Senators Focus on the Now with the 2022 Draft Picks

For the past few seasons, the Ottawa Senators have been focused on the future, bringing in as many top-end prospects as possible. From 2017 to 2020, they constructed most of their current core, drafting Drake Batherson, Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, and Jake Sanderson, and traded for Josh Norris. During that time, the team also added Erik Brannstrom, Alex Formenton, Shane Pinto, Mads Sogaard, Jacob Bernard-Docker, Angus Crookshank, Egor Sokolov, and Ridly Greig, which gave them one of the strongest farm systems in the league.

Related: THW 2022 NHL Draft Guide

But in 2021, following a now-infamous statement that the rebuild was over, fans saw a shift in the team’s strategy. The Senators received plenty of backslash for their curious early draft choices and confusing trade deadline acquisitions, and much of it was well deserved; the team cruised to another bottom-10 finish for the fifth consecutive season. General manager Pierre Dorion backtracked his early-season statement, claiming what he meant was that the core was in place, and head scout Trent Mann vehemently defended his selections but then later admitted that many of them were selected with future cap concerns in mind. Their message was all over the place, and although fans were still optimistic about the future, hope felt like it was beginning to wane.

Then came the 2022 NHL Draft, which felt like a watershed moment that the Senators couldn’t afford to bungle, and they knocked it out of the park. With their first-round pick as bait, they convinced the Chicago Blackhawks to trade for Alex DeBrincat, the most coveted player available this year and did so without moving any players or prospects. Suddenly, everything seemed to make sense – 2021 and 2022 were no longer focused on the future but entirely on the present. The goal was to make the most of what they have now rather than to keep acquiring potential. It certainly influenced the 2022 Draft, so, with that in mind, here’s a look at the Senators’ latest selections.

Filip Nordberg – 64th Overall

With their first pick, management made a very typical Senators pick, selecting Filip Nordberg, a 6-foot-4, left-handed, smooth-skating defenceman who played in Sweden’s J20 league last season and was ranked outside the top 100 prospects. He’s a prototypical shutdown defender who uses his size to his advantage but also has a decent offensive side to his game, which he demonstrated with 21 assists and 27 points in 42 games with Södertälje SK J20, and possesses a heavy shot. He has the potential to be a top-four, two-way defender who can play in all situations, but it will take time for him to get there, as he’ll need to iron out his decision-making, puck control, and defensive consistency.

Despite that the pick is a bit of a reach, it’s not a bad one by the Senators. Nordberg strikes me as an upgrade on Tyler Kleven, another 6-foot-4, left-handed defender who plays a shutdown role at the University of North Dakota and is known for laying out bone-crushing hits. He doesn’t have the reckless physicality of his American counterpart, but he still had one of the highest penalty minute totals in his league, and he is much more willing to use his powerful shot. However, much like Kleven, he likely shouldn’t have been a second-round pick, especially with Calle Odelius and Ty Nelson still on the board.

Oskar Pettersson – 72nd Overall

Oskar Pettersson is another typical Senators selection in that he’s big and a bit of a reach. The Swedish 6-foot-2, 198-pound right-winger put up a decent performance at the U18 World Junior Championship this spring with five points in six games, winning a gold medal and finishing fifth in points on the team. However, it was a four-point dip behind fourth-place Liam Ohgren and 10 points behind the leading scorer, Jonathan Lekkerimaki. In the J20 league, he had 25 goals and 36 points in 46 games, which placed him eighth in the league in goals, and many of those came from being right in front of the net, likely because his skating is not the greatest.

Much like Nordberg, he likely would have been available later, but it’s not a terrible pick if it pans out. There may be a Tomas Holmstrom-type player hiding in there, who loved using his strength to smash in garbage goals right outside the blue paint, and he’s already got the size, but it will take him some time to iron out his skillset. Interestingly, the Senators didn’t target Vinzenz Rohrer, who went three picks later, as the Austrian right-winger played with the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Ottawa 67’s this season and also loved crashing the net, where he picked up 25 goals in 65 games.

Tomas Hamara – 87th Overall

With their second of two third-round picks, the Senators scooped up Czech defender Tomas Hamara, and unlike the previous two selections, he was a bit of a steal. Like Nordberg, he’s a slick-skating, two-way blueliner but has a more refined offensive side to his game. In 32 games in Finland’s U20 League, he scored 25 points, earning him a 24-game stint with the Liiga’s Tappara. At the U18 World Juniors, he led the Czech team with eight assists, and although he didn’t pick up any goals, he still finished third in team scoring. In an interview with TSN 1200, he mentioned he modelled his game after Morgan Rielly and Thomas Chabot.

Also, unlike the previous two selections, most scouts agreed that this was a good pickup by the Senators. Scott Wheeler of The Athletic called this his favourite selection by Ottawa, noting, “I do really like the Tomas Hamara selection at No. 87 (he’s No. 59 on my board)…When he’s at his best, he looks like a general directing play back there, even if he’s not flying around the ice, looking dynamic. If Hamara stays on the path he’s on, I think he’s capable of becoming a solid third-pairing D” (from “2022 NHL Draft: Winners and losers from Day 2, picked by Scott Wheeler,” The Athletic – 08/07/2022).

Stephen Halliday – 104th Overall

Stephen Halliday checks off another Senators’ draft trope in that he’s an overage prospect. Passed over in both 2020 and 2021 after some middling production, the 6-foot-4 center broke out this season, scoring 35 goals and 95 points in 65 games with the Dubuque Fights Saints of the United States Hockey League (USHL). While those point totals are impressive, it’s important to remember he was significantly bigger than most of his competition, and he was able to overpower a lot of his opponents. That won’t be the case as he transitions to Ohio State University next season, where his lack of agility and defensive skills may hold him back. He was originally supposed to join the University of North Dakota (another Senators’ trope), but the COVID-19 shutdowns prevented him from playing his freshman season there.

