Ottawa Senators chief amateur scout Trent Mann made no bones about his confidence in the team’s 2021 NHL Entry Draft picks, yesterday. As is now becoming something of a tradition, the Senators went off — and in some cases way off — the board with most, if not all of their selections. Time will tell if they were right in doing so, but as it stands, first-rounder Tyler Boucher, as well as second-rounders Zack Ostapchuk and Ben Roger in particular were singled out as reaches by the larger scouting consensus. All have varying degrees of upside.
Needless to say, the public consensus did not factor into Ottawa’s decision to draft them.
“There’s a lot more work that goes into producing our list over a public list,” Mann said in a media availability upon the draft’s conclusion. “There’s more details, more things put into a profile of a kid so we know exactly what we’re getting.”
As for criticisms about leaving value on the board by not trading down for players they liked, Mann told critics that the team is operating on intel not known in the public sphere.
“If we move back eight spots, is Tyler Boucher still going to be there? You know what? He’s not going to be there. I know that, (general manager) Pierre Dorion knows that, and the general public doesn’t know that. They don’t have to know that, it’s not their job.”
“I know, and the public list doesn’t know what we know.”
It’s a line of questioning that Ottawa is all too familiar with. By Mann’s own admission, even players like Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk — now stars of the team — were questioned by many at the time of their being drafted, and the Senators’ lead scout acknowledged that criticism comes with the territory.
Still, it is once again impossible to ignore the discourse surrounding the Senators’ draft. The Athletic’s national prospect reporter Scott Wheeler ranked Ottawa as the overall losers of the draft, going so far as to say “I’d be surprised if the Senators get a single NHLer out of their five Saturday choices”. Corey Pronman, also of The Athletic, assigned the Senators a ‘D’ grade, after giving them an ‘A’ last season.
The Hockey News’ Steven Ellis and Ryan Kennedy also questioned some of the reaches Ottawa made, but were a bit more charitable with their criticism. The two acknowledged the Senators’ already-deep prospect pool, the roster fit of Boucher, and the potential upside of a player like Roger.
Vitriol directed at the aforementioned pundits by fans, media, or the team alike would be pointless. A ton of hard work goes into developing this analysis year-round, and even the so-called “internet scouts” who don’t necessarily work in a professional capacity do painstaking research on these players — for a draft that is in large part a crapshoot, at the end of the day.
All of this is to say that despite the relative success of their recent drafts, a clear disconnect remains between the Senators and the scouting community at large. The team has seemingly embraced a philosophy of straying from the consensus to draft players that fit their organizational vision, and can help build the identity of a team that is difficult to play against.
In fact, Tim Stützle is pretty much the only player in the last few drafts who was the overwhelming consensus pick at his spot. When scouts said “Jamie Drysdale” or “Marco Rossi”, the Senators took Jake Sanderson. When scouts pegged Arthur Kaliyev or Bobby Brink as the guy for Ottawa, Shane Pinto was the pick they went with.
It’s an approach that has yielded some success thus far. Pinto in particular has exceeded most expectations, finishing the 2021 campaign as a Hobey Baker award finalist, and looking to cement a spot in the Ottawa lineup next season. Sanderson was the best defenceman in college hockey, and even more initially puzzling picks like Mads Sogaard, Tyler Kleven, and Leevi Merilainen have shown signs of promise through their recent development track.
The Senators have had their misfires, sure. Names like Shane Bowers, and Jonny Tychonick haven’t proven to work out anywhere, but the team has also found gems in Alex Formenton, Drake Batherson, and even Egor Sokolov.
So why, then, is the scouting consensus routinely bemused by the Senators’ drafting decisions? Has the team not earned the benefit of the doubt by now?
The reality is that Ottawa marches to the beat of their own drum. For better or for worse, their approach involves finding the guys they think are best for them, often choosing the safety of a high floor over the relative dice roll of a high ceiling. Scouting is usually predicated on the opposite approach, especially at the top of the draft, so it’s only natural that most lines of thinking would take issue with that of the Senators.
Though the early returns are positive, questions do remain about whether the approach will deliver all of the pieces of a contender at the NHL level. Tkachuk, Chabot, Batherson, Formenton, and Stützle have blossomed into critical cogs in the Senators’ machine, but the likes of Jacob Bernard-Docker, Pinto, Sokolov, Lassi Thomson, and countless others have yet to do the same. Early indications are that they’ll get there, but it would be premature to make decisive pronouncements one way or another.
It is also fair to wonder if the Senators have left value on the board by opting for the safer, more well-rounded options rather than taking shots on high-end skill. So it remains to be seen whether Ottawa has cracked the code on building a contender, or if they’ll be left with a surplus of depth and not enough firepower. One thing is for certain, though: it is going to be absolutely fascinating to watch how this all plays out.
If you’re asking the Senators, however, they’ll tell you they have a pretty good idea of what the endgame looks like.