Let me make one thing clear before I begin.
Of course the Ottawa Senators should look at all options, and if it means trading away a few of the thirteen draft picks they’ve stockpiled for the 2020 NHL Draft to improve their roster, then so be it.
In fact, what I’m here to argue is just that: Pierre Dorion and co. should look at all of their options, including stepping up to the virtual podium and making all of their draft picks.
In this article, I’ll first provide some context by discussing what we know about the Sens’ supposed strategy heading into the draft while reminding everyone how Ottawa compiled these assets in the first place. I’ll then argue that the Senators are sitting pretty heading into the draft and should not only rebuke attempts to move pick quantity to desperate teams, but also consider using most, if not all, of their picks to revitalize their prospect system at the junior-ranks.
What we know about Ottawa’s draft strategy
The last time the team entered a rebuild of this scale, they created the “Senate Reform” video series — introducing the scouts to the fans and giving a glimpse into a process that many know little about.
This time around, Dorion’s group has been notably quiet, not even appearing on local radio. Since we can never expect these communications tactics to share any meaningful insight given that they’re in the public domain, it’s notable when we do see consistent reports on any team’s strategy. Bruce Garrioch, the journalist most tapped into what the club wants released, has shared these tidbits in his most recent articles over the last week (added emphasis in bold):
With nine picks in the first three rounds and 13 in total, Ottawa Senators’ general manager Pierre Dorion can expect his phone to ring a lot in the next three weeks. Teams will be looking to move contracts in exchange for picks and the Senators can use some of those assets they’ve got to shore up places that need immediate attention.
Up front, the Senators could use at least one centre, perhaps even a No. 1 pivot because there’s not much depth now at the moment. Right now, the middle of this roster is made up Colin White, Chris Tierney, Artem Anisimov while Matthew Peca was brought in as a UFA to finish out the season, but it should be noted that need may be addressed in the draft. After a standout first year in Belleville, centre Josh Norris should push for a spot on the top two lines while Logan Brown, the No. 11 overall pick in 2011, is also going to have the opportunity. All that being said, the Senators may spend one of those picks to go get a veteran centre who can play top six minutes via trade.
Yes, the Senators have no shortage of goalies in the organization, and a lot with good upside potential, but if Nilsson can’t play then this would be an area the club needs to address. The belief is the Senators are one of several teams scouring the goalie market and the indications are they have kicked tires with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Matt Murray.
Reading these quotes makes it readily apparent that the club will not be stepping up to draft 13 players, and instead, be looking to utilize some of their draft capital in a trade, potentially for a veteran top-six centre and/or a starting goaltender. The only picks that appear to be locked in place are the first couple at third and fifth overall.
If you’re thinking: “13 picks is too much! When was the last time a team drafted that many players?” You don’t have to look very far back. In fact, in the 2019 NHL Draft, Carolina drafted 12 players, and the trio of Detroit (11), New Jersey (11), and Montréal (10) were in the double-digits.
How did Ottawa compile these assets?
Part of the reason why I’m so fired up about the team maximizing these picks is because of the pain we’ve had to go through to acquire them. Here’s a list to jog our memoryL
- #3 — via the San Jose Sharks in the Erik Karlsson trade (September, 2018)
- #28 — via the New York Islanders in the Jean-Gabriel Pageau trade (February, 2020)
- #52 — via the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Ryan Dzingel trade (February, 2019)
- #59 — via the New York Islanders in the Pageau trade (February, 2020)
- #61 or 62 — via the Vegas Golden Knights (by way of the Dallas Stars for Marc Methot!) in the Mark Stone trade (February, 2019)
- #71 — via the Winnipeg Jets in the Dylan DeMelo trade (February, 2020)
- #155 — via the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Mike Condon trade (July, 2019)
- #158 — via the San Jose Sharks in the Mike Hoffman trade (June, 2018)
- #181 — via the St. Louis Blues in the Chris Wideman trade (November, 2018)/
Outside of the two trades involving Matt Duchene, the 2020 draft has the fingerprints of almost every major Senators trade from the last three seasons — the final signs of the 2017 Conference Finals squad, and the remnants of the 2011 “rebuild” at the start of the decade. So if you find yourself getting antsy, or extra frustrated as rumours swirl around the team yet again, be easy on yourself. There’s emotional weight here.
