It’s been almost six months since the Ottawa Senators played a hockey game, with no timeline yet for their next one. But they’re still about to enter one of the more important weeks in their history. The NHL Entry Draft is set to begin on Tuesday (October 6th). This two-day event is where all 31 NHL clubs gather (this year, via video conference call) and take turns selecting the rights to the finest 18-21-year-old hockey players in the world.
For a frugal team like the Senators, this is one place where they’re on even footing with the rest of the league. It’s the one place where they can acquire elite talent; where they don’t have to vainly try and outbid anyone. These are all free players to acquire and, for the first time in their history, the Sens are in the rare position of having two of the first five picks overall.
Their timing couldn’t be better. This year’s first-round is being trumpeted by hockey scouts and draft experts as the deepest we’ve seen in a number of years.
Teams begin with one pick per round but, obviously, all picks are tradeable. Through dealing away top veteran players who wanted big raises, the Sens have stockpiled three first-round picks (3rd, 5th, and 28th) and four more in the second round (33rd, 52nd, 59th and 61st). The 3rd overall pick is from San Jose, which the Sharks gave up in the Erik Karlsson trade. The Sharks had no idea they’d bottom out and that their first-round pick would end up being this high. The 5th pick is Ottawa’s own and the 28th comes from the Islanders in the J.G. Pageau trade.
The top two picks are held by the New York Rangers (1st) and the Los Angeles Kings (2nd). The Rangers will choose Quebec junior superstar Alexi Lafreniere. The Kings and Senators will go with one of two forwards: Quinton Byfield or Tim Stützle, with LA having the first choice of the two.
The Kings haven’t tipped their hand as to who they might select but it’s hard to imagine GM Rob Blake – who played the game himself with great size and skill – not having a soft spot for those same attributes in Byfield. The kid is 6 foot 4, 215 pounds and had 82 points in 45 games in the OHL last season. What’s more, he might not be done growing yet. Byfield is one of the youngest players in the draft, just turning 18 last month.
If the hunch proves accurate, the best player available to Ottawa will then be Stützle, a fast, highly-skilled German forward who can play either centre or wing. At 6 foot 1, 187 pounds, Stützle put up 34 points in 41 games in the DEL, the top German pro league. Stützle has first-liner skill and third-liner work ethic. The Sens and Kings won’t go wrong with either player.
Depending on what Detroit does with the 4th overall selection, the Senators will likely use the 5th overall pick to choose one of four players from this group: Erie defenceman Jamie Drysdale, Saginaw forward Cole Perfetti, Swedish winger Lucas Raymond or Ottawa 67’s centre Marco Rossi. Rossi would certainly be a popular choice as, unlike most of the prospects, most Ottawa hockey fans have had a chance to actually see him play.
A wildcard might be Yaroslav Askarov, an elite Russian goaltending prospect. Depending on what happens in the first four picks, he might become a tempting option for the Sens, even though he’s outside the top 10 right now. At 18, goalies are very hard to scout so teams rarely use top 10 picks on them.
No one would be surprised to see anyone in this year’s top 10 emerge one day as NHL superstars. But it’s a crapshoot. As the draft history of every NHL team has taught us, there’s plenty of room for error. Colossal errors.
With so many picks tucked under his arm, GM Pierre Dorion is also in a great position to make trades for NHL-ready talent and could emerge as the ringmaster at this draft. He’s in a position to not only speed up the Senators’ rebuild process but, with the right choices on Tuesday, he could even add a few years to how long the club might be a contender someday.
By Steve Warne