It felt like the entire 2019-20 season hinged on the NHL Draft for the Ottawa Senators. After another abysmal finish, plus the departure of their biggest star in a decade, they were left with two top-five selections and another in the first round, plus seven more picks in the next two rounds alone. The team was primed to reshape their franchise in one fell swoop and give themselves a farm system that would be the envy of the NHL.
However, the results were arguably mixed. They did end up with some players that the franchise desperately needed, but overall, the return was underwhelming. They ended up trading away two of their second rounds, one to acquire new starting goaltender Matt Murray and another to move up in the round to select a player many projected to go in the third round. The players that were selected tended to be overage prospects or relatively obscure. Many, myself included, were critical of their later selections and were disappointed that they passed on highly rated and highly talented prospects in favor of more grit and toughness. In the end, the Senators’ highly anticipated draft ended up being very average.
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It’s been a full season since that draft, and the Senators are starting to see what they have on their hands. While nine months is hardly enough time to evaluate a prospect’s development properly, it has already shown some trends that the team couldn’t be more pleased with and others bringing up some red flags.
First Round, 3rd Overall
After hearing his name announced by former Jeopardy host Alex Trebek at the 2020 Draft, Stützle has become everything the Senators could have hoped for when they took him third overall. The German playmaker made the team right out of training camp and scored 29 points in 53 games, the fifth-highest total among all rookies. While Kirill Kaprizov was the runaway favorite as the league’s best rookie, the Senators’ youngster wasn’t all that far behind, receiving a handful of third, fourth, and fifth-place votes for the Calder Trophy. Better yet, he’s still only 19 years old and will continue to improve in Ottawa, which will only improve the team around him.
While the Senators hope he’ll eventually transition to center, his natural position, Stützle is doing just fine on the left wing so far. Like most young players, he needs to get stronger to avoid getting pushed off the puck, but at this time, he looks like he could have an excellent career. Jacob Barker with Dobber Prospects thinks he could even have a Patrick Kane-like impact in the NHL, which could give the Senators the perfect piece to build a championship roster around.
First Round, 5th Overall
The team’s next selection was slightly less popular at the time, as many were hoping the Senators would go for Erie Otters’ defender Jamie Drysdale. But Sanderson is looking more and more like exactly the player the franchise needs on defense. His season started with a bang after helping the USA capture gold at the U20 World Juniors. He then went on to have a solid freshman campaign at the University of North Dakota, scoring 15 points in 22 games which led all first-year defensemen, despite being more of a defensively minded player. After that, it was hardly a surprise that he was also selected to the National Collegiate Hockey Conferences’ All-Rookie and All-Tournament teams.
With one of the Senators’ more glaring weaknesses this season coming from the defense, the organization is eagerly awaiting his arrival in the hope that he’ll add that final piece in making a championship-caliber roster. Sanderson has stated he plans to return to UND next season, which is the perfect place for him at this time – no need to rush the Senators’ future on defense, especially when he would have to undergo a trial-by-fire next season. At North Dakota, he’ll instead be given a bigger role and be relied on to be more of a leader on and off the ice, especially after the departure of fellow Senators’ prospect Jacob Bernard-Docker.
First Round, 28th Overall
2020-21 got off to a challenging start for Greig. He was invited to Team Canada’s World Junior development camp but had to miss its start after contracting COVID-19. When he finally was able to join the camp, the team ended up having to go on quarantine, and when 14 days expired, he was in no shape to compete at the international level. So he returned to the Brandon Wheat Kings, but they didn’t start their season for another two months, forcing him to sit tight while the Western Hockey League (WHL) sorted out their season.
When the league finally resumed, Greig got off to a hot start, notching four assists in the first two games and extending it to 15 points in the first 10 games. He was held off the score sheet just three times in his 21 appearances, finishing the shortened season as the Wheat Kings’ second-highest scorer with 32 points. His offensive dominance, paired with his high energy and aggressive style, was impossible for the Senators to resist, and the team inked him to his entry-level deal once the WHL season concluded. He then reported to the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Belleville Senators for the last seven games of the season, scoring a goal and three points. With Ottawa becoming known as a pesky, agitating team, Greig will fit in quite nicely and make them that much more difficult to play against.
Second Round, 33rd Overall
At the start of the 2020-21 season, it’s fair to say that Jarventie was one of the hottest prospects in the NHL. Playing in Finland’s Liiga, he started the season on a blistering pace, putting up seven goals and 14 points in the first 19 games and earned a spot on the Finnish World Junior team, although he was held pointless in six games. After returning home with the bronze medal, he slowed down quite a bit, scoring seven more goals and 11 more points in the next 29 games. Still, the Senators liked what they saw and signed him to an entry-level deal, even bringing him over for the final few AHL games, where he scored two goals and added an assist in four appearances.
