Senators can celebrate bright future in missed playoff season

From naming D.J. Smith as their next head coach, to Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk continuing their progression, to stockpiling many young prospects and picks, the Ottawa Senators used the 2019-20 season to lay the foundation for the future.

The greatest challenge in doing a lookahead for the Ottawa Senators: How far to set the viewfinder? Three months? Five?

A tentative date for the 2020-21 season to begin is Dec. 1, which will amount to nearly eight months between games for the Senators and six other non-contenders.

As the 30th ranked team when play was halted on March 12, Ottawa will not be part of any play-in round or subsequent Stanley Cup playoffs. That will keep them competitively idle until November training camps begin, assuming that time forecast holds.

Prior to that, the draft is the thing. Tentatively set for Oct. 9-10, following the conclusion of these play-ins and playoffs, the draft holds the key to the Senators future — despite the fact that Ottawa missed out on the biggest fish in the pool, consensus No. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere.

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That first overall pick will go to some lucky “placeholder” team that falls out of the play-in round and becomes one of eight clubs in the running for Lafreniere in Phase 2 of the lottery draft, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 10.

While the Senators had the best odds to win first overall, 13.5 per cent with their own pick and 11.5 per cent with the pick of the San Jose Sharks, that still only added up to 25 per cent. There was a 75 per cent chance of missing out. Mission accomplished, the NHL’s goal of keeping teams from “tanking” to get a first overall pick (see Ottawa files under Bruce Firestone and Alex Daigle for the reason the NHL veered from awarding the top pick to lousy teams).

Instead the Senators landed third overall with the Sharks pick (from the Erik Karlsson trade) and fifth with their own entry. At the moment it happened, with Ottawa down to the final three, along with the L.A. Kings and the pesky Placeholder, the sight of the Senators logo on the third card was a profound disappointment to general manager Pierre Dorion and the Senators fan base.

Lottery drafts must declare winners and losers on the night, and the Senators didn’t get their desired No. 1 slot. Still, after the dust settled on the events of June 26, a bright reality settled in. Even if the Senators don’t swap their two top-five picks to get Lafreniere, they should be getting two impact players at No. 3 and No. 5.

For perspective, in their 28-year history, the Senators have never had two top-five selections in the same draft. In the last 20 years, they have only had two top five picks, period — Brady Tkachuk, fourth overall in 2018, and Jason Spezza, second overall in 2001.

This is Ottawa’s best opportunity to replace some of the elite talent traded away over the past three years, including Karlsson, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris and Matt Duchene.

Dorion believes the top dozen draft prospects can be broken into three tiers. He doesn’t name them but we will: 1). Lafreniere. 2) a tier of two players (presumably centres Tim Stutzle and Quinton Byfield) and then the group from 4-12, which is loaded with talent.

If the Senators want to add a couple of elite forwards to work with Brady Tkachuk, they can select one of Stutzle/Byfield (whichever pick is left by the Kings) and then add one of the other slick players such as Ottawa 67’s centre Marco Rossi (ranked fifth by Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino) or Swedish winger Lucas Raymond or Saginaw’s Cole Perfetti.

Or, less likely, Ottawa could take their key centre in Stutzle/Byfield and then add an impact defenceman, Jamie Drysdale (Erie) or Jake Sanderson (USNTDP).

From the look of the draft leaderboard, the Senators really can’t go wrong. In a deep draft, the Senators have an opportunity to further stock talent. If draft picks were pots of gold, this small market franchise would be filthy rich: Ottawa has seven selections over the first two rounds, nine in the first three rounds and 13 picks in total.

Ottawa owns the New York Islanders 2020 first round pick, which could land them a third selection, this time in the mid-round range. However, because this is 2020, there is a complication. The Isles’ pick is lottery protected, so if the Isles were to lose their play-in series and win the placeholder’s first overall selection, the first-round pick owned by Ottawa via the Jean Gabriel Pageau trade would slide to 2021.

A quick refresher on the talent in the pipeline — the Senators are deep at all positions, led by first-team All Star and AHL rookie of the year, centre Josh Norris. Norris, a 19th overall pick of the Sharks in 2017, came to Ottawa as part of the blockbuster 2018 trade for Erik Karlsson.

It’s likely Norris would eventually slide in behind Ottawa’s future top centre (Stutzle or Byfield), but add in Logan Brown and Colin White and the future looks bright down the middle. There is the chance Brown, a 2016 11th overall pick, gets moved as he has seemed frustrated at not cracking Ottawa’s lineup by now.

Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Erik Brannstrom, Alex Formenton, Shane Pinto and Jacob Bernard-Docker are just some of the under-23 brigade that represent a foundation of position players in Ottawa.

In goal, one of Joey Daccord, Mads Sogaard or Kevin Mandolese could blossom. Filip Gustavsson and Marcus Hogberg are now experienced pros, behind Anders Nilsson.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Cap room to burn

Off the ice, the Senators will have an opportunity to exploit their prodigious salary cap room, but the question is: will they?
With the salary cap expected to be frozen at $81.5 million for next season and beyond, certain teams will be heading into cap purgatory, bordering on cap hell. Ottawa is not one of those teams. According to CapFriendly, the Senators have $41.9 million committed for 2020-21, with several notable restricted free agents of their own to sign, and likely a couple of unrestricted free agents.

On the RFA list are forwards Connor Brown, Anthony Duclair and Chris Tierney, Nick Paul, Filip Chlapik and Rudolfs Balcers.

Ottawa’s UFAs include: defencemen Mark Borowiecki and Ron Hainsey plus forward Scott Sabourin. Goaltender Craig Anderson is not expected to return.

Even after committing most of this group to contracts, the Senators will have the cap space to sign free agents or acquire contracts via trade from teams that are squeezed. But the recent track record has been to stay young with personnel, let the prospects develop into future players in Ottawa, along with a few judicious signings from the outside. I don’t see that changing dramatically, given the hits to the club’s revenue side. The Senators haven’t had a home gate since March 5 and won’t have another until November. Then there are the lost millions in revenue from unsold seats — Ottawa’s average gate of 12,618 for 2019-20 was the lowest in the NHL.

Consider this: That paltry gate total will look huge by comparison if the NHL has to start the new season with social distance measures in place. It wouldn’t be prudent to count on business as usual, turnstiles open, when 2020-21 gets under way.

Owner Eugene Melnyk has often linked hockey revenues to roster payroll, although he has also said he would spend to the cap when the team grows into a contender in a few years.

It would have helped to have Lafreniere to build a summer ticket campaign around.

And yet, with so many prospects in the system, and impact players coming in the draft, hard core fans of the team are clinging to the idea of exciting days ahead, whenever and however the Senators get to play in their home rink again.

There is hope, regardless of how much money the Senators spend during an off-season that is weirdly one of the longest, and shortest, at the same time.

It already feels like forever since we’ve had a game, but technically the 2019-20 season won’t end until the Stanley Cup gets awarded in early October, which happens to be the usual start date for a normal NHL calendar.

For Senators fans, other than the draft in October and a potential rookie camp and tournament afterwards, it’s time to sit back and watch the rest of the league try to salvage this season.

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