Senators’ Rebuild Rides on Late Round Drafting Success

Going through a rebuild is never an easy thing. Whether you view one through the eyes of a fan, a general manager, a coach, or even a player, a lot of dominoes have to fall your way to repair the damage. The Ottawa Senators were just one goal away from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. My apologies to Sens fans for bringing that up but, it just goes to show how fast the path of a franchise can change. 

Since that miraculous run in 2017, the Senators have parted ways with some of their biggest stars. Erik Karlsson was the cream of the crop, but mix in guys like Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Matt Duchene and you have a recipe for a full-on rebuild. Now, the Senators have implemented some of their younger players into the lineup, hired D.J. Smith as coach, and they’re off and running.

Mark Stone Senators
Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators, Mar. 28, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There are no guarantees in sports – it’s why you play the games. In the same light, there are no guarantees that top draft picks will always be future superstars. Choosing players and picking at the top of the draft boards give you the best chance to land a great prospect, but if that’s what you rely on, you’re in trouble.

The NHL Draft

This year, the Senators will have 13 picks at the 2020 draft. Some of the best NHL franchises, ones who have been relevant and consistent, are built at the draft. That doesn’t mean selecting just first and second-round picks. It’s also having the ability to find talent in the mid-to-late rounds. THW’s Jim Parsons, Sr., wrote back in June about the Senators, the draft, and mentioned how D.J. Smith said it’s one of the deepest drafts in a long time.

Related: Ottawa Senators: Revisiting the Zibanejad Trade

The Senators have done fairly well in the past few drafts. They have been able to choose at the top and luckily, so far, those players have been a hit. Brady Tkachuk, Logan Brown, Thomas Chabot and Colin White have all been successful first-round selections. Still coming up the pipeline are players like Shane Pinto, Lassi Thomson and Mads Sogaard, so the future is bright.

However, the Senators have only been able to find a couple of players in the last five years that came after the third round. Even then, there are no guarantees that Drake Batherson and Max Lajoie, the players in question, will become full-time Senators for years to come. In fact, if we look at the Senators’ drafts since 2016, other than Batherson and Lajoie, no players selected after the second round have played a single NHL game.

Drake Batherson Ottawa Senators
Drake Batherson, Ottawa Senators, June 24, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It is still early to say that those drafts were unsuccessful for Ottawa, but the more successful teams at the draft usually have guys breakthrough relatively quickly. The Senators from 2008 to 2011 were very efficient, though. They were able to find players like Pageau, Hoffman, Ryan Dzingel, Zack Smith, and Mark Borowiecki all after the third round, and they were in direct correlation with the team’s success for the next seven seasons. The Sens will need to have those same draft results in the future.

Around the League

The Senators have a lot of teams to look at that have drafted well in later rounds and had success. For argument’s sake, franchises like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks are a great place to start. They are both teams that took advantage at the draft and it paid off in Stanley Cups. There are no better examples.

Since 2010, the Penguins have found mid to late-round players that were and are still key parts to their franchise today. Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Jake Guentzel, Dominik Simon, and Matt Murray are just a few. Before they drafted Sidney Crosby in 2005, they got Maxime Talbot (eighth round, 234th overall), and Kris Letang (third round, 62nd overall). Pretty good.

Jake Guentzel
Jake Guentzel of the Pittsburgh Penguins (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Chicago Blackhawks, in that same 10-year window, have drafted players like Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, and Marcus Kruger. These aren’t the biggest of names, but they were crucial pieces to surround the star-power names like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Duncan Keith that the Blackhawks already possessed.

If we compare it to the window where the Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups in six years, a few earlier drafts saw the team take players like Niklas Hjalmarsson (fourth round, 108th overall) and Dustin Byfuglien (eighth round, 245th overall).

Niklas Hjalmarsson (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Regardless if these players are still with the franchise or not, they were still integral pieces to deep playoff runs and Stanley Cups. If Ottawa wants to get back to where they were in 2017, it all starts at the draft. As I mentioned, the last two years are too early to tell what exactly the Senators will have. The jury will come out in a few seasons and it will ultimately push the Senators closer to the playoffs and playoff success, or set them back to square one.

Related: Ottawa Senators’ Coaching History

In any case, teams are usually better off drafting guys to play with their star players, rather than making trades and signing free agents. These parts (trades and UFA’s) only come when you have an established team and are looking for that one missing piece. The full and complete rebuild will unfold as the seasons go on. But, you can almost bet the draft results will have a direct impact on how they play out.