Saturday, July 30, 2005

Senators draft preview

With the draft looming, the Ottawa Senators, selecting 9th, seem to have an opportunity to select an impact player. So on that note, we'll examine what they will be doing tomorrow.

DRAFT HISTORY

Long-considered to be one of the best NHL franchises in drafting amateurs, the story of the Ottawa Senators at the draft is a positive one.

The history of their first round selections is interesting in itself. The first ever draft selection of the Senators, Alexei Yashin in 1992, went onto be the team's franchise player and while he and his agent Mark Gandler certainly brought considerable drama to the Nation's capital, there can be no disputing the fact that he contributed many things to the team's growth. As well, they were able to trade Yashin to the NY Islanders in 2001 for two key parts of their current core in Zdeno Chara and Jason Spezza. Those same things, however, can't be said for Alexandre Daigle, their 1993 first overall selection. Touted as the next superstar, the team gave Daigle a rich contract (over $2 million per year, a contract that many see as the cause for the rookie max in the next CBA) but he never materialized, never quite developing into the scorer everyone had hoped. 1994's first pick, Radek Bonk, was much hyped, having ripped up the IHL before being drafted. That offensive touch was never displayed with any consistency with the Senators, though his two-way game was a major asset to the team. Unfortunately, his legendary playoff meltdowns and big contract caused his stay to be much shorter than he'd hoped, having been traded to the Montreal Canadiens last summer.

The Sens once again had the first overall pick in 1995 with defenceman Bryan Berard, but he never once played a game in an Ottawa uniform. A contract dispute erupted, with Berard going as far as to say he would never play for Ottawa, and then-new GM Pierre Gauthier, having enough contract drama with Yashin, shipped him to the Islanders for another defenceman, Wade Redden, who was the 2nd pick after Berard. In retrospect, it looks like a steal. Berard has bounced from team to team, and though he's solid, he hasn't been the backstop anywhere he's been that Redden's has here in Ottawa since coming over. The first overall pick came to Ottawa for a second straight year (boy, those early Ottawa teams stunk) in 1996, and they dipped into the defencemen market again, picking Chris Phillips. Some were disappointed with his lack of offensive production early on, but Phillips has emerged as one of Ottawa's most consistent blueliners, and in the past few seasons has seen his offensive touch come alive. 1997's pick, Marian Hossa, looks like a theft at 12th overall, as the Sens picked what has become one of their best players, and someone who's goal scoring ability is among the best in the NHL.

Every team has a black eye on their draft record, and for the Ottawa Senators, it's goaltender Mathieu Chouinard, their first pick in 1998. As the Sens became competitive, they began to draft later and later, and thus, the pickings, as far as impact players, were slim. Still, the fact that Chouinard never played one game in Ottawa, and only one for his whole NHL career (with the Kings) is telling. I believe he's still in the game as a minor league back-up.

Fortunately, things picked up the next couple years, with three straight strong draft years as far as the first round goes. 1999's Martin Havlat, 2000's Anton Volchenkov, and 2001's Spezza (2nd overall) all look like tremendous choices, as every one are significant NHLers with their best years looking ahead of them. The past couple years have seen the Sens take a different approach though. They parlayed their first picks in the 2001 and 2002 draft into veterans via trades, acquiring Vaclav Varada from the Buffalo Sabres for 2002's first round pick Jakub Klepis and Bryan Smolinski from the Los Angeles Kings for 2001's first round pick Tim Gleason. The jury's still out on the picks of the next two years, Patrick Eaves (a highly touted U.S. college scorer) in 2003 and Andrej Meszaros in 2004, but most hockey pundits believe both will be good NHLers (hopefully Senators), as their widely considered the number #1 and #2 prospects within the organization.

But beyond their (mostly) positive first round history, an important part of the Sens at the draft is their uncanny and perhaps unmatched ability to pick Europeans in the later rounds. Among them, Pavel Demitra (10th round/227th overall in 1993), Daniel Alfredsson (5th round/133rd in 1994), Sami Salo (10th round/239th in 1996), Andreas Dackell (6th round/136th in 1996), Magnus Arvedson (4th round/119th in 1997), Karel Rachunek (9th round/22th in 1997), and Martin Prusek (6th round/164th in 1999).

Senators first round selections:
1992: Alexei Yashin (2nd overall)
1993: Alexandre Daigle (1st)
1994: Radek Bonk (3rd)
1995: Bryan Berard (1st)
1996: Chris Phillips (1st)
1997: Marian Hossa (12th)
1998: Mathieu Chouinard (15th)
1999: Martin Havlat (26th)
2000: Anton Volchenkov (21st)
2001: Jason Spezza (2nd)
2001: Tim Gleason (23rd)
2002: Jakub Klepis (16th)
2003: Patrick Eaves (29th)
2004: Andrej Meszaros (23rd)

WHAT ARE THEIR NEEDS?

The truth is that because of their aforementioned accumen in drafting, the Senators do not have any glaring, desperate needs. But make no mistake, like any team, they could always use more blue chippers, not only for their own future use, but also perhaps as trade bait.

