The Long-term Benefits of Ottawa’s Draft Strategy

The apparent lack of high-end talent in their prospect pool could be nothing more than a myth.

Over the last few years, the Ottawa Senators have had ample opportunity to rebuild their team through the draft. Between 2018 and 2021, they’ve drafted thirty players, including seven in the first round. As we take stock of where things stand, there are bound to be some mixed reviews.

The Sens have most of their top-six filled out for the future: Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Tim Stützle, and Drake Batherson are the big names, but that leaves a couple of spots. Shane Pinto and Egor Sokolov are the team’s most promising prospects at C and RW, respectively, but is that enough? One could argue that with the massive quantity and quality of draft picks, there was an opportunity for Trent Mann and his staff to add a bit more security to the Senators’ future.

For example, a player like Roby Järventie, with his powerful shot and positioning in the offensive zone, is likely to become a top-six forward if he ends up making the NHL. There are definitely parts of his game he still needs to work on, which might hold him back from making the NHL at all, but drafting multiple prospects like him is a strategy many agree with because it increases the odds of bringing a potential star into your organization for a long time.

Furthermore, although drafting players with safe projections are great for filling out the depth roles on your roster, these kinds of players are generally available in free agency or the trade market. So, would Ottawa be in a better spot today had they gone for more high-end talent instead of opting for “safer” prospects with a seemingly lower ceiling? I have an answer to this question, and it begins with a story.

Thirteen years ago, the Ottawa Senators selected Zack Smith in the 3rd round of the 2008 NHL Draft — in front of their fans. Smith was a pretty good third-round pick, too: he’s played the ninth-most career games as a Senator, with 94 goals and 95 assists in 612 games, while performing as a solid defensive forward and penalty killer for the majority of the prime of his career in Ottawa.

He became a full-time NHLer during the 2010-11 season, on the final year of his entry-level contract. He then went on to sign a two-year deal worth $700k annually, followed by a four-year deal worth just south of $1.9M annually, that would see him become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2016-17 season. Notably, he had a breakout season in 2016 in which he scored an impressive 25 goals.

So, I count seven years of Zack Smith providing good value on the team’s bottom six. From there, however, you’ve got a bit of a conundrum. As a playoff team in 2017, the Senators obviously weren’t in a position to move him at the deadline, so the only two options were letting him walk to free agency in July, or sign him to an extension. And sign him they did, to a four-year $3.25M/year contract that turned sour fairly quickly, culminating in him being traded in the 2019 offseason for Artem Anisimov in a “money for cap savings” deal.

Looking back, it seems it would’ve been better for Ottawa to move on from Smith and replace him either internally, or through trade or free agency. However, was there even anyone available? The list of left-wing free agents in 2017 consisted of Alex Burmistrov, Benoit Pouliot, Chris Thorburn, and Beau Bennet. That’s far from ideal, and even if the Senators were serious about targeting one of them, they likely would’ve had to overpay in the same way they ended up doing for Smith. With trades, you’ve got the same idea. The team’s draft capital was minimal at the time and it wouldn’t be worth parting with one of your few solid assets to fill a spot on your third line.

The most reliable way for any team, budget or not, to fill roster spots is through your prospect pool. For Ottawa, they were looking at Nick Paul, Filip Chlapik, and Alex Formenton but all three required more seasoning. Therefore, it can be argued that the Senators, who were looking to contend for a Cup, had no other option than to gamble on Smith. You all know what happened to the team after that. Granted, Smith not performing up to his contract was but a very minor factor toward Ottawa’s collapse, but it’s certainly representative of a big issue of the team; that is, what happens when there’s a lack of youth in your system.

This is where you start to see the benefit of Ottawa’s current draft strategy. Players such as Angus Crookshank, Parker Kelly, Mark Kastelic, and Cole Reinhardt all have the potential to effectively contribute to an NHL team’s bottom-six while on cost-effective deals in the long term, thanks to club control in the form of RFA years. Like with Smith, players like these will only provide that value for so long, which is why you constantly need to draft players who can fill those spots. As a budget team, the Senators can’t afford to overpay anyone who isn’t a part of their core.

As I mentioned earlier, the potential issue of not having enough star power in your lineup still remains. The Senators, however, have occasionally shown they’ve been able to draft players who out-perform their draft-day projections.

We evaluate draft-eligible prospects based on what they can do when they’re 17-18 years old, which absolutely has bearing on what they might be able to do if they make the NHL, but there’s more to the equation than just that. In order to figure out which prospects are the most likely to become impact NHL players, scouts acquire a lot of additional information through one-on-one interviews with players, GMs, and coaches. They take into account not only character and intangibles but the unique circumstances surrounding that player.

Look at Shane Pinto, for example. He started playing competitive hockey at fifteen years of age, and simply being drafted in any round three years later is an impressive feat. He certainly has a knack for improving his game, considering he quickly went from being light years behind Montreal Canadiens prospect Cole Caufield to being a finalist for the same award as him this past season.

By identifying players who are likely to work on weak points in their game and drastically improve, a team can still acquire a high-end talent, even if the said player was previously considered to be a “safe prospect”. In the case of 2021 tenth-overall pick Tyler Boucher, you could call him similar to players such as bottom-six forward Lawson Crouse or top-six forward Tom Wilson, at the time they were drafted. The challenge is predicting where he’ll be in a few years, and Mann and his staff are confident that Boucher will end up in the Wilson category.

Whether you trust them or not is up to your own criteria; for me, their track record inspires enough confidence to do so, mostly due to their early-round selections of Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, and Shane Pinto, as well as their fourth-round selection of Drake Batherson in 2017 — all players who’ve turned out better than expected. Whether this all amounts to a championship squad is an open question, but their work at the draft table is a step in the right direction.

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