Of course, the team’s talent evaluators are expected to put all lingering emotions aside when deciding how to best use the picks, but they also have to know that what these picks are used on — whether it’s players or prospects — will have a big part in determining the legacy of a giant era in Senators history.
The situation around the league and what it means for Ottawa
Over the next month, there’s expected to be massive roster upheaval around the league. In addition to the draft, free agency starts the same week. There are important deadlines for tendering offers to restricted free agents, and all of this has to be negotiated under a ‘flat cap’ — likely around $81.5M.
Barring any last minute changes, here is an overview of the upcoming important NHL Off-season dates.— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) September 18, 2020
All dates are based on the 'Critical Dates' calendar found in the MOU, and take into account the newly released schedule for the SCF which can end no later than September 30th. pic.twitter.com/kupr0S4FlC
This makes the Senators an extremely attractive trade partner for stifled teams up against the cap ceiling, or those trying to shed some NHL-calibre players in an attempt to re-tool. While we’ve all decried the Senators’ lack of spending under Eugene Melnyk in recent years, it’s resulted in a situation that presents prime opportunity to take advantage of their cap space. Unlike most teams around the league, the organization is going to have to add money and contracts, with only eleven players signed to one-way contracts and the most cap space in the league at $39.5M.
While teams won’t be looking to give players away, I fail to see why the Senators would have to part with assets like the 28th overall pick, or either of their first two second-round picks in a trade with a team that has few options. 14 of the league’s 32 teams have less than $10M in cap space, and general managers are likely being asked by their ownership groups to not spend all the way up to the cap ceiling. On the flip side, only five other teams — Florida, Colorado, New Jersey, Buffalo, and Detroit — have $20M of cap space or greater, and it’s hard to imagine having much of a bidding war with so few practical suitors in this year’s market.
Some of the names linked to the Senators and the prices attached to them seem downright confusing. Take Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray, a restricted free agent likely looking for a raise on his $3.75M salary from last year. Our own Brandon Maki has written about the supposed asking price for Murray, a first- or second-round pick and potentially a prospect. Does that make sense in a goaltending market and cap situation that looks like the following (via The Athletic’s ($) Eric Duhatschek)?
There are five premium netminders reaching unrestricted free agent status this summer: Robin Lehner, Jacob Markstrom, Braden Holtby, Corey Crawford and based on his work in these playoffs, Anton Khudobin. In addition, there are probably eight additional pending UFAs who will attract some level of interest: Thomas Greiss, Cam Talbot, Brian Elliott, Aaron Dell, Jimmy Howard, Craig Anderson and Laurent Brossoit. Beyond the goalies available strictly for the cost of a new contract, you then also have the trade-bait category. That starts with Darcy Kuemper in Arizona but also included Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, Marc-Andre Fleury in Vegas, Frederik Andersen in Toronto and Henrik Lundqvist in New York. If anyone were interested, they could easily pry Martin Jones out of San Jose too, though his salary and term combined with his recent level of performance make that move a virtual non-starter.
Instead, if the Senators are open to moving a few of their nine picks in the draft’s first three rounds, I would be targeting young restricted free agents on cash-strapped teams like Anaheim, Tampa Bay or the Islanders. They could also look to a team attempting to re-tool like Winnipeg or Minnesota and see if there’s a deal to be made that fits the team’s current developmental status.
