The Brian Murray Draft Adventure Part 2: The Rise of Forsberg

Welcome back to the ongoing accounting of Bryan Murray’s draft history with the Ottawa Senators. As mentioned in Part 1, 2008 was the first real draft that Murray was able to run. All of his people were in place as of the previous summer and many of the scouting staff had been turned over since then. It was his first chance to really take a major stab at setting the draft strategy for the organization over the course of his tenure as GM. And some very telling trends emerged almost immediately that differed from the preceding regime. 

But first, a look at where the Sens stood going into the 2008 draft to provide some context. In retrospect, this year was the beginning of the end of the perennial contender version of the Sens, it just may not have been that evident at the time. 2007-08 was a very disappointing year that ended in a meek 1st round playoff bow out to the Penguins. It was the aborted John Paddock era and the Ray Emery losing his mind era. So there were easy excuses and scapegoats to be had (although there was that curious 16-3 start to the season which didn’t quite fit into that narrative).

What Murray had made sure to do coming off of the Sens Cup Final run the year before was lock up much of the core of the team. Ray Emery was the first one to negotiate a big raise as a RFA with Arbitration rights in the off-season. Then, in quick succession at the start of the season, Murray proactively avoided the year long speculation that would surely occur and gave Spezza, Heatley and Fisher large contract extensions. For the most part, this took care of the core, but all of this cap space being used was going to cut into the depth of the team. This would become more and more evident over the next year but the first signs were there. The Sens let Tom Preissing and Oleg Saprykin go after the 2007 Finals run, traded Peter Schaefer for the cheaper Sean Donovan and when Dean McAmmond was injured long term in pre-season, the best Murray could do was bring Randy Robitaille back from his exile in Europe. Head case Joe Corvo and the once-promising but now kind of useless Patrick Eaves were dealt at the deadline for rentals Mike Commodore and Cory Stillman who would not return.

Most disturbing was that there was pretty much nothing in the pipeline in terms of good young cheap players to replace these departing veterans. The Sens got a half decent rookie season from Nick Foligno (split between the NHL and AHL) and that was about it. Binghamton was still a mess. Tim Murray stated the previous July after he was brought on as Assistant GM (and Bingo GM), that as soon as he looked at the AHL roster, he realized that they only had 3 players under contract for the following season. There was still plenty of work to be done.

Add to these issues was the fact that the cap issues weren’t going to go away for the following season so the Sens were again going to be forced to shop at the bargain bin to fill their holes. Wade Redden’s contract was finally going to be coming off the books this off-season but all that ensured was that the core players raises were covered. The Sens knew they would be buying out Emery, creating yet another hole. They were also going to have to make difficult decisions with RFA’s Antoine Vermette and Andrej Meszaros (spoiler alert: one would stay, one would go). The depth of the team was being decimated and the normal elixir that contending franchises used to combat this (promoting young prospects into prominent roles on the big club) was not an option for the Sens.

One interesting move that Murray made which was a big precursor of things to come was his signing of NCAA undrafted free agent Jesse Winchester who was one of a handful of graduating players that appeared every year in the March timeframe which teams often got into bidding wars for in hopes of gaining a mature prospect for nothing but money. Murray obviously enjoyed this experience as the Sens would go back to this well in subsequent seasons.

So the stakes were definitely high and adding to the pressure, this year’s draft was being held in Ottawa so there was plenty of anticipation from the fan base and the media for the Sens to put their mark on the weekend.

The Sens possessed their 1st rounder (18th overall), Chicago’s 2nd rounder (the only thing of value left from the disappointing Martin Havlat trade), their 3rd and 4th rounders, an extra 4th rounder from their draft pick trade at the 2007 draft, as well as their 5th and 7th rounders. Muckler had traded away their own 2nd rounder in the Oleg Saprykin deal in 07 and Murray had traded the Sens 6th rounder for Martin Lapointe this year (another rental who wasn’t kept).

