Five Thoughts for a Friday: Post-Draft Catharsis

We may never run out of things to talk about

Before I even get started on all the mayhem we witnessed this week, I want to take the opportunity to thank all of my colleagues here at S7S for all the tremendous work they put in behind the scenes this week (and all year long) to give this site the best Senators draft coverage online. Secondly, and most importantly, thank YOU, valued reader, for your participation during this historic moment in Sens fandom.

To quickly address some of the elephants in the room: no, the Senators didn’t make any of the selections I hoped they would. No, the Senators couldn’t resist the urge to bring in a veteran netminder. And, no, the Senators didn’t extend a qualifying offer to Anthony Duclair.  This week had all the controversy we’ve come to expect from the Senators organization. So am I going to start supporting the Hurricanes, or the Kings, or the (god forbid) Leafs, who make all the right draft picks, trades, and signings, on paper? Hell no. I hate those teams. Go Sens Go. I’ve said it on here before, the Ottawa Senators are fallible just like all of us and that’s what we love about them. Ottawa is a different type of hockey town.

The Senators got some phenomenal players in this draft, they finally dropped those sweet new threads, and there is a palpable sense of excitement around Ottawa that we haven’t felt in years. The irony of the throwback uniforms, however, is that these are not your parents’ Senators. In a lot of ways, I think this upcoming version of the Ottawa Senators, that largely goes against the grain of conventional roster construction, won’t be like any iteration that we’ve seen before. Pierre Dorion has, lamentably, removed every last stud of the house that Bryan Murray built and we are now witnessing Pierre’s vision with our own eyes.

On building back to front

One thing I’m not here to do today is criticize Pierre Dorion or explain what I would do differently. I also can’t assume I know what Pierre Dorion’s intentions are. All I can do is look for patterns, motifs, and themes, and offer some thoughts. And one thing I see from Dorion that I love is how this team appears to be building from back to front. Whereas previous Senators rosters evolved around a core of two or three brilliant stars and the teams never reached their potential because of missing pieces on defence or in the crease, this blueprint for the future starts with goaltending, emphasizes depth of defence, and uses offence by committee. We still see a lot of teams around the league who try to patch up holes on the back end once the core has taken shape, with mixed results. The Sens don’t look like one of those teams. So what does Pierre’s strategy look like to me?

On goaltending first and foremost

Craig Anderson was the best goaltender in modern franchise history in my books and I don’t think I need to explain myself on that one (again). Andy also has some of the most sound fundamentals and has superhuman endurance. The Senators rolled the dice on Andy and he provided a miracle stopgap for the team as they bled shots against. You cannot, however, expect to ever find another athlete like Craig Anderson just waiting in the wings. Ottawa also managed to buy low on Ben Bishop, snag Robin Lehner in the second round, and manifest Andrew Hammond out of the ether. No more than two of these occurring simultaneously should have occurred in all probability and in a million simulations, you would rarely see all four at once. And that’s why I respect that Dorion isn’t banking on more miracles like that. I think we can almost unanimously agree that we as a fanbase felt relief when Dorion didn’t use a top-five pick on Yaroslav Askarov despite Askarov’s pedigree. Goalies are far too unpredictable even at the NHL level. I am, nonetheless, pleased to see that for the fifth time in the last six years, Ottawa selected a goaltender at the draft. And that, other than Mads Sogaard last year, the Sens continue to do so outside of the first two rounds where teams can gamble on players who may never make the NHL.

I will also commend Dorion for accumulating such a variety of netminders. With Marcus Hogberg as the bedrock of the goaltending system in Ottawa (think Robin Lehner with less pressure to save the franchise), the Senators also have the closest thing to a Craig Anderson archetype, in Joey Daccord, who also boasts elite athleticism and who thrives with high shot-volume; the more conventional Kevin Mandolese, the new-school six-foot-seven Mads Sogaard, and the imported Filip Gustavsson (who has a more all-or-nothing highlight reel style in the crease). With zero guarantee than any one goalie will pan out long-term or even hold their place as a starter from one year to the next, I can appreciate the Senators not taking any chances or resting all of their hopes on the shoulders of one goaltending prospect. Leevi Merilainen, welcome to the party!

On never having enough defence

A broken record, I know, but Erik Karlsson was a once in a generation defender who the Senators don’t have an internal replacement for and whom they will never replace, period. The downfall of the Karlsson-era defence, much like the Anderson era of goaltending, was in the absence of a back-up plan. When Karlsson was on the ice for 25 minutes or more, the Senators looked like world-beaters. Then he would head to the bench and the roof would cave in. Could we have foreseen that all of Brian Lee, Jared Cowen, and Cody Ceci would fail to develop into top-four NHL defenders? Probably not. It happened though and Ottawa got exposed because they banked on going four-for-four (a highly unlikely outcome) with first-round defenders.

