Reflecting on Ottawa's Draft and the Opening of Free Agency

When it comes to controversial choices and the NHL Draft, give me what the Ottawa Senators did 10 times out of 10.

After the Montreal Canadiens’ decision to ignore Logan Mailloux’s request for teams not to draft him because of his criminal charge for distributing a sexual photo without consent or the Chicago Blackhawks’ decision to use eight women employees as a human shield to announce their first-round selection as the allegations of sexual abuse and negligence enshroud that organization, I will take Ottawa’s “controversial” draft every day of the week.

In Ottawa, the focus centred around the discrepancy between draft prognosticators and the Senators’ willingness to continue to select players well in advance of their placement within the industry’s consensus rankings.

For a second consecutive year, the Senators’ draft was panned by critics for their off-the-board selections. In his post-draft analysis, The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler classified the Senators as losers for each day (day one, day two) of their draft while his colleague Corey Pronman gave the team a ‘D’ letter grade for its 2021 class.

Here is how Ottawa drafted:

  • Rd 1 (10th): Tyler Boucher, RW (USNTDP)

  • Rd 2 (39): Zach Ostapchuk, C (Vancouver, WHL)

  • Rd 2 (49): Ben Roger, RD (London, OHL)

  • Rd 3 (74): Oliver Johansson, C (Timra, Allsvenskan)

  • Rd 4 (123): Carson Latimer, RW (Edmonton, WHL)

  • Rd 7 (202): Chandler Romeo, LD (Brantford, GOJHL)

The Montreal Canadiens’ SBNation blog, ‘Habs Eyes on the Prize’, compiled a consensus draft rankings using 15 sources. In their efforts, they found that Boucher’s average draft position was 53.67, Ostapchuk’s was 117.89, Roger’s was 117.44, while Johansson, Latimer and Romeo were omitted from the list.

Chief amateur scout Trent Mann was quick to dismiss the concerns about the organization straying from industry consensus.

“I guess people have their opinions and they see the public lists,” Mann explained. “It’s just that there is a lot more work that goes into producing our list over a public list. There are more details. There are more things that are put into a profile of a kid, so we know exactly what we’re getting.”

Outside of a general range and expectation of where a pick may fall, there is not a ton of inherent value to consensus rankings. First-round pick Tyler Boucher was projected to go anywhere from being a late first to a third-round pick, so when the Senators took him with the 10th overall selection, it raised some eyebrows.

Consensus rankings don’t tell you that the New York Rangers reportedly liked Boucher and were willing to select him with the 16th overall selection. Nor do they disclose any willingness from the teams picking from 11th to 15th to move up in the draft.

Mann touched upon this in his media availability with local reporters.

“I got asked about Boucher. Okay, we can move back eight spots. Is Tyler Boucher going to still be there? And you know what, he’s not going to be there. I know that. Pierre Dorion knows that. The general public won’t know that and that’s fine.”

Not surprisingly, there has been a pushback from the Senators’ community because of a commonly held perception that the Senators draft and evaluate amateur players well.

The irony is that the same people who are preaching that it’s going to take time to see how Ottawa’s selections will play out are often the same ones who hype how great Ottawa’s prospects are — despite the fact that many of whom have to play or develop into productive NHLers yet.

Trent Mann was hired as a full-time scout in 2014 and he was named the Senators’ chief of amateur scouting in 2016. Under his watch, the Senators have run five drafts and the only prospects who have a full season of games under their belts are Drake Batherson, Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle. Batherson was an exceptional find in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Draft, but the others are top-five picks that should be slam-dunks. Over time, prospects like Shane Pinto, Alex Formenton, Jake Sanderson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Ridly Greig and et cetera, will hopefully fulfill their respective ceilings, but as we’ve seen with prospects who are potentially on the trade block this summer like Logan Brown and Erik Brannstrom, not every prospect’s development will be linear or trend upwards.

So, it creates this large dichotomy of opinions and the discourse is wildly entertaining.

It is easy to associate a dismissive grade with an assumption that an evaluator just doesn’t value the pick being made. But, that is simply not true. Take the aforementioned Wheeler, for example. Despite not lavishly praising Ottawa’s 2020 or 2021 draft classes, he had the Senators ranked as having the league’s third-best prospect class this past winter. Presumably, they will be ranked highly again whenever Wheeler’s next organizational rankings are released.

The Senators have been adding value with their picks, it is just that the criticisms and downgrading of recent drafts largely stem from the valuations of analysts who simply believe that the Senators left more value on the board when they made their selections.

The Senators’ amateur scouting staff isn’t some infallible machine, but they have demonstrated an ability to find good value at different stages of a draft.

Draft grades pieces are meant to drive discussion and reader engagement.

