With three picks in round one of the 2020 NHL draft, the Ottawa Senators were bound to make some early noise.
They kept that high profile in round two, acquiring Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray via trade and swapping picks to move up to select yet another University of North Dakota defenceman, Tyler Kleven. The Senators now have four prospects at UND, including three D-men: Kleven, Jake Sanderson (fifth overall, 2020) and Jacob Bernard-Docker (26th overall, 2018). Ottawa has forward Shane Pinto (32nd overall, 2019).
No wonder Senators GM Pierre Dorion was asked on TV if he’s considering buying real estate in North Dakota.
Dorion has been targeting Murray for weeks. The need for goaltending help was amplified with recent news that holdover Anders Nilsson, expected to be Ottawa’s starter in the upcoming season, is still suffering concussion symptoms from an injury that originated last December.
Behind Nilsson, the Senators only have Marcus Hogberg, a decent prospect, but with just 28 games of NHL experience.
Murray, a Stanley Cup champion just two years ago, was coming off a tough season (.899 save percentage) and fell out of favour in Pittsburgh. The Senators gave up their 52nd overall pick (second round) plus prospect Jonathan Gruden.
Gruden, 20, a fourth-round pick for the Senators in 2018, spent the 2019-20 season with the OHL London Knights, posting 30 goals and 66 points in 59 games. He was not considered a key part of Ottawa’s future.
Murray, 26, is about to become a restricted free agent, but the Senators hope to work out a contract with him in short order to keep him for a few years. Dorion likes the notion that Murray arrives in Ottawa motivated after getting moved out of Pittsburgh, where he was part of two championships.
“He brings credibility to the position, someone we feel has something to prove and we’re excited to have him on board,” Dorion said.
“Without a doubt we still feel Matt can be a No. 1 in this league. We watched attentively every game in that Montreal series. We knew during the course of the year he was a goalie who could be on the move.”
Senators goalie coach Pierre Groulx believes Murray has the potential to return to his form of two years ago, plus be a mentor to Ottawa’s goaltending prospects.
“Just in talking to him, the excitement in his voice, he sounded like someone who had just got drafted,” Dorion said. “He was so excited. About our team, our core of young players, and a chance to re-establish himself as one of the really good goalies in the NHL.”
And yet, there is a saying in the game that you can never have enough goalies.
For a third-straight year, the Senators grabbed a goaltender. Leevi Merilainen of Karpat U20 in Jr. A SM-Liiga, was selected with the 71st pick.
No qualifying offer for Anthony Duclair
It was meant as a housekeeping question, one about the Senators' several RFA players and the approaching qualifying offer deadline. But it became a bit of a bombshell when Dorion said the club was qualifying everyone except defenceman Andreas Englund, forward Jayce Hawryluk and forward Anthony Duclair.
Duclair, 25, led Ottawa in goals last season with 23 and represented the Senators in the All-Star Game. He seemed to have turned his career around after stops in New York, Arizona, Chicago and Columbus.
Now, his days with the Senators are numbered.
“I don’t want to get into the specifics of it,” Dorion said on his post-draft Zoom call. “All I will say is Anthony chose to represent himself, and we told him from day one, it’s not always easy to represent yourself.
“We offered him a substantial raise over what he made last year. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t come to a contract agreement. We won’t close a door on anything but he will explore free agency.”
Senators picks have connections
After acquiring Tim Stutzle, Jake Sanderson and Ridly Greig in the first round, the Senators made seven picks on day two, and gave up two selections from their draft vault — picks 59 and 64 to the Toronto Maple Leafs to acquire No. 44. They used that to draft Kleven from UND.
In total, the Senators used 10 of their original 13 picks, drafting seven forwards, two defencemen and one goalie. They also acquired defenceman Josh Brown and goaltender Murray via trades around the draft.
Dorion and chief amateur scout Trent Mann came away pleased.
“I'm not going to make any bold statements but these past two days have really set the franchise forward for many years to come,” Dorion said. “What our scouts have been able to do, the impact players added in Stutzle, Sanderson and Greig, plus three second-round picks today and Matt Murray, who is a stabilizing presence in our net -- are all factors in us being successful for many years to come.”
Kleven, Ottawa’s first pick of the third round, said he had no idea he would become an Ottawa Senator, but was delighted to join his three UND mates in the system.
“I think they (the Senators) really like our style of play here at North Dakota and we’ll all be good additions to the Ottawa roster in years to come.”
Kleven is Sanderson’s roommate at UND, and was about to board a plane with Sanderson, Bernard-Docker and the rest of his Fighting Hawks teammates.
At 6-4, 200 pounds, Kleven doesn’t have the offensive upside of Bernard-Docker or Sanderson, but is established as a shut-down defenceman and relishes killing penalties. He was ranked 42nd among North American skaters by Central Scouting.
Yegor Sokolov also has deep ties to an existing Senators prospect. The 20-year-old Russian, who had a breakout season with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, was a teammate and “billet brother” with Ottawa’s Drake Batherson.
Sokolov said he has been skating with Batherson in Nova Scotia this summer and is beyond thrilled to be joining the same NHL organization.
“He took me with him everywhere,” Sokolov said, “and he helped me learn the English language.”
Sokolov said he quickly texted Batherson with his draft news.
“He’s proud of me,” Sokolov said.
After getting passed over twice in the draft, Sokolov worked on his game and led the QMJHL this season with 46 goals. He added 46 assists for 92 points. A right-shot, left winger, Sokolov is listed at 6-4, 230 pounds, but says he has “lost about 12 pounds” while training with Batherson.
Also in the late bloomer category is Swedish player Eric Engstrand, a big forward who was third in the SuperElite League in points last season. Ottawa took him at No. 155.
Three selections later, the Senators selected centre Philippe Daoust of the Moncton Wildcats at 158. The Senators started Day 2 by selecting a big Finnish forward, Roby Jarventie, with pick No. 33, and ended it by looking west to Brandon and Wheat Kings forward Cole Reinhardt.