With the much-anticipated 2011 Entry Draft taking place in less than a month (June 24/25), this a great opportunity to review Bryan Murray’s draft history with the Sens in order to get a sense of how he’s done with acquiring the future pieces as part of this rebuilding phase of the franchise. It could also give us a few clues as to who the brass may be looking at this June.
So, with this entry I will look at Murray’s first draft as GM of the Sens: 2007. Now, this could be a somewhat conflicted choice as Murray was promoted from coach to GM less than 2 weeks prior to this draft and much of his predecessor’s scouting staff was in place and making the recommendations. Indeed, often the Murray clan will claim that 2008 draft was their first “real” draft. However, for the sake of argument, since he was the main man in charge at the time, I will include this draft under his tenure. Each subsequent entry will look at following year’s draft until we make our way up to 2011.
But before I begin, a quick accounting of what Bryan Murray was dealing with in terms of a prospect base when he took the reigns. As we are all aware, John Muckler didn’t have the best record when it came to replenishing the cupboard of prospects the previous management groups had done such a good job stocking. Muckler was in “win-now” mode and that meant that you were adding pieces for the big team and subtracting future assets in order to make that happen. So, goodbye Tim Gleason (for Bryan Smolinski) and Jacub Klepis (for Vaclav Varada). See you later Alexandre Giroux (for Greg DeVries), Brooks Laich (for Peter Bondra) and Brandon Bochenski (for Tyler Arnason). Not all of these players were going to be NHL fixtures but they all at the very least could have helped strengthen the AHL team which quickly fell into a state of disrepair. It didn’t help that the one deal Muckler was forced to make for future assets (Martin Havlat) brought back little in the way of tangible assets (oh Josh Hennessy and Michael Barinka, where are you now?)
One major mistake of the John Muckler/Frank Jay drafting regime is fairly evident when looking through those years. Those draft lists are absolutely littered with Russians. Crawling with them. Looking back, it was fairly obvious that the Sens had a highly placed scout in Russia (Boris Shagas) who Jay trusted implicitly (much like Anders Forsberg has currently been utilized by the Murray group). This means that the Sens drafted at least 1 (and often more) Russians each year of Muckler’s run. Check out this list:
Many of these players were actually pretty decent prospects but the Sens’ downfall was that none of them appeared to be especially keen on coming to North America and being developed. They were especially reluctant to be anywhere near the AHL and the ones who did give it a shot, quickly decided it wasn’t for them and returned back home. A major strategic blunder that obviously Bryan Murray took to heart when he was put in charge.
One strategy that Muckler and Jay employed that was not immediately evident was their drafting of USHL or Canadian Tier II players destined to go to the NCAA and thus, not become pros for a number of years. This hurt Binghamton’s short term pipeline but in recent years has started to bear fruit. Erik Condra, Colin Greening and Eric Gryba were all drafted under the regime and fans have only now seen their emergence as pro players (in fact both Condra and Greening were mere 7th rounders). Add to that group a handful of Canadian and European prospects that still are in the organization (Cody Bass, Peter Regin, Roman Wick, Kaspars Daugavins and Nick Foligno) and you basically have what kind of work Murray had to do at the draft table in order to rebuild the prospect base.
Hey, a whole recounting of the Muckler drafting regime and not even a mention of the Brian Lee disaster? That’s been rehashed to death so let’s just pretend that never happened shall we?
So, in 2007, Bryan Murray walked into the job (coming off a Cup Finals appearance) and had to figure out what to do next. In terms of draft picks available to him, he was down a 6th rounder in the 2007 draft (as a result of the monumental Andy Hedlund + a 6th rounder for Lawrence Nycholat deal) and up an extra 7th rounder as a result of the Oleg Saprykin trade at the deadline which gave them this pick in addition to Saprykin in exchange for a 2nd rounder in 2008. This 2008 2nd rounder was their own pick but they had acquired an extra one from Chicago in the Havlat deal (more on that one next entry).
Frank Jay was nominally in charge of the scouting staff at the time (Murray got his own people in place later that year and Jay went to the Habs which is where every single former Sens hockey operations staff member goes after they get fired by the Sens). Jay however was very ill at the time of his draft and did not attend but he had already submitted his recommendations and it appears that the Sens did draft according to them.
As a result of their Finals appearance, the Sens drafted 2nd last in every round which wasn’t especially helpful either.
With their 1st round pick (29th overall), the Sens took Jim O’Brien from the University of Minnesota. Most fans are aware of the journey Jimmy has taken through the organization since that time. The thing that struck me on the day he was drafted was that when interviewed, he sounded like a hill person. But I put that aside because not all hockey players need to be rocket scientists like Joe Juneau in order to succeed. O’Brien’s size and skating will always make him a tantalizing prospect but he seemed to be floundering while at Minnesota (they were switching him between forward and defence to help find him more ice time) and then later when he left the NCAA and went to the WHL. His first year in Bingo (2008-09) was especially terrible and he played himself into a healthy scratch on some nights later in the year. However, something magical seemed to happen when the Sens brass had their exit interview with him and in no uncertain terms that if he showed up to camp next year with the same work ethic and lack of production, that he was going to be out of the organization. He actually took those words to heart and came to camp a different man.
