The New York Rangers grabbed headlines this week by dropping forward Alexis Lafreniere to their fourth line and then making him a healthy scratch.
That’s uncommon treatment for a player that was so highly touted in junior just two and a half years ago. The Rangers made Lafreniere the number one pick overall in the 2020 NHL Draft and it came as no surprise to no one.
It’s still early, but it’s starting to look like the Blueshirts would have been better off going in a different direction. If you repeated that same draft today, there’s a very good chance New York might prefer either of Ottawa’s first round selections over the man they actually took.
The Senators entered that draft with three first round selections. That was their compensation for lobbing a grenade on their roster so they could enter a long, icy-cold rebuild phase.
They wound up with two top 5 picks and went with Tim Stutzle and Jake Sanderson. It’s way too early to make sweeping proclamations about the hockey fates of 20 year old kids, but those two might very well go 1-2 if you repeated the 2020 draft today, knowing what you know now.
While the Senators deserve some accolades for that draft, some of it was shipped directly from LadyLuck.com.
Just having the number 3 pick at all that year was pure luck. The Sens got San Jose’s first rounder as part of the Erik Karlsson trade and no one thought in a million years that, after acquiring a two-time Norris Trophy winner, the Sharks would immediately plummet 23 spots in the NHL standings, going from 6th place overall to a lottery team in 3rd last overall.
The Sens were even worse than San Jose that year, finishing 2nd last, so Ottawa had two of the best three tickets for the NHL Draft lottery. But instead of winning, Ottawa wound up with the third and fifth overall picks. Meanwhile, the Rangers, who had just made the playoffs (technically a play-in series during COVID), won the top pick. With it, they took Lafreniere, apparently the best of the best.
But things aren’t always what they appear, and in hindsight, it may not have been the best selection. Of course, at that time, it was the only selection that could be made. Based on all the pre-draft hype, if Jeff Gorton, the Rangers’ former GM, had chosen anyone else that day, he’d have been fired on the spot. Lafreniere was everybody’s number one, including the Senators. If the Sens had won the lottery, Pierre Dorion would absolutely have taken Lafreniere and probably missed out on Stutzle as a result.
So there was nothing clever; no drafting excellence behind the Stutzle selection. The young German was going to go either second or third no matter what. And when LA chose Quinton Byfield at 2, there was no other choice for Ottawa. The Sens didn’t even have a chance to make a mistake with the pick they were lucky to even have. So a lot of things had to go right for Stutzle, probably the best player in that draft, to fall into the Senators’ lap.
The Sanderson pick at number five was a different story and looks better by the day. Many of the draft “experts” felt it was too early to be selecting a defenceman. And if you wanted one that early, then Jamie Drysdale was the better option. Full credit to the Sens’ scouting staff for going with Sanderson, who’ll soon be their best defenceman, if he isn’t already. It’s super early, but Sanderson has been more impressive so far than Drysdale (although Drysdale’s long term shoulder injury would fit in well with Ottawa) and most of the forwards chosen after him.
And finally, after 27 players had already been selected, the Sens pulled Ridly Greig out of the first round remains. Based on his fantastic gold medal performance at the World Juniors in August, Greig’s name would be called in the top 10 if we re-drafted right now. Greig has all the skill and fire you need to play in the league and his only stumbling block may be staying healthy. He goes hard, maybe a little too hard – the proverbial writing of cheques his body can’t cash yet.
In round two, which is even more of a crap shoot, the Sens had 3 more picks – Roby Jarventie, Tyler Kleven, and Egor Sokolov. It remains to be seen if any of them can even play in the league, but Kleven is the kind of player they desperately need – a big, super physical, defensive defenseman.
Just for the first round alone, the 2020 NHL Draft may go down as the Senators best ever. But just like winning a Stanley Cup, a super successful draft also requires a lot of good bounces along the way.
By Steve Warne