Senators draft preview, part 1

By Martin Levesque

It has been said a thousand times; the 2002 edition of the NHL entry draft is not one of the best crop in recent years. In fact, it may well rival the 1996 edition which didn’t produced much NHL talent. This has been the general consensus for a year now. It is always expected that a few players will rise up the chart in their draft year, especially in such circumstances. But, except for a few instance such as Russian Sergei Anshakov, it was unfortunately not the case. Couple that with the fact a few potential first rounders did not send their eligibility papers in time (physical specimen Richard Stehlik comes to mind) and there is even less to look forward to.

On the Senators’ front, this will be the last time former general manager Marshall Johnston influences the Sens’ draft selections unless he comes back, as rumoured, in a scouting role. Johnston’s replacement as general manager, John Muckler, will be at the draft table but of course can’t provide much input due to his very recent nomination less than a week ago. Marshall Johnston leaves a very healthy team situation overall, and prospect depth is no exception to that. While general managers too often get all the credit for shrewd drafting, Johnston, a former scout himself, can be proud of what was accomplished under his reign. The team was able to find very good young players, some perhaps headed to NHL stardom. Still, in their short history, the Senators have not changed much and had success in that department regardless of who was in charge. Credit has been given to a number of names, many of whom have left for other franchises across the league. There is an understanding in this organization that drafting well is critical and that the luxury of attractive free agent signing is not often possible for a small market such as Ottawa.

The Ottawa Senators are scheduled to pick 16th overall in what is considered by most observers to be a thin draft with as few as ten worthwhile players. The thing to remember of course is that how the draft is envisioned and how it pans out a few years later are two entirely different affairs. The 2000 entry draft, sandwiched between an overhyped 1999 and a highly-anticipated 2001 edition didn’t exactly get many folks excited but is turning out pretty good so far. You just have to look very thoroughly every year regardless of the general feeling and you may just find that overlooked player. The Senators have built a reputation as excellent drafters who can find gems, not only late in the first round but also in the mid-rounds. The Sens also have an advantage in that they have one of the deepest prospect roster in the NHL. They have very few glaring needs outside of a power forward on the wing. This depth will only ease the decision of taking the best player available, regardless of position played. There are very few gritty wingers talented enough to warrant such a high pick in this draft so the Sens will likely come out of it with the same problem they had coming in. With that in mind, let’s first eliminate the players who will most likely not be available when the Sens make their first choice.

Barring divine intervention, a solid top four leads the way. Jay Bouwmeester remains the crown’s jewel but according to many observers, failed to improve significantly this year. He nonetheless looks like a can’t-miss. Rick Nash is on course and despite some doubts regarding his skating, he remains near the top on most lists. Of all the players available this year, Nash might be the one the Senators could use the most as he would add a new dimension to this team. Joni Pitkanen is drawing rave reviews for playing a demanding position at a very high level of competition in the Finnish league. Unlike Bouwmeester, Pitkanen has the extra mean streak so highly sought among defensemen Finally, Kari Lehtonen remains the wild card of the draft. The fact he is a goaltender makes him likely to go a little higher or lower than he should. After those four, it becomes a little more difficult to assess but it is safe to say that Joffrey Lupul, Scottie Upshall, Anton Babchuk, Ryan Whitney, Jiri Hudler, Steve Eminger and Alexander Semin should all be drafted fairly early. Which means we are crossing eleven players from the list. If one of them is available, the Sens will be happy customers. And now we look in the crystal ball and try to project what should or could happen.

Players the Sens would likely jump all over: Here’s a list of players the Sens will most likely not overlook should they still be available. However, the odds are they will be gone. This year, the list consists of one name only.

DF Denis Grebeshkov,
Russia:
Grebeshkov is the prototypical Senator player. He is only
of average size (even a tad small for a blueliner) but plays with dedication. Denis buys in the team concept and is calm and collected. He not only fits the Senators mold but is most probably the best player available. Denis would join Volchenkov and Gleason to form a very potent top three prospects on defense. Grebeshkov is projected as a stay-at-home blueliner but there is two-way potential in him.