A player at or on the verge of free agency isn’t going to do much to help a team that, by its own admission, is going to need to grow with its young core and will likely be mediocre for another season or two. I theoretically understand that the Senators could use veterans in the room to help the young kids along, and since most of their homegrown players who fit this status have either been traded away for reasons to do with age, dollar figure, or term, it appears like the team has forced itself into a corner by trying to find a veteran on a one- or two-year deal via the trade route.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the organization is entering the “hard” stage of their rebuild, where maximizing assets and making the right evaluations will determine whether they’re able to bounce back into contention, or become like Buffalo or Edmonton. You’ll notice in the graphic below that the Senators have been mediocre in their own way over the past decade, with some playoff success in 2013 and 2017, but mostly an on-off pattern depending on Craig Anderson’s ability to mind the net that wasn’t good enough for anyone: players, management, budget, and fans.
The Salary Cap era is now 15 years old (04-05 lockout).— Romulus' Apotheosis (@RomulusNotNuma) September 18, 2020
This is also the Katz era (he bought the Oilers in 2008).
In the Cap/Katz era, no team has been worse than the Oilers.
Uniquely, historically, and consistently terrible.
Congrats Daryl! pic.twitter.com/fyulCTA291
One way to really take advantage for any team given the NHL’s financial structure, let alone one with Ottawa’s limitations, is by ensuring that there’s a steady stream of cost-controlled talent ready to step in and take the place of those on the wrong end of the age or budget cycle. This also takes advantage of what many believe to be Ottawa’s strengths — drafting and development — and while the latter was shaky under a rocky Binghamton/Belleville Senators squad with Randy Lee’s management, they now feature one of the AHL’s best coaches in Troy Mann and a setup in Belleville that allows the NHL club to keep a close eye on their top prospects.
The current state of the system: heavy at the top
How many U22 players do you think the organization had playing outside of Ottawa or Belleville last season?
From the players we were covering in our prospect updates series throughout the season, the answer was seventeen.
The answer heading into this year? Ten, seven of whom are collegiate prospects in the NCAA.
It’s hard to figure out how to feel about that number until we compare it with others, so I decided to take a look at the following lists:
- The six U22 prospect pools ranked higher than the Senators in Corey Pronman’s most recent organizational rankings for The Athletic ($), especially since most would imagine that after the 2020 Draft, the Senators would be rising up from their current spot in seventh place.
- The three systems ranked ahead of Ottawa in The Hockey Writers’ most recent NHL Farm System Rankings. To develop his rankings, writer Joshua Bell uses Pronman’s old criteria: “A skater no longer qualifies as an NHL prospect if he has played 25 games in the NHL in any campaign, regular season and playoffs combined, or 50 games total; or reaches age 27 by Sept. 15. A goalie no longer qualifies as an NHL prospect if he has played 10 games in the NHL in any campaign, regular season and playoffs combined, or 25 games total; or reaches age 27 by Sept. 15.”/
I do not have intricate detail of these teams and the nuances of their system in the way I do with Ottawa, so I used EliteProspects’ depth chart tool to look at their age, team, and contract situation for the upcoming year to get my rough estimates.
Prospect pool rankings
|Team||# of non-NHL/AHL prospects in 2020-21||Ranking in The Athletic's U22 rankings||Rankings in The Hockey Writers' Farm System rankings|
While some of these teams (TOR, VAN, CAR, MTL) are at advanced stages of their developmental journey, many of the other teams are Ottawa’s equivalents in terms of undertaking a “rebuild” around the same time, or have stockpiled a wealth of talent in their prospect pool. You can see that Ottawa’s 10 players playing outside of the NHL and AHL is lower than all the teams here, emphasizing what we already know: much of the team’s talent pool has or will be playing in Ottawa or Belleville this year.
That’s exciting, and means that in a few years — by the time the Tkachuk and Chabot-led Senators are contending — there will be a need for entry-level talent on cheap deals via the draft or trades to push the team over the top. Whoever’s drafted at third and fifth overall might make an impact in the NHL sooner rather than later, but most of the other picks are going to be their usual three-plus years away — perfect for this window.
Ultimately, the organization needs to use this draft like they used 2011 (10 picks) rather than 2015 (8 picks) given where they are in the current stage of their process. Ensure that there are waves of young talent ready to sustain consecutive runs at the playoffs, or as the team likes to say, unparalleled success.