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Should the Ottawa Senators Give Up the 4th Overall Pick?

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With a 1st round pick owed to the Colorado Avalanche, should the Sens take a chance and give up this year’s pick?

2017 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

At the time of the Matt Duchene trade, when the Ottawa Senators gave up their 2018 1st round pick to the Colorado Avalanche, it wasn’t perceived to be as big of a deal as it’s become. The Sens’ record of 6-3-5 had them as a top ten team in November, and fresh off an exciting run to the Eastern Conference Final, optimism ran through the fan base for another fantastic season.

As we all know now, everything completely flipped on its head from that point on, finishing second last league-wide and falling back two spots in the lottery to receive the 4th overall pick in Friday’s draft. To Pierre Dorion’s credit, and thankfully for the team, the 2018 1st round pick was top-ten protected, meaning that if the Sens’ pick post-lottery ended up finishing in the top ten, they would have the option to defer the pick to 2019. If they choose to move it to 2019, the pick will transfer regardless of draft position, adding an extra risk.

This is where the fear lies in keeping the 4th overall pick. With Mike Hoffman sent packing to San Jose Florida, and Erik Karlsson likely gone this summer, the possibility seems very real that Ottawa could end up with another lowly finish next season. If things go off the rails, there will be no point in tanking if they don’t have a 1st round pick. And with elite centreman Jack Hughes waiting to go a the top of the draft, the thought of winning the lottery after trading the pick becomes a nightmare scenario.

General manager Pierre Dorion’s said that there’s a 99.9% chance the team keeps the pick, although with the way the off-season has gone so far, it could potentially be making him think twice. The deadline for this decision is reportedly very late, so it may even come down to whether the prospect they like is available at #4. There are lots of factors to consider, which is why I’ve decided to break this down into three sections.

But briefly before we jump into that, let’s look at what the public has to say. Dom Luszczyszyn conducted two polls yesterday, both of which as of writing have received over 2,000 votes. The general public opinion shows us that if Erik Karlsson stays, it’s a near 50-50 split as to whether people believe the Sens should give Colorado the pick from this year or next. However, if Erik Karlsson is traded this summer, 70% believe it would be better to hold on to the 2019 pick and give the Avalanche the known asset.

Standings

The million-dollar question... where will the Ottawa Senators finish in the standings next season? The odds from Vegas seem to not think so highly of the team, placing them in dead last with 100/1 odds to win the Stanley Cup in 2019. If things go as poorly as they did in the worst parts of last season, it’s not hard to see why the future outlook for 2019-20 doesn’t look so bright.

In reality, the answer is that the Sens’ standings finish will depend on a lot of different factors, as it will for all teams. Even over a full 82-game season, results are full of variance with teams hopping up and down the ranks. Take the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights, for example. The Avalanche went from having one of the worst seasons in the modern era to making the playoffs the following season, while the Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Final as an expansion team! It can go the other way too, such as, well, Ottawa last year.

The first factor that’s on everybody’s mind is Erik Karlsson, and whether or not he’ll be back for next season. The All-Star defenceman is the heart and soul of this Senators team — what he’s able to do on the ice can be worth the price of admission alone. The blow of losing him can’t be understated enough, both for his contributions on the ice and for his relevance to the city of Ottawa. Considering Dorion traded Mike Hoffman yesterday, and the team is also being circled with rumours for other players such as Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Zack Smith, this could be the season where the team decides to go for the full-on tank.

Even if these trades become a reality, however, it’s still worth noting that the Sens would not be completely devoid of talent, in particular with Mark Stone and Matt Duchene leading the team up front, plus the recent emergence of Ryan Dzingel and new addition Mikkel Boedker. Defence prospects Thomas Chabot and Christian Wolanin have also made huge strides in the past year, with Colin White, Logan Brown, and Filip Chlapik also potentially having a significant NHL impact. Whether that’s enough to keep the Sens out of the basement is up for debate, but having so many prospects on the brink could lead to some impressive rookie seasons.

Then you have to look at the goaltending — what are the chances Craig Anderson and Mike Condon both put up career-low seasons again? Even if both goalies see a bump of only .005 in their save percentage next season while assuming they’ll face the same amount of shots, that would bring the Sens’ goal differential from -70 to -34. Still not ‘good’ by any means, but a large improvement.

As bleak as things look for the Senators next season, a bottom three finish is not necessarily a guarantee. Playoffs are certainly a long shot under any circumstances for a team that just finished second last, although the likelihood of that repeating may not be as high as we think.

The Draft Lottery

The way the NHL determines the draft order has changed quite a bit in the past five years, although it appears that they’ve finally settled on a format. All teams that miss the playoffs get a certain amount of lottery ball combinations depending on where they finish, with the top three slots picked at random, and the remaining teams receiving picks 4-15 based on how they finished in the standings.

One really important chart to consider here is the one below from Micah Blake McCurdy, who calculated the odds for each draft slot based on where a team finishes in the standings. It’s worth noting that the 2018 odds changed slightly from 2017, meaning it’s possible it could change again for 2019.

