Story by Jeff Gard

The American Hockey League’s Senators are back in Belleville.

As a professional team, the Belleville Senators – affiliate of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators – were the only local team to play regular hockey games during the 2020-21 season.

They weren’t based in Belleville, though, and even if they had been there wouldn’t have been fans allowed. The Senators were instead limited to a 35-game AHL regular season and played out of Ottawa.

“Last year was filled with a lot of adaptation going on and flexibility,” said Belleville Senators head coach Troy Mann. “The fact that we’re back in our own rink, able to practice at CAA Arena, have our own locker room, that’s certainly what you want as a team.”

Mann, who received a two-year contract extension during the off-season, considers Belleville to be “a great little town,” a good fit for AHL hockey and he’s looking forward to spectators returning. He’s pleased to be sticking around to build a competitive team in Belleville while also continuing to develop prospects for the NHL club.

“I certainly love the organization, I love the people in it and I’ve really enjoyed coaching the prospects,” Mann remarked. “There’s a lot of pressure on us as coaches because for Ottawa to have success, they need our prospects to graduate and I think we’ve done a good job of that and we’ll have to continue to do that for the Sens to have some success at the NHL level.”

Coaching in the AHL presents a unique challenge many leagues don’t face as there is constant movement and change for the roster. You can practice or play one day and the roster is different by the next morning.

“You’re always having to adapt and that’s one of the things at the AHL level you have to be conscious of,” Mann said, noting injuries at both the NHL (which leads to recalls) and AHL levels can have a huge impact as the season goes on. “Sometimes you’re just hanging on and that’s why there’s so much movement in the AHL in the standings because you could be really shorthanded for a month and not have a great month and then be full strength where another team is not and you’re able to make up ground. The teams that are able to manage that and have enough depth are usually the ones that have the most success at the AHL level.”

With not many jobs available in Ottawa during training, Mann expected some of the club’s top prospects like Lassi Thomson, Roby Jarventie and Egor Sokolov to begin the season in Belleville.

“They have tremendous upside and will play in the NHL at some point,” the coach said. “It’s just a matter of us getting them ready and a position being available for them to be recalled.”

The same goes for the goaltenders. Matt Murray and Anton Forsberg had the spots locked up in Ottawa, leaving Filip Gustavsson, Mads Sogaard and Kevin Mandolese to battle for the two positions in Belleville.

“Obviously Gus has been a pro for a couple years and is really the No. 3 guy in the organization, but I’m certainly looking forward to Sogaard and Mandelese battling it out,” Mann said. “One of those two guys will have to go to Atlanta with our ECHL affiliate and get plenty of starts. Sogaard came over from Denmark last year and made a great impression down the stretch and Mandelese has had a great camp so far.”

In addition to the prospects, there’s a good mix of new and returning players that bring a wealth of experience.

Logan Shaw, an experienced AHL player with over 200 games of NHL experience as well, is back as team captain.

“Logan is a constant professional. I love his work ethic, I love his detail and his passion for the game,” Mann said. “Last year once we got to know our new players and identify the leadership group, to me it was a no-brainer that he be named captain. The fact that he was on a two-year contract also helped. I’m a big fan of Logan. He’s solid, solid two-way player, very versatile, can play the wing or centre and just tries to play the game the right way and that’s what you need from your captain and leadership group.”

On defence, Colby Williams was re-signed after impressing the Senators brass last year. Mann was familiar with the 26-year-old who played four seasons for the Hershey Bears where Mann coached until 2018 before taking the Sens job.

“I had him in Hershey. He came in last year on an AHL deal and was one of our mainstays on the back-end,” Mann said. “We thought enough of his season over the 35 games to bring him back. He’s still very young, but on an AHL deal he’ll be coming down to Belleville and should be one of our anchors on the back-end.”

Another player expected to bolster the Belleville blueline is defenceman Zac Leslie, who has six years of AHL experience under his belt with the Ontario Reign, Chicago Wolves and Stockton Heat.

“He’s another one who will be relied upon heavily from a coaching perspective in terms of leadership that’s on an AHL deal,” Mann said.

Up front, most of the forwards in the lineup are comprised of NHL prospects and others on two-way contracts that have the potential to get called up to the big club during the season, but there was certainly a need to add veterans as well.

“We have a player coming in, Tyrell Goulbourne, that’s had some NHL experience and was a real force down in Lehigh Valley when I coached in Hershey and brings a level of toughness to the table,” Mann said. “He’ll be a guy that will be looked upon to help the third and fourth lines and be physical.”

Sometimes players might get frustrated being sent down to the AHL, but Mann likes to give them space initially and then press the reset button to get them ready for another shot in the NHL.

“Even though you’re not in the NHL, the American League you’re still making a pretty good living and you’re playing the game you love so it’s up to you to meet the coaches halfway and try and be part of a winning team.”