With their 1st round pick, the Sens immediately employed their new secret weapon. Hakan Andersson was a well known scout in the Red Wings organization who was responsible for many of the Wings top European picks over the last decade (Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Holmstrom etc). Back in his time with Detroit, Murray worked with Andersson and valued his opinion immensely. On Andersson’s recommendation, Murray had hired his protégé, Anders Forsberg in January to be a European scout for the Sens. Forsberg’s first recommendation was for the Sens to do everything in their power to take a fast rising, small defenseman from Sweden, Erik Karlsson. Andersson concurred and told Murray that Karlsson was the best European available in this draft class. As former members of the Anaheim organization, both Tim Murray and Director of Player Personnel Brent Flahr had it on good authority that the Ducks were planning on selecting Karlsson with the 17th pick so they convinced Bryan Murray to trade up to the 15th spot to take him (it only cost them a 3rd in the next year’s draft to do so). Brian Burke was the Anaheim GM at the time and this manoeuvre may have affected the infamous interaction that took place the following year when Murray was attempting to do something similar when it came to selecting Nazem Kadri, a player both men wanted.

We are all aware of what a homerun this pick has proved to be. Karlsson is coming off his first All-Star appearance and a 45 point season as a 20 year old. He’s still rough around the edges and needs more time to develop into a true elite offensive defenseman but he’s well on his way. It’s also funny to look back on the coverage from the local media this pick received. I distinctly recall a Don Brennan article which lambasted the pick. Brennan’s source for this analysis: the fan sitting beside him at the draft who said that the team could have got him in the 2nd round. Brilliant reporting from the Sun as always.

In the 2nd round, the final piece of the Martin Havlat trade was determined and it remains to be seen but Murray may have ended up partially salvaging the return with the selection of defenseman Patrick Wiercioch, a Canadian playing in the USHL scheduled to attend the University of Denver. Wiercioch played two seasons in Denver, putting up big points, running their power play as a freshman and leading the team in ice time. He also was a final cut in both those seasons for the Team Canada World Junior squad (the 2nd year was especially frustrating because he sustained a knee injury right before selection camp and even though he felt he could play at 100%, the brass didn’t wish to take that chance and cut him). Wiercioch is a tall, lanky defender with great offensive instincts. The one thing that is holding him up from taking the next step is that he needs to add more muscle to his frame in order to handle bigger forwards. He had a slow start this past season in Bingo as a 1st year pro but he developed as the season progressed and found himself depended on as a key blue liner during the Calder Cup playoffs. He will almost assuredly remain in Bingo next year and continue to work on his play in his own zone. This off season will be key to see how far he has come with his weight training and muscle mass. A great pick with tons of potential.

In the 3rd round, Murray employed a strategy he would use again by going to the WHL and taking an overage centre, Zack Smith from the Swift Current Broncos. Smith had put himself on the radar by exploding for 70 points in his most recent season after only putting up 31 points in his draft year. Coming from the WHL, the Sens were impressed by his gritty play that had the potential to combine some offensive flair as well. In his first year as a pro, Smith almost made the Sens right out of camp, being the last one sent to the AHL. He spent the majority of the year there, continuing to demonstrate he could score in the AHL with 24 goals and 48 points as a rookie. Over the next 2 seasons, he spent more and more time with the NHL club, playing mainly on the 4th line in an energy role. He has now earned himself a well deserved one way deal with the team. At the moment he projects as a very effective 4th line energy player but a role as a 3rd line checking centre is certainly not out of his reach either should he continue to make himself a valuable contributor.

With their 1st pick in the 4th round, the Sens went back to Forsberg and took his advice by selecting Swedish forward Andre Petersson. Petersson is a very intriguing prospect and the issue with him has never been about potential, it’s been health. When healthy, Petersson has been finding the net on a regular basis, both in the SEL and in International competition. The 2010 World Juniors was his coming out party as he put up 8 goals in the tournament (tying Jordan Eberle for the tournament title) and outscored his more highly touted teammate Magnus Paajarvi in the process. But since that time, Petersson has had chronic back issues hamper his ability to stay in the lineup on HV71 (his SEL team). Earlier this season, the Sens brought him over to Ottawa to see their own doctors and to monitor his recovery. Obviously, they felt strongly enough about his progress as they signed him to a contract this April. It remains to be seen what kind of player he can be at this level but he’ll certainly be getting a shot, whether it is in Ottawa or Binghamton next season.