As Ary explained in a recent article, it has been a minute since Ottawa had a legitimate top four. And while we can pencil Thomas Chabot in without hesitation. We still haven’t quite reached the point where we can take for granted that Erik Brannstrom, Jacob Bernard-Docker, and Lassi Thomson will all graduate to their top-four potential. On draft day, I felt devastated that Dorion didn’t take two forwards in the top-five. As I’ve reflected over the past couple days, however, I’ve learned to appreciate that adding Jake Sanderson completely re-distributes the expectations placed on Ottawa’s top-four hopefuls. Assuming Christian Wolanin also has top-four potential in the minds of some (myself included), Ottawa now has six young defenders in the running for those top four spots, with Johnny Tychonick, Max Lajoie, and Christian Jaros as wild cards; and Max Guenette, Artem Zub, Tyler Kleven, and Olle Alsing as potential bottom-pairing options just for insurance. As much as I believed Ottawa had enough defensive talent to justify taking two forwards in the top-five, I’m learning to appreciate that there is no such thing as a full cupboard of defensive prospects.

On balancing out forward lines

So I mentioned Craig Anderson and I mentioned Erik Karlsson and you absolutely knew I wouldn’t finish this paragraph without talking about Mark Stone. To me, Stone just feels so representative of the era we’ve left behind. He was a one-in-a-thousand pick that the Senators will never duplicate. And just like Anderson and Karlsson, Stone was a martyr in Ottawa on whom the team simply leaned too much. Without another Mark Stone hanging around in Belleville, this team really needed to reconsider how to go about creating a forward corps. First and foremost, no matter how tantalizing the thought of lining up Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stutzle (and we’ll certainly see them together on the first powerplay unit together), giving each his own line makes Ottawa’s top-six immediately threatening. Because both can play at centre or left wing and because they boast such different yet imposing skill-sets, coach Smith can create serious line-matching issues for the opposition (whereas in the past, the opposing team could simply send out their best lines against anyone other than Mark Stone). Brady has the finish to complement a play-makers like Logan Brown or Josh Norris. Stutzle has the vision to bring out the best in wingers like Drake Batherson and Vitaly Abramov. Coach Smith also has the luxury of forwards like Colin White and (eventually) Shane Pinto who can assume both centre or right wing as needed.

While the Senators still don’t have the depth up front that they’ll need to become a playoff threat, they’ve gotten close enough that players who may have once had top-six expectations can now slide comfortably into the bottom two lines. Gone are the days of betting the farm on Curtis Lazar. I can appreciate the poetry of using the Pageau pick to draft Ridly Greig who could succeed JG as the next honey badger in the nation’s capital. Greig and Roby Jarventie join the likes of Alex Formenton and Tkachuk who can draw penalties and, if all goes according to plan, match up against the opposition’s best. Whereas just a few years ago, the Senators had to connect on every first- and second-round pick guaranteeing a top-tier player, the team now has the luxury of former second rounders like Filip Chlapik and Formenton assuming bottom-six roles. There’s no need for forwards like Nick Paul or Rudolfs Balcers to justify their inclusion in trades for franchise legends because even if they top out as role-players, the Senators can still proceed confidently.

On living in Pierre’s world

So looking at Dorion’s work so far, would I have done things differently? Certainly. Do I believe he’s above reproach? No. I respect, however, the approach of building from the ground up instead of consolidating assets to acquire a couple of stars and hoping that the rest works out through trades and free agency. I love the 2017 Senators. I miss the 2017 Senators. Alas, the organization didn’t have the capital to build around that core and the successes were fleeting. And Pierre Dorion isn’t recreating the 2017 Senators or even the late-nineties Senators. Pierre continues to amass netminders and will draft a dozen more defenders in the first round if that’s what it takes to establish a bona fide top-four. The forward lines are far from complete. However, when Pierre finishes with them, we can hope all four wreak havoc on the opposition.

No one singular star player has a replacement. No one prospect on this team should feel an undue amount of pressure. This blueprint emphasizes the distribution of the workload among all 20 players in the lineup on a given night. This approach to roster-construction takes a long time before it bears fruit. No one will crown this team as a contender anytime soon. However, when the time comes, this roster won’t set its sights immediately on winning a championship. This team will have designs of wearing down opponents over sixty-minute nights and seven-game series. If done right, this group can become a grinding, pummeling, and excruciating opponent. Once it perfects that art, it can step up to the stage year after year until the stars line up. And if it doesn’t work then that’s Dorion’s problem. I’m just one person with a laptop. I’ve never faced the pressure of having three first-round picks at my disposal in an NHL draft. Pierre is staking his reputation on this operation. I’ve stuck around this long so I’ll hang around until the end. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

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