For the better part of a year, the fan base of the Ottawa Senators has existed in a kind of netherworld, a pandemic purgatory in which the fans in Canada's capital cling to a vague concept that there is still an NHL team in the city.
It is a team that hasn’t played a single game in more than six months -- and likely won’t play another until sometime next year.
The one event that has kept Ottawa fans engaged -- the NHL draft -- has been booted around like a coronavirus-shaped football, before finally coming to rest in early October, a month usually associated with the start of the regular season.
Oh, there was one other evening in late June that captured imaginations, a maddening tease event called the draft lottery, which resulted not in Ottawa landing first overall (despite a 25 per cent chance of it), but losing out to a placeholder team-to-be-named-later, which we now know is the New York Rangers.
Thank God for the San Jose Sharks, whose terrible season gave the Senators a second shot at a high draft selection. That first round pick, part of the Erik Karlsson deal, settled in at third overall, while Ottawa’s own pick fell back to fifth.
And yet there is more -- the rebuilding Senators also acquired a first round pick from the New York Islanders in the deadline trade of centre Jean-Gabriel Pageau. And though the Isles did Ottawa no favours by reaching the Eastern Conference Final, the Senators can add that piece, the 28th pick, to their 2020 draft riches.
And so we present Ottawa’s first-round feast: third, fifth and 28th overall picks.
What can the Senators achieve with their first-round picks?
One of the pluses and minuses of having six months to anticipate a draft is that prospects and team draft strategies have been analyzed up one side and down the other. In hockey-starved cities like Ottawa, Los Angeles and Detroit, mock drafts have outnumbered playoff pools as scouts and experts sort out the order after the consensus No. 1 pick, Alexis Lafreniere.
Big picture, the Senators are looking at this deep draft as one of the most important in the history of the franchise, with the expectation of acquiring two impact players with picks No. 3 and No. 5. There is enough talent in this draft list to imagine drafting another key piece at 28, additions to a team that has Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot anchoring its foundation.
No. 3: Byfield or Stutzle?
In Ottawa and L.A., search engines have been worn out by these three words: Byfield or Stutzle? Stutzle or Byfield? The choice belongs to the L.A. Kings of course, having jumped up in the lottery to the second overall pick. The Senators will get the more than capable leftover forward.
Barring a curveball pick for one of the premier defencemen available, the decision at forward comes down to either the big, imposing centre from the OHL Sudbury Wolves, Quinton Byfield, or the slick winger from Germany, Tim Stutzle.
Not to overburden them with expectations, but to play that game of associating prospects with their mature skill model in the current NHL, scouts might call it a debate between having an Evgeni Malkin type or a Patrick Kane type. It’s possible, both teams can win.
After nearly three months of speculation, the consensus seems to be that L.A. will opt for Byfield, although the early thinking had them excited about Stutzle. In the end, it might come down to an ancient hockey belief -- all things being somewhat equal, take the bigger kid -- which might seal the deal for Byfield in Los Angeles. At six-foot-four, and about 220 pounds, Byfield is big, skilled and raw -- ten months younger than Lafreniere, who was born in late 2001. That potentially gives him more upside than the other top forwards, including the shifty Stutzle, who has been playing against men in the DEL, the top pro league in Germany.
Sportsnet’s draft analyst Sam Cosentino calls Byfield an ideal pick as a top centre with his combination of size and strength and also “an excellent skater who handles the puck well in tight areas... an equal threat as a scorer and distributor.”
Stutzle is listed as a left winger, where he plays in the DEL, but can play centre and did so at the world juniors.
Cosentino: “Stutzle dances with the puck, he can play at top speed and although his goal numbers were down, that part of his game will evolve with strength and maturity.”
If the Senators land Byfield, they will have their No. 1 centre for years to come. If Stutzle is their guy, it will be interesting to see if he settles in at wing, where he can dazzle with his speed and skill, or revert to centre to fit a team need.
No. 5 has all the intrigue
Barring a shocking development, Ottawa’s first selection on Oct. 6 seems predictable. It’s their second pick, at No. 5, that could go in any number of directions. Historically, the Senators' drafting group has held firm to two strong principles:
1. They keep their draft cards close.
2. They know who they like and aren’t swayed by the “board” selections.
General manager Pierre Dorion has repeated his “best player” mantra for this draft, but who will be the best available at No. 5 and will Ottawa select a forward or defenceman?
The idea of landing two impact forwards has to be intriguing for an organization that doesn’t have a ton of scoring, at least at the NHL level. My hunch -- Dorion goes that way with his top two picks.
Consider who might be available at No. 5, including two top defencemen:
F Lucas Raymond: Raymond, ranked fourth among European skaters by Central Scouting, has the kind of lineage a Senators fan can appreciate. He hails from Gothenburg, Sweden (like Daniel Alfredsson) and played for Frolunda (like Alfredsson and Karlsson). A brilliant skater, Raymond is physically slighter than the other top forwards but tantalizes with his skill and speed.
F Cole Perfetti: Likely headed to Detroit at No. 4, Perfetti was rated the best playmaker and second-best stickhandler (after Lafreniere) by NHL scouts in Grant McCagg’s Recrutes draft guide. This OHL Saginaw centre is slick and heady and speaks with the maturity of a player years older. Small at five-foot-10, Perfetti has focused on strength and skating this summer, and now weighs 180-plus-pounds.
F Marco Rossi: This diminutive centre from Austria has already delighted Ottawa crowds for years, as a stylish, determined OHL Ottawa 67’s player who makes those around him better. Reminiscent of Martin St. Louis, Rossi packs close to 190 pounds of power and strength on his five-foot-nine frame.
F Alexander Holtz: If it’s a sniper they covet, look no further than Holtz, a classic right-shot scorer out of Djurgardens in Sweden. With his quick release, Holtz can hurt you with a slap shot or wrist shot.
D Jake Sanderson: While the Senators have some depth at defence, their only sure thing as a top-pair D man is Thomas Chabot. Like Chabot, Sanderson of the United States National Development Program is a silky smooth skater but arrives in the NHL as an even more complete, two-way defenceman. His defensive game is superb, with gap control that had scouts scribbling, if not drooling.
D Jamie Drysdale: Any team in need of a power play quarterback has to consider Drysdale, the five-foot-11 dynamo from OHL Erie. A right-shot D like Karlsson, Drysdale is going to have a long and productive NHL career. The Senators have Chabot, and in the minors, Erik Brannstrom, but Drysdale would add a level of excitement.
The longer wait, to 28
It’s a fool’s game to predict who the Senators are going to take with their third and final selection of the first round, if they don’t trade it, but here’s a few names that could be available:
F Tyson Foerster: This right winger for the Barrie Colts is big, tenacious and can score (36 goals, 80 points). Could project to a scoring winger on one of Ottawa’s top two lines.
F Noel Gunler: The Swedish answer to Foerster, Gunler is an effective scorer from the right side with good size. Needs to mature as a player but has shown flashes of being a consistent goal producer.
D William Wallinder: At six-foot-four and 191-pounds, Wallinder is a big, smooth defenceman, a good skater from the MoDo juniors in Sweden. Should evolve into a top-four D-man.
F Jake Neighbours: The Senators have done well by their WHL picks and Neighbours fits the mould of a solid, rugged left winger. Calgary-born, he plays for the Edmonton Oil Kings.
D Helge Grans: Another solid Swedish defender, Grans is six-foot-two, 206-pounds and has been a steady player for Malmo. Has top four potential.
In the end, if Ottawa walks away with Stutzle, Raymond and, say, Wallinder, they can call it a day for round one. A very good day in the history of the organization.