Using these odds, we can calculate the probabilty of the Senators having a pick higher pick than fourth overall next year. Here are results:

Even if the Ottawa Senators finish dead last next season, the odds are still against them for winning a top three pick, sitting at only 49.4%. At third last the chances become one-in-three, and if you’re confident enough to guarantee a bottom-five finish, that only averages out to a 35.4% chance of picking higher than this year. The probabilities of the draft lottery’s setup are working against them, meaning it might be best if they hold on to this year’s pick instead of chalking it up to less-than-favourable lottery odds.

Class Comparison

At some point along the way, however, you wonder what would happen if the Sens do win the 2019 lottery, as they’ll have a chance no matter what as long as they miss the playoffs. Comparing the 2018 and 2019 draft classes could be a key part of this decision for Dorion, if he believes one is stronger than the other. As an example, if he believes the Sens could pick a player with the 7th or 8th pick next year that’s just as good as the 4th pick this year, then he might reconsider deferring the pick to next year. The opposite could also ring true.

To get a general knowledge on how the two draft classes stack up, I’ve surveyed seventeen different scouts/prospect gurus, ranging from many backgrounds of experience, on their general opinion regarding how the talent stacks up at the top of the 2018 and 2019 drafts. Of the sample, 59% said that the 2019 class is stronger at the top, 12% said that the 2018 class is stronger at the top, and the remaining 29% were either uncertain or believed they were close or equal.

Amongst those who believe this year’s class is stronger, the biggest factor is some strong depth at the top. While 2019 may have the better top prize in Jack Hughes (younger brother of Quinn Hughes), some believe that the top picks in 2018 are still superior due to the high-end depth. It could also help Sens’ decision if Zadina ends up being available at #4.

“In short, the top of the 2018 draft looks better right now thanks to its depth of talent. You’ve got top guys 1-10. That said, I think Jack Hughes has higher upside than anyone in 2018. He is a franchise-altering prospect for me. Also, I really like Kaapo Kakko, who will be a great consolation prize for any team looking to pick in the top of next year’s draft. After that, there’s still a lot to like, but I get a little leery about projecting top-10 guys in 2019 against the incredible group we have in 2018. The options available to the Senators at No. 4 are pretty exceptional prospects.”

Chris Peters, ESPN

Others leaned toward 2019, however, with more than one scout comparing Jack Hughes to being on a similar level to Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel. Hughes was almost unanimously named a better prospect than Rasmus Dahlin, and the possibility of potentially gifting him to the Avalanche could potentially strike enough fear into Dorion that he should opt to keep the 2019 pick.

The biggest difference between 2018 and 2019 is the positional distribution, as 2018 is the year of the defenceman, while 2019 has more elite centres hanging around the top.

“The 2019 crop is projecting to be high end. It’s going to have a couple of super elite centres in Hughes and Caulfield, plus some very strong centres in the next wave. Also a couple potential all-world wingers in Kakko and Newhook. Byram looks like a top D prospect.”

Cam Robinson, Dobber Hockey

“I think that next year offers more high end players at the top of the draft class whereas there is a drop off after Svechnikov in this year. Hughes is alone at the top next year but 2-10 are higher end and close together.”

Ryan Biech, Canucks Army & The Athletic

A few other top prospects mentioned are forwards Jakob Pelletier, Alex Turcotte, Ryan Suzuki and Peyton Krebs. The group together should form an excellent, centre-filled top of the draft.

The uncertain scouts also had good reasoning for their decisions, since so much can change between now and a year for draft prospects. The skill sets of 16/17 year old players are very volatile, which is why we see big risers and fallers like Nico Hischier and Sean Day. Some also believe the talent levels to be very comparable, with the 2019 centremen being of roughly equal value and depth to the 2018 defencemen.

Conclusion

The Sens are faced with a tough decision ahead of the draft’s first round on Friday, one that has the potential to drastically alter the course of the franchise. The 4th overall pick is a very valuable asset to possess, although because of the conundrum with Colorado and their current situation, there is a chance they may end up giving that pick for something potentially better next season. If this ends up happening, it would ease the pain a bit to know that next year’s class is looking like the stronger group, especially for forwards.

However, when considering the amount of variance that goes into league standings, and based on the way the draft lottery odds are structured, I believe it would still be best to keep the 4th overall pick this year and pray that next year’s pick doesn’t turn into a lottery winner. It would almost surely lead to some awkward moments next season that would get in the way of otherwise simple decisions (for example, whether they should be sellers at the trade deadline).

There’s also something to be said about the optics of the situation. Keeping the pick this year would be akin to “selling hope” for a better next season, while deferring it to 2019 would send a message to the fanbase indicating that another rocky season is in store. For a team that’s having trouble getting people into seats, they could use all the positive PR they can get. Drafting a top end player sooner rather than later would definitely help, especially if said player will be NHL-ready for the start of 2018-19.

In the end, this is a decision between a boat and a mystery box, and the Sens should take the known asset while they own it. And if that pick ends up becoming Filip Zadina, it’s all the better!


A special thanks to all the scouts who participated in the survey, and for the tremendous work they do. Happy draft week everyone!