Stephen Halliday Dubuque Fighting Saints
Stephen Halliday, Dubuque Fighting Saints (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Despite his weaknesses, Halliday is a perfect flyer for a fourth-round pick. If he steps up at university, he could become that middle-six scorer with a physical edge that the Senators love. However, if he doesn’t, he still projects to be a depth center who can chip in offensively on occasion. There’s also an interesting story to pay attention to in Tyler Duke, who will also be joining Ohio State next season. A well-regarded but undersized right-shot defender, he went undrafted this season, and he’ll certainly catch the eyes of Ottawa’s scouts if they take the time to observe Halliday.

Jorian Donovan – 136th Overall

The Senators grabbed yet another two-way, left-handed defender in Jorian Donovan, the son of Senators development coach Shean Donovan. It’s impossible to ignore the family connections, as his father was intensely competitive and a fantastic skater, finishing his 15-year NHL career with a high of 42 points scored in 2003-04 with the Calgary Flames. However, the younger Donovan could be even better than his father; he’s already a better skater and, even as a defender, may have a higher offensive upside.

Jorian Donovan Hamilton Bulldogs
Jorian Donovan, Hamilton Bulldogs (Image courtesy of Hamilton Bulldogs)

Donovan has the makings of a top-four defenceman, but the reason he fell to the fifth round is that his game is still fairly raw. He finished his rookie season with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs with 22 points in 63 games, which aren’t great offensive numbers, and there are some concerns over his decision-making – although the mistakes he made aren’t uncommon among those his age. While he has the potential to break out next season, especially after a run at the Memorial Cup tournament in the spring, he’s considered a long-term project. Still, if you can say you may have a top defenceman in the fifth round, you did OK.

Cameron O’Neill – 143rd Overall

The Senators’ second right-winger selection was Cameron O’Neill, who spent most of 2021-22 playing AAA high school hockey with the Mount St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. In just 62 games, he scored 57 goals and led the league with 133 points. It’s always a risk to pick a player from these leagues, as the competition is a significant step down from the USHL or OHL, but with stats like that, he’s certainly worth taking a chance on. He’ll likely return to the USHL’s Tri-City Storm, where he suited up for a four-game stint last season and put up two points, and then he’ll be off to the University of Massachusetts – Amherst for 2023-24.

Kevin Reidler – 151st Overall

It seems that the Senators love to pick up unknown European goalies. Leevi Merilainen wasn’t ranked by anyone before Ottawa selected the Finn in the third round of the 2020 Draft. This year, they turned their attention to Sweden and snagged Kevin Reidler in the fifth round. At the U20 level, his stats were unimpressive, posting a 0.847 save percentage (SV%) over three appearances, but he was one of the best at the U18 level, recording a 0.910 SV% in 11 games with AIK J20 and a 0.922 SV% in two playoff games. At 6-foot-6, there’s a lot of potential here, and if he works out like Merilainen, the Senators may have a gem on their hands.

Theo Wallberg – 168th Overall

As if they didn’t have enough already, the Senators grabbed yet another big, two-way, left-handed defenceman in Theo Wallberg. Playing with Skellefteå AIK J20 in Sweden’s U20 circuit, he scored 23 points in 46 games, showcasing a decent offensive side to his game. But his bread and butter is the physical side of the game. At 6-foot-4, he is already a wrecking ball on the ice and has been hailed for his ability to pin opponents to the boards and use heavy hits to knock players off the puck.

Like the other picks before him, Wallberg won’t be ready to join the Senators any time soon. Next season, he’s expected to join the Dubuque Fights Saints and then transition to playing in the NCAA at Ohio State alongside Halliday. He’s an interesting player, though – big, rangy, and skilled – and could be a hidden gem of the 2022 Draft.

Tyson Dyck – 206th Overall

The Senators’ final selection was their smallest one. At just 6-foot-0 and weighing in at 170-pounds, Tyson Dyck is by no means a small player but is still dwarfed by most of Ottawa’s 2022 picks. A rookie with the Cranbrook Bucks of the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL), he led his team with 35 goals and 75 points, earning him a spot on the league’s All-Rookie Team and was a BCHL First Team All-Star. The center is committed to joining the University of Massachusetts in 2023-24 with O’Neill, which makes one wonder if the Senators are trying to recreate the success they found in North Dakota with Sanderson, Bernard-Docker, and Tyler Kleven.

2022 Draft Grade – C

2022 was a very typical Senators draft. None of the players they selected were smaller than 6-foot-0, and only one was lighter than 180 pounds, and many of them are committed to joining the same NCAA programs in the future. While a few players have shown flashes of high-end skill, overall, the franchise’s draft class projects to be depth additions, which has caused many analysts to label the team as losers of the 2022 Draft.

But, remember, the team wasn’t looking for high-end stars, especially after they traded away their first-round pick. The Senators want to compete now, and waiting on young stars to develop will continue to delay that goal. They already have their young core in place, and the players selected this year will be expected to support those stars in the future. While this strategy may end up biting them in four or five years when the prospect pool is all but dried up, the franchise hopes to have, at the very least, a couple of deep playoff runs under their belt, if not a Stanley Cup. It may be overly optimistic, but not entirely unrealistic. The Colorado Avalanche, with most of its core in place, finished dead last in 2016-17.

So, while I give this year’s crop a ‘C’ grade, I do so knowing that their focus has shifted from building to executing. None of these players will be in the NHL in the next couple of seasons because they don’t have to be, and when they make it, they’ll likely be slotted into bottom-six roles or third pairings. A lot of this potential success rides on DeBrincat re-signing, of course, but that’s a problem for another day. Now is the time to focus on the present.

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