The Bryan Murray Draft Adventure Part 3: If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it (2009)

Returning to the ongoing look at Bryan Murray’s draft history with the Senators brings me to 2009, the year in which many of the trends established the year before crystallized in a definitive fashion.

But before examining the 2009 draft, as always just as was done in Part 1 and Part 2, it is important to contextualize exactly where the Sens franchise was sitting at that moment in time.  And there was no question that the sitting was not pretty.  The Sens were coming off a year where they had missed the playoffs for the first time since Bill Clinton was president.  It was the aborted Craig Hartsburg regime that actually had forced me to remember the Dave “Sparky” Allison era as a comparatively awful head coaching display with this franchise.  A relatively unknown Cory Clouston had been promoted from Bingo to finish out the season after Hartsburg got mercy canned.  Hartsburg was a mistake hire and couldn’t seem to motivate the core to do anything or get the team to play with any sense of cohesion.  Clouston laid down the hammer somewhat when he came on and gotsome better results.  Players seemed to respond to his system and the newfound accountability (with one massive exception).

Murray’s moves going back to the previous off-season were a little schizophrenic.  He was attempting to patch some of the growing holes in the roster withestablished veterans but he was also attempting to rebuild the prospect base at the same time.  This led to some strange moves which tried to maintain the best of both worlds but ended up accomplishing neither.  The lack of cap space available (given the large amount of salary devoted to his star core players) handcuffed his ability to retool very much on July 1st.  There was roughly about $5 million in cap space available to him to fill the holes on forward, defense and  backup goalie now that Ray Emery had been bought out and Martin Gerber was the anointed starterby default.  So this led to the underwhelming signings of Jason Smith, Jarko Ruutu and Alex Auld which very much proved the adage “you get what you pay for”.

To top it off, now he was going to have to make decisions on some younger depth players who were RFA’s and looking for significant raises which the team couldn’t really afford to dole out.  The team had soured somewhat on Andrej Meszaros and he was asking for too much so they dealt him in the offseason for an established defenseman in Filip Kuba, a young d-man who could play in the NHL right away in Alex Picard as well as a 1st round pick(which belonged to the Sharks which virtually guaranteed it would be near the bottom of the round).  Murray of course later dealt the 1st rounder near the deadline along with spare part Dean McAmmond for another go with Mike Comrie (which was not a great idea in retrospect) and yet another young defenseman Chris Campoli.  This was presumably Murray’s way to insert younger players into the lineup that he did not have available because of the lack of any real prospect depth at the AHL level.

Unlike Meszaros, fellow RFA Antoine Vermette did end up being re-signed in the offseason but then Murray decided he needed to be sacrificed later on that year in order to bring in the all important number 1 goalie Pacal Leclaire (another swing and a miss by the Sens organization in their neverending search for a reliable netminder).  When looking back at the move, it does feel a little ominous that Leclaire didn’t even play for the Sens for the remainder of the year after being dealt as he was recovering from ankle surgery (lesson hopefully learned: no damaged goods in the future please). That trade though did also yield a 2nd round pick which the Sens would put to good use in the draft.

In taking a look at the prospect depth, the Sens were not much further along than they way the year before.  Nick Foligno was the only young player of note that was able to crack the lineup fulltime and there didn’t appear to be much short term help coming.  Erik Karlsson was the one exception after putting together a terrific year in the SEL and the World Juniors.  Both Zack Smith and Peter Regin had nice rookie seasons in Bingo and would eventually be pushing their way into the NHL at some point in the future as well.  Promising defensive prospects like Eric Gryba and Patrick Wiercioch were not far enough along in their development to get a clear read on yet.

So the Sens went into the 2009 draft with needs pretty much across the board.  Luckily, thanks to their ineptitude on the ice,  they had a nice high slot to draft from (9th overall) for the first time in quite a while.  They also had an extra 2nd rounder courtesy of the Vermette deal as well as an extra 5th rounder as a result of dealing Brian McGrattan to Phoenix (a near miracle of a return really if you consider that players who could actually skate as well as receive and give passes like Jarko Ruutu and Alexei Kovalev went for no more than 6th and 7th rounders this past year).  The Sens were down their 3rd rounder because of their trade to move up and snag Karlsson the year previous.

It was made very clear in the 2008 draft that the Sens favoured prospects from 3 distinct sources:

  1. Cdn Tier II or USHL players slated to go to the NCAA and develop at a slower pace
  2. Overage CHL players coming off big years that were more mature prospects closer to the pro level and might be considered late bloomers
  3. Swedes (lots of Swedes)

Pretty much everyone else need not apply.  They adhered to this list again in 2009 with one exception.  When you are drafting in the Top 10, you go with Best Player Available and in the Sens mind, this was clearly WHL defenseman Jared Cowen who at one point earlier in the year was rankedinside the Top 5 but had fallen to them because of a serious knee injury that had sidelined him for the 2nd half of the season.  They felt strongly enough about his potential to overlook the injury and work with him at a slower pace.  Because of his immense size, it is hard not to make Zdeno Chara comparisons which would be especially relevant to the Sens brass who had painfully watched the previous regime walk away from.  Cowen’s development is well known by the vast majority of Sens fans and after finally finishing his Junior career in Spokane with a dominant season, he did not look out of place at all when inserted into Bingo’s lineup right in the middle of their Calder Cup run.  Cowen is almost a shoe-in to be on the NHL roster next season (only the log jam of guaranteed contracts that currently exists could possibly hold him back).  It is too early to project what he will become but it would be a relatively safe assumption that his size, mobility and shot should ensure him at the very least, a spot as a Top 4 defenseman in the NHL with the potential to be a dominant shut down defender as well.