It was a rare case where a prospect on his way out got himself back into the conversation by sheer force of will. So kudos to him for turning that corner. It remains to be seen whether he will become a full time NHLer (I’m not completely sold on him yet) but his strong AHL season lay the foundation and if he continues to progress, his size and skating will be a welcome addition to the NHL club. He will be given every opportunity to compete for a spot next year with the Sens but it’s probably more likely that he goes back to Bingo for another season in order to prepare to take the next step.
In the 2nd round, a little piece of history took place. The Sens drafted forward Ruslan Bashkirov and you can mark that down as the last time they drafted anyone from Russia. Since Murray signed an extension recently, it’s probably a good bet that there won’t be another one for a while yet. Any goodwill that Murray had left for this strategy was most likely stripped away and stomped on by his experience with this pick. It is also their Russian’s scout Boris Shagas’ (entirely well-meaning I’m sure) final fuck you to the organization. After picking him, Murray rationalized the pick by saying that there was a difference with this guy because he was already here in North America playing Junior hockey and was quite comfortable with the physical nature of the game and the smaller ice surface. He had also expressed his desire to be an NHL player. However, almost immediately, Murray realized that he had been duped and he was having to deal with a slightly unhinged father/agent who also wanted the team to sign the undrafted (and less talented) twin brother Roman so that the two of them could play together. After the Sens balked at this, the Bashkirovs took their ball and went home to Russia, spending several seasons with varying levels of success in the KHL.
An interesting footnote to this pick came last off-season when the Sens unexpectedly got a call from Bashkirov asking them if he could attend their annual prospects camp in June in order to audition for a job. The Sens happily took him up on the offer, he attended and after looking just “ok” in the camp, the Sens approached him to ask if he would be interested in signing a contract and starting the year in the AHL. Bashkirov shrugged his shoulders and basically said “not really” left and has not been heard from since. I am reluctant to label any of these players “busts” at too early a stage but I am more than comfortable in including Bashkirov among the small handful of “busts” Murray has on his draft resume with the Sens. Who else is on the list? Stay tuned to future entries….
In the 3rd round, the Sens selected Louie Caporusso from Tier II Toronto who was slated to attend Michigan. Apparently, this was a pick Frank Jay was adamant about the Sens taking. Caporusso is a smaller centre with great hands and a knack for finding the net. He attended a strong Michigan program and flourished there playing 4 years and graduating this year after leading them to the Frozen Four . His sophomore season there was especially impressive and he has often been mentioned as one of the top players in the NCAA. His last two seasons, while still very impressive, were perceived rightly or wrongly as a more of a plateau from his breakout sophomore season as opposed to an improvement on it. He still has a very good chance of becoming a high end prospect and has just signed his ELC with the Sens which means he will be part of the influx of new rookies to Bingo next year to help replenish the ransacking that will surely occur from the big club next year of some of their best forwards. There was a little concern over whether he would sign before the August 15th deadline this summer because unlike the other Sens NCAA prospects, he did not immediately sign after his college season ended but obviously there were just some tougher negotiations taking place and he is now a bonafide member of the organization.
In the 4th round, the Sens went back to the NCAA route and took defenseman Ben Blood who was in the USHL and eventually attended the University of North Dakota (another strong hockey program). I think as a Sens fan, I am not alone in saying that this guy needs to be in the NHL simply because his name is too awesome to keep out of the league (I can already imagine the Ottawa Sun headline writers and all their witty puns that would result). Awesome name aside, Blood does appear to be a very strong prospect who has progressed very well through his NCAA career. He is known as a big (6’4, 230) defenseman who isn’t overly physical but uses his body well. On UND, he runs the PP and is known for his soft hands but at the pro level, he projects to be a more defensive defenseman (much more similar to Sens prospect Mark Borowiecki). He has led the team to the Frozen Four this past season and at the end of the announced that he would be returning for his Senior year after which he will presumably then sign with the Sens and start his pro career at Bingo. Another very intriguing prospect to add to the pipeline.
After this pick, the Sens did something which I wish more teams did. They just looked at what was left on the board, decided it wasn’t overly impressive and packed it in for the day by dealing their remaining 5th rounder and two 7th rounders to Tampa for a 4th rounder in the 2008 draft. I’m sure part of the reasoning had to do with their scouting staff not being in place, but it was an interesting move nevertheless.
I hoped you enjoyed my debut column and you come back to read my review of 2008 when I’ll go back and relive Bryan Murray’s first “real” draft.