Starting from the net out, despite it often being the Achilles’ heel at the NHL level, the Senators are very well situated between the pipes. 23-year-old Ray Emery has long been touted as the team's "franchise goalie", and as recently as a few years ago, he was considered the best goaltender not in the NHL. He’s had some rough spots in the AHL with Binghampton though. Still, he's expected to back-up Dominik Hasek this coming season, and barring an unforeseen move, will be the successor whenever Hasek retires. But even beyond Emery, the team is strong in net. Jeff Glass(19), who played goal for Team Canada in the 2005 World Jr. Championships, also gives them good depth at the position. He's coming off a tremendous season with the Kootenay of the WHL where he finished with a GAA of 1.76, winning him the CHL's Goaltender of the Year award. Past Glass, the Sens also have Kelly Guard (22) and Billy Thompson (22).

At the NHL level, depth at defence is considered to be one of the Sens greatest strengths. But they also have many, seemingly almost NHL ready, d-men on the horizon. Their first round selection last year, Andrej Meszaros had a fantastic '04-'05 season with the WHL's Vancouver Giants, and is expected to be with the big club within a couple years. In addition to Meszaros, Christoph Schubert (23) has also developed into a strong blueliner and most figure he too will be an Ottawa Senator sooner rather than later. Russian Kirill Lyamin (19) was their second round pick in 2004 and Jan Platil (22), who who played in Bingo this past season, So though I'm sure they would pick a defencemen if a great one was available, it's doubtful it's high up on their "want list".

It's at forward where the needs lie. Their lack of a power forward with offensive upside within their system is obvious. None of their top young forward prospects, from Brandon Bochenski to Patrick Eaves to Igor Mirnov to Alexei Kaigorodov, though all gifted offensively, fill that void. Although their record of drafting offensively capable forwards speaks for itself, the Sens have never been able to develop a true "power forward" of their own, with perhaps the closest being Mike Fisher, but even he has not shown the offensive touch that a legitimate power forward has.

As well, a scoring left winger has been a pressing need of this organization for a while. On the right side, they have Hossa, Havlat, and Alfredsson, giving them three 30-goal scorers on one wing, and little to work with on the other. Bochenski's been waiting in the wings (no pun intended) for some time, and will likely be next in line to get a shot with the club, however adding some other options should be a goal of Sens brass tomorrow afternoon.

WHO'S AVAILABLE?

Though drafts rarely unfold the way the experts expect, with one team always throwing a wrench in the mock drafters (well thought out I'm sure) plans, it's worth noting who will likely be available by the time John Muckler and the rest of the Sens brass takes the stage to announce their pick. In all likelihood, one of these young men will be Senators property come Saturday night.

Anze Kopitar. The Slovenian center is the highest rankest European skater, and at 6'3" and 202 pounds, seem to have the physical tools to fill the void of a power forward. His skating is said to be his major weakness, and he's considered to be a project, but most see him as one of the best raw talents available in the draft.
Jack Skille. If he's even available at 9th, many see Skille as another player who can fill the Sens need for a power forward. Standing in at 6'1" and weighing 200 pounds, he's not afraid to mix it up physically, and has strong offensive skills. He was a member of the under-18 world championship team that won gold for Team USA this past spring. The fact he's a RW, a position the Sens are strong in, might contribute to them not selecting him though. In addition, he's headed to the University Of Wisconsin next year.
Marc Staal. Brother of Carolina Hurricanes bluechipper Eric, he's rated 9th among North American skaters, but those who follow young players say such a ranking is probably understating his abilities. He's thought of as a strong skater with offensive upside, and most feel as though he'll be NHL ready in a few years. Even though the Sens are not weak at defence, I'd assume they'd pick him anyway if he was available simply because they might not get a shot at such a good prospect in a while, but it's doubtful he'll be there, as the talk is that Carolina will pick him so that he can play with his brother.
Martin Hanzel. The Sens have a rich history with Czech and Slovakian players (Hossa, Havlat, Chara, Prusek, Rachunek), so one might assume he'd fit right in. At 6'4", he's physically impressive, but weighing in at less than 200 pounds, it's also pretty obvious he has some filling out to do. That said, he's shown in the past a willingness to play the physical game (breaking the stereotype) and is considered defensively strong, another uncharacteristic trait of Czechs.
Ryan O'Marra. 14th in the final rankings, this center is considered an excellent leader with great character and a good scoring touch (averaged a point a game with Eerie in the OHL this past season), but like many in the draft, his speed and agility is said to be an issue.
Guillaume Latendresse. Another big bodied player who's shown he can score, Latendresse, like Skille, also plays RW, and thus, might not fill the needs the Sens seem to have. And like a lot of other large players in this year's draft, his skating speed is said to be an issue. Still, when you have a 6'2", 217 pounder who put up 78 points in the QMJHL, teams like the Sens might be willing to overlook his flaws due to the big upside.
Marek Zagrapan. From Slovakia, this big center is different from many Europeans in that he played in Canada this past year for Chicoutimi of the Q (32 goals, 50 assists in 59 games, leading all rookies), so he won't have to make the adjustment to the North American game. He's only ranked 23rd among North American skaters, but many think a team like the Sens might bite on his potential.
Luc Bourdon. A strong puckmoving defenceman with strong skating skills and a big point shot, he seems to have all the tools teams are looking for. But the questions about his defensive skills might scare some away.
Niklas Bergfors. Sweden's best prospect in the draft, he's considered quite the complete player, with great speed, good hands, and a solid hockey mind.
Ryan Parent. Ranked 8th, he might still be around when the Sens come up to pick. Though his offensive skills are said to be limited, he's extremely reliable on the back end and may be the quickest skater in the entire draft, having won the 60-foot dash and full-lap competition at the Top Prospects game in the spring.

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