Conclusion: The Senators will be tempted if Grebeshkov is available. Ottawa’s blueline is in good shape but Denis may be too good to pass up. He certainly stands out in this draft. Doesn’t have the size of Anton Babchuk but may turn out better because of his hockey sense. Very smart players are what contenders are made of and that’s what Grebeshkov can offer.

Filling the need: As mentioned above, there is a need for a power forward or at least a big, gritty forward, preferably a winger. It is unwise to draft based on an immediate need because teams change so fast thanks to trades and free agent signings, but if scouts have to choose between relatively equal talent, they may of course look at that aspect. With that in mind, here are players who may fit this description. Some of them are riskier than others and most of them should be available at the Sens’ spot. None of them should be mistaken for a Rick Nash, but it may be as close as we get this year.

LW Eric Nystrom,
CCHA:
Nobody seems to have a bad thing to say about Nystrom. He is the son of former Islander Bob Nystrom and could become a utility player much like his father. Dad went on record saying his son is a better player but don’t let this fool you. While Bob was able to produce 40-50 points a season in the 70s and 80s, Eric will most likely only reach these numbers in a career year. Eric Nystrom is nonetheless an honest banger and could be a welcome addition in Ottawa. The upside is limited but the effort is there and at times, he offers a glimpse of what could be if he improves consistently in the next few years. CCHA is the best environment for him.

LW Daniel
Paille, OHL:
Not a power forward, but a poor man’s Rod Brind’Amour remains a possibility. Paille is an all-around player who has never failed to impress this writer. The devil is in the detail and Daniel proves it constantly. He is a two-way player with definite NHL potential and should make it. The problem is figuring out what role he’ll be able to play. Generally he seems regarded as a 3rd liner but this a more important role is a possibility. The tools are there and Paille works hard. He doesn’t crush the opposition but nonetheless is effective in traffic and can hold his own when things get physical. He is very smart, effective and disciplined. Would be a good selection.

LW Ben Eager,
OHL:
Bigger, meaner but less talented than Paille. Eager lacks hockey sense enough that it could hinder his chance at an NHL career. But where Eager score points is size. At 6ft2, 210lbs, he is already pretty big even by NHL standards and there is room for more. He is a strong forward with decent mobility. The Senators will likely ignore him in the first round because of his limited skills and low upside. The reasoning is that the Sens like to gamble and there is little there to gamble about. Eager will not improve much and at best would become a 4th line banger. Not worthy of being drafted 16th overall, no matter how weak this draft may be.

RW Rob Globke,
CCHA:
Another college player, this time an overager. Globke has shown good things this year. His stock would be higher if not for the fact he is almost two years older than the competition. However, this is not what you expect from a first rounder at this stage of his career. Granted, this is a weak draft and someone may be tempted to pick Rob in the first round but it probably won’t be the Senators. Seems like a blend of the four players described here. Possesses most of the qualities they have but doesn’t excel at anything. He could reach the NHL sooner due to his maturity.

LW Adam Heinrich,
OHL:
Heinrich could be a very good choice, maybe the best of the lot. The biggest player in this category and also the one showing the most raw talent. This is an attractive combination. One thing Adam has going for him is progression. He went from 9 points in 00-01 to 63 points in 01-02. This is significant and exactly what scouts look for. Unlike for instance, Paille, Heinrich has not shown much competitiveness. His work ethic is reportedly suspect. But in such a weak draft, his upside may give him an edge. If the stars are aligned, could become a 2nd liner with impressive size and solid skills but he will need to be challenged more.

Conclusion: None of these five players seems to fit the Senators drafting philosophy. This could mean they have to be discarded. But then again the Senators are well aware of their need for this type of player and it may be time for a change of direction. While the differences may appear subtle, none of them plays exactly the same game and the Sens will have a tough choice to make. Paille and Heinrich seem a notch above the others. Globke is a possibility and could reach the NHL sooner but doesn’t carry much upside. All in all, unless the Sens see something very special or are desperate for grit, this may not be the year they correct this weakness. There is always the chance one of them may fall to the second round in which case the Sens might happily grab him.

Part 2 of the draft preview will be out this Wednesday.