When it comes to this year’s NHL Entry Draft, it’s all unanswered questions. Will Coronavirus still be a problem in three months? Will the draft be delayed or carry on as planned, perhaps via conference call? Who’ll win the lottery and get first pick overall? If the season isn’t completed, will the NHL make any changes to the existing lottery rules?
The first round of the 2020 NHL draft will happen sometime and somewhere (June date in Montreal has been postponed) and the Ottawa Senators are slated (for the time being) to have three picks in that round; two of them will be among the absolute best in the draft. If the regular season were cancelled today (barring rule changes), Ottawa would enter the lottery with a best chance (25% when combined with the San Jose pick they acquired in the Erik Karlsson trade) at landing Quebec Junior superstar Alexi Lafreniere – everybody’s pick to be the number one selection.
This is, arguably, the most important draft in Senators’ history; a crucial time in the Senators’ rebuild. Some of it – like the lottery – will come down to dumb luck. But the rest is about good scouting and evaluation, identifying excellence and dismissing pretenders. For a comparatively frugal team like the Senators, their only chance at future, unparalleled success will come through great scouting performances at the draft.
When judging an NHL team’s casting agents you have to consider how early or late the player was drafted, and also diagnose the quality of the other options that could have been taken instead. You’ll see here I tend to have a bias against choices like Mika Zibanejad. It’s easy to make good picks when you’re near the front of the line.
Faces now takes a look back at the best and the worst first round draft picks in Ottawa Senators’ history. First, the good news:
Top 5 Ottawa Senators First Round Draft Picks
5. Nick Foligno 2006, 28th overall
The Sens drafted Mike Foligno’s son, Nick, 28th overall in 2006. Out of the next 15 picks that would follow Foligno’s selection, the best two players turned out to be goalie Michal Neuvirth and former Ottawa 67 forward Jamie McGinn. You probably wouldn’t even recognize anyone else in that group. The Sens had the wisdom to grab Foligno, who’s played 908 NHL games and now in his 13th NHL season.
After 5 seasons in Ottawa, the Sens dealt him to Columbus for Marc Methot. Foligno’s big season came in 2014-15, the year he scored 73 points. Perfect timing. Columbus gave him a huge contract and the captaincy that fall and, even though the 73 point season was a complete anomaly (more than 30 points higher than his career average), the Jackets have been thrilled with his consistent hard work and positive leadership.
4. Thomas Chabot 2015, 18th overall
The 2015 NHL Draft – one of the most talent-laden we’ve ever seen – still had plenty of meat on the bone when the Senators snapped up Chabot at 18th overall. The Sens could have nabbed the likes of Brock Boeser, Travis Konecny, Anthony Beauvilier, or Sebastien Aho. But there were a number of duds in there as well and, even stacked up again an elite group like that, Chabot was an outstanding choice at 18. In most any other draft, you’d be thrilled to get a player like Chabot with a top three pick.
He’s one of the game’s smoothest skaters; his speed appears effortless. Like a great young, quarterback, he calmly checks off receivers and makes high end passes. He’s already a star; a cornerstone of the Sens’ current rebuild.
3. Martin Havlat 1999, 26th overall
History now shows that Havlat was an absolute steal in the 26th overall position. Among first rounders that year, only the Sedin twins (2nd and 3rd overall selections) scored more than Havlat. In fact, no other first rounder even came close. Labelled “Mach 9”, Havlat’s speed and skill made him a fan favourite in Ottawa. In 2000-01, the rookie finished third in Calder Trophy voting. Havlat improved every year and, by his fourth season, at age 22, Havlat had emerged as a dynamic point per game player (68 points in 68 games).
The following season (2004-05) was cancelled by lockout. The season after that, Havlat missed almost 60 games with a shoulder injury but he returned to have a dominant playoffs (2nd in team scoring with 13 points in 10 games). A year away from unrestricted free agency, the Sens dealt him to Chicago that summer.
2. Marion Hossa 1997, 12th overall
Later this year, Hossa is likely to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. He helped three different teams reach the Stanley Cup final. Unfortunately, none of those teams was Ottawa. The Senators saw his potential, though, thrilled to grab him 12th overall in 1997. If you re-drafted today, knowing what we know now, Hossa might be your number one overall selection. Only Joe Thornton – the actual number one that year – is in the discussion.