With the Sens second 4th round pick they acquired the year before, they went seriously off the board, like BC Tier II off the board. Derek Grant was an intriguing prospect, a tall playmaking centre who was coming off a 63 points in 57 game season with the Langley Chiefs of the BCHL (the same league as Kyle Turris had been discovered in). After being drafted by the Sens, Grant played another season with Langley and promptly put up monstrous numbers (60 points in 35 games) that couldn‘t help be noticed, lower tier league or not. He then attended Michigan State for the next two years and acquitted himself very well there, being almost a point per game player there in both years. After his sophomore year, he came out of college and signed his entry level deal with the Sens just in time to join Bingo for the end of their season and the playoffs. Despite his inexperience, Grant fit into the lineup very seamlessly, playing large minutes during the playoff push while the bulk of the B-Sens forwards were still up in Ottawa finishing off the NHL season. Once the playoffs began, Grant contributed nicely during the 1st round, even scoring a key overtime goal in Game 2. After the 1st round, a minor injury and the return of other veterans to the lineup relegated him to the press box but he should be a large part of the Bingo roster next year when he truly begins his pro career.

The Sens went local in the 5th round, taking Kanata native and Smith Falls Bears defenseman Mark Borowiecki. For some reason, Borowiecki didn’t plan on attending the draft in his hometown but after finding out online that he had been taken by the Sens, he rushed down to SBP to meet the brass. He of course was greeted at the draft table by new Senator Erik Karlsson who (and this still amuses me to no end) immediately after being drafted, had taken up residence alongside the scouting staff at the table for the remainder of the weekend and mentioned to absolutely anyone who ventured near him  “Hi, I’m Erik Karlsson, 1st round pick of the Senators”. Borowiecki is a rock solid defensive defenseman who was yet another Sens draftee slated to go to the NCAA (Clarkson). Borowiecki was considered a bit of a long shot at the time but in his time at Clarkson, developed quickly into a major contributor on their team and this past year, after his Junior season he also signed his ELC with the Sens and immediately went to Bingo to help with depleted blueline. Borowiecki immediately earned the respect of his coach Kurt Kleinendorst and as the Calder Cup playoffs progressed, he played large minutes and was depended on immensely. Even as some of the injured defensemen returned to the lineup, Kleinendorst couldn’t find a way to take Borowiecki off the ice, dressing him for 21 of the 23 playoff games. Borowiecki will be yet another promising rookie member of the B-Sens next year.

With their final pick in the 7th round, the Sens went back to an Anders Forsberg recommendation again to draft Emil Sandin from Brynas in the SEL. Sandin is a small, quick forward who seemed to show some promise in the year after being drafted but has since really fallen off the map for a variety of reasons. He currently is having a hard time even getting ice time in the SEL and has moved to a different club this past year. Obviously stranger things have happened but I’m willing to go ahead and make the call that puts him in the bust category. But hey, it’s a 7th round pick and 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, right Anders?

So all in all, a very successful draft that could become even more monumental if the careers of Wiercioch, Petersson, Grant and Borowiecki continue to flourish. Even without those players considered, grabbing two full time NHLer’s in Karlsson and Smith is already a major step in the right direction.

So in analyzing the draft strategy from 2008, three trends seem to emerge as to where the Sens were looking to source their prospects: Tier II or USHL North Americans set to attend the NCAA (continuing with the previous regime’s successful practice), overage CHL players who were coming out breakout seasons, and of course, Sweden. Add the Winchester NCAA free agent signing from a couple months prior and Murray’s future strategy appeared clear. These tendencies would take hold again in future years. Stay tuned for the next instalment, 2009: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.