens' average goals per game jumped to 3.36 for the rest of the season.

While the team's young prospects started to find their way, a number of Belleville's vets began chipping in too. J.C. Beaudin, Cole Cassels and Joseph LaBate drew particular praise from Mann, as the three of them combined for 18 goals and 46 points on the season.

"It wasn't only the young guys improving," Mann said. "I love the fact there was no quit in our veteran players from start to finish and you could argue that our veteran AHL players got better as the season progressed as well.

"That allowed us to be more competitive in the games and obviously win more games."

The Senators came off an eight-game road trip April 17 that saw them go 5-2-1, improving their season record to 10-13-1. They returned home to open a three-game series with the eventual Canadian Division champions Laval. The Sens were swept.

Belleville would then go on to win eight straight, in large part due to Sogaard's 7-0 record, before seeing its franchise best winning streak snapped on the final day of the season by Toronto.

"They always competed and tried to execute the plan that day," Mann said of his team. "You kind of just forgot what was going on in the real world with the Covid situation because the guys were motivated and focused on trying to get better on and off the ice.

"The season for me was one of the most fulfilling in my coaching career because of that. We had to be flexible and we had to adapt. There was times when it was on a daily basis. From the staff to the players, everyone did a great job."

As he has all season, Mann offered up an assessment of a few of the Sens' top prospects.

Mann on Gustavsson (AHL: 13GP, 5-7-1, .910 save percentage, 2.86 GAA, one shutout // NHL: 9GP, 5-1-2, .933 save percentage, 2.16 GAA)

Progression. Every prospect has a different timeline and Gus is no different. Goaltenders and defence usually take longer than forwards in the development plan and Gus has just progressed. The opportunity he took in the fall to play meaningful games in Sweden certainly helped in his development in the fact he was able to play, play well and gain confidence. I've seen Gus as a more mature player and person this season. In the games overall, he had a real good season. If you look at all three leagues he played in, I look at that as a progression in his development curve. I think a different voice from a goaltending coach perspective [helped]. Kory Cooper did a nice job with our goaltenders in Belleville and you make a change there and Justin Peters comes in with a different voice and different career path with how they became coaches and I think that Petey was excellent for all our goalies but him getting his hands on Gus early helped him.

Mann on Jarventie (4GP, 2G, 1A)

He has a high hockey IQ, tremendous shot, NHL release. He's certainly got some height to him and once he's able to fill out and get some proper off-ice conditioning in the summer and get stronger, I think he needs to work on his skating as well, he'll be a real good prospect. I'm really looking forward to following as he'll be a 19-year-old in the AHL and that's difficult. It's doable but it's difficult as a 19-year-old to have success in the American League. I coached Jakub Vrana in Hershey as a 19-year-old as a first round pick and this is a scenario where Roby is a early second round pick and gets to play in a men's league at 19 and I do believe in the four games that I've seen that he will be successful.

Mann on Sogaard (7GP, 7-0-0, .917 save percentage, 2.40 GAA)

He was certainly a pleasant surprise and only because as a staff we were not familiar with the player. We knew he was a second round pick and was coming over after having a pretty successful season this year. I remember him at a development camp as a big kid but I certainly loved his composure and his demeaner in the net. It was fantastic to see. Specifically, within the game itself, his puck play is good. There were a couple of nights where he didn't have his 'A' game but he still battled through and made key saves along the way to get us the win so I certainly think there's lots to like and I think Sens fans should be excited about Sogaard down the line.

Mann on Sokolov (35GP, 15G, 10A)

His shot is certainly NHL caliber. His puck skills are tremendous. His coachability is awesome in terms of wanting to get better every day. You're talking about a kid that probably watched every shift with [assistant coach] Ben Sexton that he played this year. I like how he adapted to the pro game and the systematic play that we installed. His game early on was more methodical and reactive to plays more than a guy that had played in the American League for a long period of time. But that all disappeared as he got better and gained confidence. I think his skating is underrated. He's got really good straight away speed. He can certainly work on his edge work and tight turns because he's such a big man but overall, he's a real good prospect.

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