Hossa went to 5 Cup finals, winning three times in Chicago. He’s the only player to appear in the Cup Final in three straight years with three different teams. He was an 8-time 30 goal scorer and finished with 1134 points in 1309 games. In August 2005, after 2 straight 80+ point seasons, the Sens signed Hossa to a 3 year, 18 million dollar deal then, later the same day, traded him to Atlanta in a deal for Dany Heatley.
1. Erik Karlsson 2008, 15th overall
Another case of the Senators having a pick in the mid-teens and coming away with a talent that’s better than almost all of his peers from his draft year. Karlsson hasn’t quite been the same since being traded to San Jose, but his nine year run in Ottawa was electric. As the game’s finest offensive defenceman, Karlsson won two Norris Tophies and probably should have won a third in 2016 when he finished 4th in NHL scoring – not among defencemen, but the 4th best scorer in the entire league. Karlsson’s incredible 2017 playoff performance on one good foot will be remembered by Sens fans forever.
But it might not have happened if GM Bryan Murray hadn’t done some draft day stickhandling that Karlsson would have been proud of. The Sens actually owned the 18th pick and traded it to Nashville (with a third rounder) to move up three spots and secure the greatest defenceman in their history.
Worst 5 Ottawa Senator First Round Picks
5. Jared Cowen 2009, 9th overall
Cowen was in a fierce battle for the number five spot with Curtis Lazar, Stefan Noesen, Matt Puempel and Jim O’Brien. However, Cowen gets the nod because he was a top ten selection and the choice was a loud misread of where the game was heading. In the clutch and grab era of the 90’s, Cowen would have been an intriguing prospect but he simply didn’t have the speed and footwork required to succeed in the new NHL. Year by year, the game was evolving and getting faster. When Cowen ran into injury trouble, he lost a step he didn’t have to give. The game was always going to pass him by. The injuries just expedited things.
4.Alexandre Daigle 1993, 1st overall
Daigle was seen as the generational talent that would lead a young franchise to glory. Over 4 and a half seasons in Ottawa, Daigle had 172 points in 301 games. That was decent production but he simply wasn’t the next great French-Canadian superstar they had hoped for. It’s hard to criticize the Sens too loudly on this one because everyone had Daigle as their number one. Everyone. GM Randy Sexton would have been fired on the spot had he taken anyone else. But one cannot ignore the letdown, particularly when two of the next three picks (Chris Pronger and Paul Kariya) went on to be Hall of Famers.
3. Jakub Klepis 2002, 16th overall
Klepis (which sounds like something that might require ointment) has had a nice long pro hockey career but very little of it has been in the NHL. He never played a game for the Senators who dealt him away for a fringe NHL forward named Vaclav Varada. Varada played 100 or so games for the Sens before heading to play in Europe, as Klepis eventually did, never to return. It’s a rare thing indeed to see an NHL team draft a player 16th overall then, just a few months later, trade him for a bottom six forward near the end of his career.
2. Brian Lee 2005, 9th Overall
This was the draft right after the 2004-05 NHL season was wiped out by the lockout. Since there was no season, there was no draft order. So every team in the league participated in the lottery. The Senators landed the 9th overall pick despite finishing the previous season with 102 points. They chose defenceman Brian Lee, which almost every analyst described as a reach. Even the most optimistic scouts had Lee outside the top 20. Lee was a below average defenceman before retiring early due to a knee injury. Two picks later, future Hart Trophy nominee Anze Kopitar was chosen by LA.
1. Mathieu Chouinard 1998, 15th overall
Sens’ GM Pierre Gauthier used a 15th overall draft pick on goalie Mathieu Chouinard while some very good future NHL’ers like Robyn Regehr, Simon Gagné, and Scott Gomez were all still on the board, all drafted later in round one. As a further frustration, Chouinard refused to even sign his entry level deal. He re-entered the draft two years later and the new Sens’ GM Marshall Johnston (formerly Director of Player Personnel under Gauthier) drafted him again, this time in the second round. That’s how sure the club was that Chouinard would be a player. Instead, he played all of three minutes of NHL hockey in his career, briefly appearing in a game for the LA Kings in 2003-04.
There it is. The Senators’ best and worst first round draft selections. Let’s hope, for their sake, they can add at least a couple more names this year to their drafting win column.
By Steve Warne