When you look at successful teams in the NHL, there is no one definitive formula for success. Drafting and developing your picks is the traditional way to go, but some excel at trading or even free agency. Drafting should theoretically be the "easiest" because you don't need to rely on other teams trading with you or outbidding others (even though it isn't easy to scout). However, I believe the true mark of a great organization is one that can identify undervalued players elsewhere, bring them in, and see them thrive on their team.
Sadly, it's an area where the Ottawa Senators have drastically underperformed for years. There are good players on this roster today, and there have in the past as well, but it's almost never been the case that players have arrived in Ottawa and seen their play vastly improve. And if they want to be "best in class" (a phrase that is already becoming a parody of itself), they need to greatly improve not only at professional scouting but also professional player development, making sure they get the most out of every possible player.
Over the last decade, the only examples of acquired players noticeably improving in Ottawa that I can think of include Anthony Duclair, Dylan DeMelo, Anton Forsberg, Mike Condon, and Mathieu Joseph. We should note that Duclair had success in Arizona before his arrival and was subsequently given away for nothing. DeMelo was somewhat similar and his proper value maybe wasn't fully recognized here. Forsberg provided great value for a waiver pickup, although that was only for a little over a season. Ditto for Condon, as his only solid season was in 2016-17. Joseph has been excellent this season, although the Sens lost Nick Paul in the deal, so it's not like it was a huge upgrade (I personally prefer Joseph).
Other players have played well in Ottawa like Claude Giroux, Clarke MacArthur, Marc Methot, etc., but those kinds of players already had solid seasons before that, so it's not as if the Senators struck gold. What they desperately need to do is find somebody in the bottom-six elsewhere who is then able to be a top player a la William Karlsson or Carter Verhaeghe. Without many picks or prospects, Ottawa needs cheap supplemental players.
Over the last three seasons, most of the top teams have great examples of these players, and it's no surprise why they've done so well. Here are the top 12 teams since 2021-22 (ranked in order of best-acquired players) and the players during those seasons that have vastly improved since getting there:
- Florida Panthers (6th in points percentage)
Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, Brandon Montour, Gustav Forsling, Mason Marchment, Anthony Duclair, Oliver Ekman-Larsson
Some of these players really came out of nowhere like Verhaeghe, Forsling, and Marchment, while others like Reinhart, Bennett, Duclair, and Montour were established but shined even brighter in the sunshine state. This is the team that I think of when I think of players improving in new surroundings.
- Vegas Golden Knights (9th)
Jonathan Marchessault, Chandler Stephenson, William Karlsson, Michael Amadio, Nicolas Roy
The Golden Knights have always been the epitome of harvesting undervalued players ever since they overperformed so highly in their first season. Marchessault already had 50 points in Florida before, but he took off in Vegas. Stephenson and Karlsson turned into legitimate top-six threats after being 4th liners elsewhere, and Amadio and Roy have been valuable depth players after not being so before. Their pro scouting is always amongst the best.
- Colorado Avalanche (2nd)
Valeri Nichuskin, Devon Toews, Nazem Kadri, Artturi Lehkonen, Andre Burakovsky, Jonathan Drouin
Toews, Kadri, Lehkonen, and Burakovsky were already good players before coming to Colorado, but their game improved even more with the Avalanche. Meanwhile, Nichushkin and Drouin have resurrected their careers with the team; Nichushkin, in particular, has been borderline elite.
- Minnesota Wild (10th)
Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman, Frederick Gaudreau, Filip Gustavsson, Kevin Fiala
Zuccarello and Fiala had previous success, but Zuccarello saw his best season(s) in Minnesota, and Fiala became a truly elite player with the Wild. Hartman scored 34 goals out of nowhere, and Gaudreau became a point-producing depth player after just being an AHLer. Then of course there's Gustavsson who was good enough to be a Vezina candidate, although he's taken a step back this season.
- Boston Bruins (1st)
Pavel Zacha, Linus Ullmark, Hampus Lindholm
Zacha and Lindholm had both been good before, but they had career years last season under coach Jim Montgomery who seems to be able to get the best out of everyone. Ullmark has been on an incredible run in Boston, playing like one of the best goalies in the league since his arrival.
- New York Rangers (5th)
Mika Zibanejad, Jonathan Quick
Quick has only played 15 games with a .912 SV% so that might be cheating, but still, everyone thought he was toast. Then obviously Zibanejad saw his game skyrocket after going to the Rangers, becoming an offensive force.
- Tampa Bay Lightning (12th)
Mikhail Sergachev, Brandon Hagel
The Lightning have always been kings of development, mostly through drafting though. But even here, they did well after getting Sergachev from Montreal (somewhat counts), and Hagel who has become exactly what they needed as a first-line player.
- Toronto Maple Leafs (4th)
Michael Bunting, Ilya Samsonov briefly
Bunting provided excellent value at just $950k and averaged 57 points in two seasons—you couldn't dream of a better scenario. Samsonov has obviously been terrible this season, but last year he had a .919 SV% in 42 games after some down years in Washington. That might not totally count, but it did for at least a season.
- Edmonton Oilers (7th)
Hyman was a solid middle-six forward in Toronto but has been a point-per-game stud in Edmonton. Yes, playing with Connor McDavid obviously helps, but he's been legitimately great in his own right. A $5.5M cap hit for 4 more seasons is a steal.
- Los Angeles Kings (11th)
Trevor Moore, Cam Talbot
Moore has slowly improved since coming from Toronto in 2020, but he's unexpectedly become a very good second-line player. Talbot has been up and down his entire career, but he's doing something right in 29 games with a .918 SV%.
11/12. Carolina Hurricanes (3rd)/Dallas Stars (8th)
Neither team really has a good example, although they've both done excellent jobs at drafting and trading. As I said, there is no one way to win in this league.
Is it easy to find these hidden gems? Of course not. But that's why you hire the best people you can find so that these underappreciated players get a better home, and hopefully that home can be Ottawa. Steve Staios sure has his work cut out for him.