The Ottawa Senators are getting close to finishing their rebuild. With Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Thomas Chabot, and Tim Stutzle emerging as true NHL stars, and top prospects Jake Sanderson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Lassi Thomson, and Ridly Greig developing into top-line performers, it’s only a matter of time before the Senators will be looking at making a deep playoff run.
But they’re not quite there yet. Several gaps exist in their lineup that need to be addressed before they can make a serious push for the playoffs, and while some of them can be addressed through free agency, the draft will still be the best place to add a piece that will benefit them in the long term. Goaltending, defence, and offence all have specific issues that need addressing, and with only one first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, they’ll need to make this year’s pick count.
Related: THW 2022 NHL Draft Guide
With the Draft Lottery set to take place remotely on May 10, the Senators won’t officially know where they’re selecting until then, but it’s unlikely that they fall much below seventh overall, which is where they currently sit. That’s excellent news for a team that has struggled with scoring goals this year because there’s a perfect player for them projected to be available in that range – Juraj Slafkovsky.
Juraj Slafkovsky Scouting Report
Many fans may know Slafkovsky from his Olympic heroics with Slovakia, helping them claim their first-ever Olympic medal in Beijing this past February while also leading the tournament in goals and points, and winning the Most Valuable Player award. It was a truly dominant performance, especially from someone who had not yet turned 18 years old. It also gave him a huge boost in his draft ranking, with some scouts going as far as to make him their second player off the board.
One thing that has endeared Slafkovsky to fans and scouts alike is his maturity. It’s already a huge challenge to play at the World Junior Championship at 16 years old, and he had the additional challenge of being the youngest player at the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton, but he looked right at home with some of the world’s best prospects. Although he didn’t score a point that year, he was Slovakia’s ice-time leader, playing over 88 minutes in five games, and ranked second in average ice-time per game.
Part of that is thanks to his size. At 6-foot-4 and 218-pounds, he’s regularly one of the biggest players on his team, and he uses that size effectively. The Hockey Writers’ scout Andrew Forbes described Slafkovsky’s style in glowing terms, saying, “He has the potential to grow into a legitimate power forward by definition with his high-end offensive skill and his ability to engage in a big way physically. Call it a mean streak, but Slafkovsky’s size and physical edge make him arguably one of the more dominant players in this draft — especially coming right out of the draft.”
There’s very little that Slafkovsky can’t already do as an 18-year-old and he’s one of the best candidates outside of Shane Wright to make the jump to the NHL next season. The only thing holding him back is his skating, which has been described as average at best. However, with a long, powerful stride, he can keep pace with the rest of the play fairly easily. With his combination of strength, finesse, and intelligence, he’s still bound to be one of the first players selected on draft day.
Senators Need More Goals
The Senators need a pure goal scorer to join their top-six. With just four games remaining, the team sits 26th with 212 goals-for, which sits just above the dismal Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. Norris is so far their best sniper, and he’s had a career year in 2021-22, posting 33 goals in 62 games. He’s the first Senator to score at least 30 goals since Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza in 2011-12, and he’s the only player on the current roster to hit that particular milestone in their careers. Batherson was on pace to post the highest-scoring season from an Ottawa player in years, but he missed most of the season with an unfortunate injury.
The Senators also don’t have many pure snipers that project to slot into the top-six in their farm system. Zach Ostapchuk has shown some potential this season with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Vancouver Giants but doesn’t project to be a top-six player at this time. The same can be said for Egor Sokolov, who’s been excellent with the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Belleville Senators, and Angus Crookshank, who’s missed the entire season with an injury. Greig is likely their best bet to help in the top-six, but he likely projects to be more of a Tkachuk-like player, which means he’ll be incredibly valuable, but unlikely to lead the team in scoring.
Goals don’t always translate to wins – just look at the Columbus Blue Jackets, who sit at 248 goals but are set to miss the playoffs – no team who has currently qualified for the playoffs averaged less than three goals a game. The Senators currently sit at an average of 2.68 goals per game, the eighth-lowest total in the NHL. They also have one of the worst shooting percentages in the league with just 8.9 shots per game, and although the playoff-bound Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings sit below them, both teams shot the puck over 400 more times than the Senators. That’s a significant gap to overcome, but it becomes easier to address with a dynamic presence in the top two lines.
Slafkovksy is a Perfect Fit in Ottawa
The Senators have taken a lot of heat for their picks in the 2021 Draft. Their first selection, Tyler Boucher, has had a very rough 2021-22 season, first struggling with the University of Boston, then failing to produce regularly with the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Ottawa 67s. They also faced criticism for their selections of Ben Roger (second round, 2021) and Tyler Kleven (second round, 2020) for taking players that were just big.
Looking at the organization, it appears that management has decided to focus on getting bigger and meaner. Boucher has been a wrecking ball in the OHL Playoffs this year, and Kleven was a devastating presence on the blue line for the Univerisity of North Dakota, allowing Jake Sanderson to go for more breakouts and offensive plays. Other prospects, like Greig, Chandler Romeo, and Mark Kastelic, also play physical, in-your-face styles that wrack up penalty minutes.
The goal seems pretty clear too – create a team around Tkachuk that is annoying to play against. Other teams like the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils have gone for a more skill-focused rebuild, adding players like Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider, Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer, and Luke Hughes to their systems. But not the Senators. They want tough customers first, then they’ll add the skill later.
That’s why Slafkovsky makes so much sense for Ottawa. He’s already big and strong and not afraid to use his size to his advantage, but he also has soft hands that will fill the back of the net with pucks. Better yet, he’s a winger, which is a position in which the Senators do not have great depth. Currently, in their top-six wing positions, they have Norris, Batherson, Alex Formenton, and Connor Brown. That’s solid, but has room for improvement. Their bottom six, however, is filled with question marks; Adam Gaudette has been ineffective in Ottawa, and Chris Tierney has fallen off a cliff over the past two seasons. Parker Kelly has been good, but still needs some time to develop into a regular contributor.
With Slafkovsky, however, a lot of those problems disappear. He could replace Formenton on the second line, or be shuffled over to the right side and replace Brown. He also gives the Senators the option to play him on the top line should either Norris or Batherson go down with an injury, rather than leaving them in a similar situation to this season where they had few good options to use as a replacement. Adding Slafkovsky is the perfect draft-day scenario for the Senators, and the only thing that should prevent them from drafting him is if he’s taken before it’s their turn to step up to the podium.
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An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.