Second Round, 44th Overall
The Senators surprised many when they traded two second-rounders to the Toronto Maple Leafs to move up and select Kleven, a defenseman who many projected to go either late in the second round or somewhere in the third. However, some could see the rationale behind it, as he was committed to attending North Dakota along with Sanderson and several other Ottawa prospects. He played a fairly minor role in his freshman season, appearing in 22 games and scoring five goals and seven points. Still, it was enough to catch USA Hockey’s eyes, and they added him to their World Junior lineup after Alex Vlasic announced he was unable to attend the tournament. Despite being the team’s seventh defenseman, he was able to throw some bone-crushing hits and fire a booming slapshot en route to the gold medal.
However, advanced statistics haven’t been kind to Kleven despite the fans who have come to love his physicality and defensive presence. After his 2020-21 season, NHLe (potential NHL impact) still projects him as a long shot to even crack an NHL roster, which is not something you want to hear about the second-round pick you traded up to acquire. In all honesty, back in October, this was one of the picks I had the biggest problem with, as it seemed to be completely counter-intuitive to everything scouts were saying at the time. He’ll return to North Dakota in the fall and hopefully take a step forward in his development; he already showed more confidence at the end of the season. But he’ll need to round out his game for the Senators in order to become an NHL player.
Second Round, 62nd Overall
Another pick I was initially skeptical of was Sokolov, the giant Russian who was lighting up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. He’d been passed over twice already and seemed to be benefiting from being much bigger and stronger than the rest of his competition. However, the winger proved me wrong this season. With his junior career over, he joined the Belleville Senators to start the 2020-21 season and quickly adapted to the professional game, emerging as one of the team’s best players. Over 35 games, he led the team with 15 goals and 25 points while also becoming a fan favorite.
Sokolov admittedly still has a lot of work to do before he’s ready for the NHL, but it seems that the Senators’ risk is paying off. His ability to step right into the AHL and find success is an impressive feat on its own, but to lead the team in scoring in his first year is incredible. Better yet, he fills the hole for a goal-scoring rightwinger in Ottawa’s depth chart, making him that much more valuable to this organization. If he can continue demonstrating dominance at the AHL level, he could become a valuable top-six scorer in the NHL.
Third Round, 71st Overall
In maybe one of the weirdest picks of day two, the Senators selected unranked goalie Merinainen with their only third-round pick. Not only was he virtually unknown in most draft circles, but Ottawa already had several goaltending prospects for which they barely had room. However, goaltenders are notoriously difficult to predict and adding another is never a bad strategy.
So far, the gamble appears to be working, as the Finnish netminder put up three back-to-back shutouts early in the 2020-21 season and led Finland’s U20 league with a 0.934 save percentage. He signed his entry-level deal in early June and was later selected 48th overall by the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs at this summer’s CHL Import Draft. Still, it has yet to be reported if he’ll be coming to North American next season.
Fifth Round, 155th Overall
The Senators ended the draft with three very similar picks in that they were all overaged prospects with low to middling production. Engstrand was the first, a big forward with a good shot entering his third NHL draft. He was a regular with the Swedish Hockey League’s (SHL) Malmo Redhawks this past season, playing in 45 games, but averaged just over 10 minutes a game and only scored a single goal, along with four assists. He signed a year extension with the Redhawks, which will prevent the Senators from trying to bring him to Canada until at least 2022 – that is, if they decide that the move is worth it.
Sixth Round, 158th Overall
Daoust was up next, a winger playing with the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats and entering his second NHL draft. However, unlike Engstrand, he had a decently productive 2020-21, scoring six goals and 28 points over 21 games with the Wildcats before being forced to miss the remainder of the season and playoffs with an injury. Still, it’s a bit below expectations, meaning next season will be a make-it-or-break-it opportunity for the Barrie, Ontario native if he wants to earn an NHL contract.
Sixth Round, 181st Overall
The Senators’ final pick in the 2020 draft was Cole Reinhardt, another overaged prospect entering his third draft and teammate to Greig on the Wheat Kings. Much like with Sokolov, who also was finishing up his time in the CHL, the organization decided to sign him to an entry-level deal prior to the 2020-21 season to allow him to play meaningful minutes in the AHL.
But unlike his Russian counterpart, Reinhardt had a tougher time adjusting to the professional game. In 33 games with Belleville, he had just 12 points, although that included six goals. For now, the Senators are more than happy to let him develop in the minors with the hope that he emerges as a late-bloomer.
Better than Expected
Looking back, it seems that I and many others were a bit too harsh on the Senators drafting. The first-round picks were as strong as any other team and addressed specific needs within the organization. Several of the riskier picks, namely Jarventie, Merilainen, Sokolov, and Reinhardt, seem to be paying off already, which is a great sign of things to come.
There are concerns over both Kleven and Engstrand, especially when comparing them to players taken after them that probably should have gone before; Jan Mysak (taken four picks after Kleven) has already made his AHL debut, and Veeti Miettinen (selected 10 picks after Daoust) was the NCHC Rookie of the Year with St. Cloud State University. But to have nearly every player playing a meaningful role in the organization, or project to be key contributors in the future, is a great result to have so soon after the selections.