Understandably, no one likes to hear that their favourite team should have done better at the draft table, but it’s especially true in Ottawa where investing hope in the next crop of young players is what everyone is holding onto. Relative to every other aspect of this organization, drafting and development is what this fan base believes in the most. When all of your hopes hang on that, it is never going to sit well when you read or hear that Ottawa’s draft was perceived negatively.

In the Senators’ defence, if there was ever a year for a team to go off the board, this pandemic-shortened Frankenstein of a season was it.

What is obvious is that the Senators’ philosophy for drafting players over the last few years has become increasingly clear. They are trying to build a team that opponents will absolutely hate to play against.

Whether they look at the success of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s grind line or are trying to model themselves after a big and physical team like the 2019 St. Louis Blues, the Senators are not shy about passing on skill to draft players that will help them win games.

Will it pan out?

Time will tell, but if there’s one guarantee, they will either come off looking brilliant for reaching or silly for passing up on an opportunity to draft higher valued alternatives.

Free Agency

Following the weekend’s draft, the NHL free-agent market opened yesterday and Ottawa used the opportunity to add a few players.

The first move the team announced was the trade of Evgenii Dadonov to the Vegas Golden Knights for defenceman Nick Holden and a 2022 third-round pick.

Even though Dadonov feels like a safe bet for some regression to his offensive game, when the Senators exposed him in the expansion draft, the assumption was that the team would be looking to dump his salary.

In acquiring the 34-year old Nick Holden, general manager Pierre Dorion successfully did that. With Holden in the last year of a two-year deal that will pay him $1.4 million ($1.7 million AAV), Dorion will save $3.6 million this year and $6.5 million next year by moving Dadonov.

With Drake Batherson and Connor Brown passing Dadonov on the depth chart, Dadonov’s departure should afford the Senators to reallocate that money to address more pressing needs.

In Holden, the Senators added a left-shot defenceman who can play either side.

Holden’s offensive totals are not jaw-dropping, but his underlying numbers have been intriguing. Using HockeyViz.com’s dataset, Holden’s five-on-five impact over his last two seasons has been pretty impressive — albeit, Holden played sparingly in just 17 regular-season games for Vegas this past season.

For a Senators team that is looking to shore up its defensive game, Holden may be a welcomed addition. At the very least, he offers a stylistic difference to puck-moving defencemen like Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom and Victor Mete.

The Senators were not done for the day.

In a clear message that probably speaks to D.J. Smith’s reluctance to dress both Brannstrom and Mete at the same time, the organization inked another left defenceman in Michael Del Zotto to a two-year deal worth an average annual value of $2.0 million.

In the team’s official press release, Dorion played up the 12-year veteran’s mobility, experience and puck-moving ability.

“Every time we did a background check on him over the last few weeks we felt he was someone who would fit in great with this group,” Dorion said. “We felt that giving him this term at this dollar amount was really going to be the right fit for us.”

Renowned for harassing a porn star in 2014, Del Zotto has not been an effective player for quite some time.

Considering the presence of Mete and Brannstrom, the addition of Holden, and the likelihood that Jake Sanderson joins the Senators at some point late in the season, the decision to agree to a multi-year deal with Del Zotto is strange. But, the added veteran depth not only reflects an intent to add size on the left side but it is probably a signal that the team intends to package Brannstrom or Mete in a trade.

The Senators certainly have the cap space and assets to make a splash.

In what was supposed to be the first year of the Senators’ five years of unparalleled success, the Senators are nowhere near the cap ceiling. The team has almost $30 million in cap space to play with and that figure could grow further if they can find a taker for Chris Tierney’s $3.5 million cap hit.

Other News and Notes:

  • In a quick hit post on Sportsnet’s website, Elliotte Friedman threw out some guesses on where players could land in free agency or through trade this summer. The Senators were not labelled as a favourite for any notable free agent player, but Friedman did mention them as one of his three favourites to land Ryan Strome. I wrote about the Senators’ reported interest in Strome last week.

  • In an effort to shore up their talent in Belleville, the Senators agreed to two-way contracts with veterans Pontus Aberg, Andrew Agozzino, Dillon Heatherington and Kole Sherwood.

  • Head coach D.J. Smith has signed a two-year extension worth $1.25 million per season. After Pierre McGuire signed a three-year contract to join the team’s front office, general manager Pierre Dorion is the only person without a multi-year deal. Dorion is in the last year of his contract and needs to negotiate a new deal with owner Eugene Melnyk.

  • In Bruce Garrioch’s latest, he indicated that the Senators were in on defenceman Alex Goligoski and centre Alexander Wennberg. Goligoski wound up signing a one-year deal with Minnesota for $5.0 million while Wennberg signed a three-year pact worth $4.5 million per year with Seattle.