The Ottawa Senators and the Promise of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft

Although the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators were a team in the middle of the rebuild, you might not have known that the way the team played during the first half of the season. Certainly, the team played much better than I expected — the record was actually 13-12-4 during November and December. However, after the new year, the Senators dropped to near the bottom of the standings. That was no surprise.

Related: Ottawa Senators News & Rumors: Tkachuk, Brannstrom & Batherson

As a result, the organization will now be able to pick some of the low-hanging fruit that comes to teams that reside at the bottom of the NHL standings. That fruit comes in the shape of the NHL Entry Draft, and the Senators are well-positioned going into that draft. Even if the Senators draw poorly, they will still have some high draft choices coming their way.

2020 NHL Draft Montreal
(Courtesy NHL)

Furthermore, if the Senators draft wisely, they might choose two or three really good players. If that occurs, there’s every reason to believe the team should be a rising, young NHL team in the near future. When you add the players drafted to the young prospects already coming through the organizational ranks, there’s the makings of a very good team in a year or two in Ottawa. The rebuild will be over.

How Much Can the Senators Improve After the 2020 NHL Entry Draft?

The answer to the question of how much can the Senators improve after the draft has to do, in part, with luck. Can the team pull the first draft choice? What are the Senators’ chances?

The NHL Entry Draft looks different during COVID-19 than it regularly does. Still, the league office has tried to ensure that the teams with the most need get the best chance to improve though the draft. That includes the Senators.

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Normally, the NHL’s Entry Draft is held after the Stanley Cup Final has produced a winner. However, with the 2019-20 NHL regular season being suspended since March 12, the date for both the 2020 NHL Draft and draft lottery began to bounce around like a foam puck.

As well, because the 2019-20 NHL regular season wasn’t completed, the final order of draft picks remained up-in-the-air. The NHL’s brain trust — as it should — decided that, even without finishing the Stanley Cup Final, having the 2020 draft and lottery would give fans of the seven teams who didn’t make the play-in Stanley Cup Tournament something to look forward to.

Only one team will win the Alexis Lafreniere sweepstakes and it’s exciting to see who that team might be. As NHL fans know, young Lafreniere is the odds-on favorite to be chosen first in the draft. For those who don’t know him, he’s had three great seasons playing with the Rimouski Oceanic (just as the great Sidney Crosby did several years ago).

Rimouski Oceanic Alexis Lafreniere
Alexis Lafrenière (Photo by Vincent Ethier/CHL)

To tell how prolific a scorer this 18-year-old is, this season with the QMJHL’s Oceanic, in 52 games he scored 35 goals and added 77 assists. Add those totals up and you’ll find he’s not just a point-per-game player — he’s a more than two-points-per-game player. That’s prolific. He’s been the consensus first pick for years (it seems) and there’s a good chance he’ll drop right onto an NHL line-up for the 2020-21 season and take a full shift from the beginning of the season.

About two weeks ago, Jackie Spiegel of The Sporting News broke down the odds of the bottom-ranking teams winning the 2020 NHL Entry Draft lottery and having the right to choose this gifted young player. Because the Detroit Red Wings had the worst record in the NHL, they have the best chance of picking Lafreniere. Still, we just aren’t sure it’s going to be the Red Wings. Actually, the Senators also have a great chance.

What Are the Senators’ Chances of Winning the Draft?

Although the actual way the draft lottery will be done is complex this season, the team’s chances of coming in first are shown below:

1. Detroit Red Wings.27518.5%
2. Ottawa Senators.43713.5%
3. Ottawa Senators (via SJS).43711.5%
4. Los Angeles Kings.4579.5%

Given both the team’s choices together, the Senators actually have a good chance of winning the lottery with either their own first pick or the pick the team gained from the San Jose Sharks.

What Does Head Coach D.J. Smith Have to Say About the Team and the Draft?

On Tuesday last week, D.J. Smith spoke to Sportsnet after his first season as head coach of the Senators. He was clear about how important the draft was to the team. “There’s no excuses. You have nine months to reinvent yourself.”

Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith
Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Smith believed the Senators would be a “tough team to beat” if they choose wisely in the 2020 NHL Draft. And, the team will have several chances to choose wisely. For the entire draft, the Senators could have as many as 13 picks, with three of those picks likely coming in the first round. Even better, the team will have “at least” two of the first six choices in the NHL Draft. The exact choices will be determined on June 26 during the Draft Lottery.

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Smith also admitted, “You need special players if you want to knock all these teams off, and I think we’re going to get one, if not two, of those guys.” That said, Smith didn’t discount the players the organization already had, suggesting that “I think we’ve got a couple of them on our team already, and, in time, we’re going to be a tough team to beat.”

Some of the players coming through the system include such prospects as 21-year-old forward Josh Norris, who won the Dudley (Red) Garrett Memorial Award as the outstanding rookie in the American Hockey League this season. Other prospects include center Mark Kastelic, left-winger Jonathan Gruden, and center and right-winger Drake Batherson.

Ottawa Senators Prospect Josh Norris
Ottawa Senators Prospect Center Josh Norris during the Ottawa Senators Development Camp on June 25, 2019 (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In May, SSNNation Silver Seven gave awards for the best youngsters in the Senators system. Some of those awards included:

Best First-Year NHLer: Marcus Högberg (others noted were Filip Chlapik, Logan Brown, and Drake Batherson)

Most Improved Prospect: Josh Norris (others noted were Shane Pinto, Vitaly Abramov, and Jakov Novak)

Top Newcomer: Lassi Thomson 

Best Defenseman: Erik Brännström (others noted included Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, and Olle Alsing)

Best Goalie: Marcus Högberg (also noted were Kevin Mandolese and Joey Daccord).

Those are some high-quality prospects. After this draft, there’s certain to be more. It’s a good season to have so many choices. As Smith said, “We have some good players and some good players coming up, and we plan on adding here with this draft.”

He added, “They’re saying it’s the deepest draft in a long time. We have three first-round picks, possibly could pick [first]. And when you get players like that, they’re special franchise players that could be the difference.”

The Senators Hope Going Forward

The hope is that next season the record will be much better. Until then, Smith believes the draft allows Ottawa a chance to add to a young core of players already in the system. Two of those players are already on the team — both 23-year-old defenseman Thomas Chabot and 20-year-old forward Brady Tkachuk would be key players on any NHL team.

Thomas Chabot Ottawa Senators
Thomas Chabot, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In 2019-20, the Senators failed to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third season in a row. They’re one of seven teams sitting on the outside watching the 24 teams engage in a play-in round in a tournament that moves the winning teams into the playoffs.

Related: Senators News & Rumors: Chabot, Nilsson, Brown, Duclair & Prospects

However, if you’re a Senators fan, there’s a good chance you’ll see playoff futility change soon.