A footnote to this pick is that it probably would have gone a different way if the Leafs had not taken Nazem Kadri two spots ahead of the Senators as it was clear he was a player the Sens coveted.  It may be a little early to be making pronouncements about Kadri’s value but I say: bullet dodged.

With their 2nd round pick, the Sens went to their secret weapon Anders Forsberg and took his recommendation to draft winger Jakob Silfverberg from Sweden.  After being drafted, Silfverberg had been flying a little under the radar with many Sens fans up until this past year when he started to make some noise in the SEL playing against men and putting up strong numbers.  The Sens had been attempting to lure Silfverberg over to North America for a while but he was quite adament that although playing in the NHL was his ultimate dream, he only wanted to come over when he felt he was fully ready to step right into the NHL lineup and contribute (bypassing the AHL andplayingin his home country until then).  The Sens finally signed him last month but they agreed to let him play one more season in the SEL before coming to Ottawa next year.  Silfverberg projects to be a 2nd line winger withavery polished 2-way game.  In my limited viewings of him to this point, I tend to compare him to former Sen Magnus Arvedson (pre-intestinal demolishment Arvedson).  This, IMO, is an extreme compliment because The Machine was a force to be reckoned with and a very versatile and valuable member of those Sens squads.

In what may end up being a defining pick for the long suffering fans of this elite goaltender-deprived franchise, the Sens used the 2ndround pick acquired in the Antoine Vermette deal to take Swedish goaltender (and Forsberg-touted) Robin LehnerLehner is a beast of a man who has the confidence of a comic book villain.  He can be hillariously brash in his unfiltered comments but as he matures and is moulded, his attitude and work ethic will only enhance his already strong technical skills and size.  Immediately after being drafted, he came over to North America to play in the CHL as a junior.  He was dominant and carried an otherwise brutal Sault Ste. Marie team that season.  After turning pro at the age of 19, he had a very trying season of adjustment where he flipped from the AHL to the NHL (as an emergency callup) to the World Juniors, never playing anywhere for long enough to get in a real groove (especially at the start of the season when nagging injuries and work visa issues derailed him).  But he bided his time and when the AHL playoffs got underway and he needed to step in for incumbent Barry Brust, he took the ball and ran with it all the way to the Calder Cup.  His play solidified his standing as the Sens goalie of the future and it should be only a matter of time before he’s pushing Craig Anderson for the #1 job in Ottawa.

With their 4th round pick, the Sens went the NCAA route by taking offensive defenseman Chris Wideman from the University of Miami (Ohio).  Wideman had put up 26 points in 39 games in his freshman season and has continued to put up similar point totals in his sophomore and junior years.  Wideman is an undersized defenseman (around the same frame as fellow offensive defenseman Karlsson) who skates and moves the puck very well.  His size will hold him back somewhat but he has been a very effective player in the NCAA thus far and will develop in the AHL once his college days are done.  As it stands, he is slated to return for his Senior year at Miami next year.

Remembering how well the Zack Smith gamble had worked out for them the year before, the Sens went back to the overage well and took Drummondville centre Mike Hoffman with their first pick in the 5th round.  Hoffman was an interesting case because his junior career had taken a while to get going.  Starting in the OHL with Kitchener, he soon left for the QMJHL in search of more icetime and a larger role.  In his draft year, he split time between Gatineau and Drummondville and did not do enough to be noticed by any NHL teams despite putting up half decent offensive numbers.  The following year, he blossomed in Drummondville, scoring 52 goals and 94 points.  The Sens noticed the output and decided to expend a pick on him.  He rewarded their faith in him by duplicating his numbers the following season as a Saint John Sea Dog and won the QMJHL MVP in the process.  This past year, his transition to being a pro has been somewhat rocky.  He struggled to find ice time in Bingo and even spent some time in the ECHL earlier in the season.  As the season continued on, some things started to click for him and he began to gain Kurt Kleinendorst’s confidence.  His icetime and role increased and was especially noticeable during the playoffs.  Because of his outstanding shot and release, Hoffman was often positioned as the pointman on the powerplay and was very effective in that role.  Next year, he should continue to develop in the AHL.  His shot and his hands will always make him a candidate for an NHL job but he will need to work on the other parts of his game before being able to break through to the next level.

With their second 5th rounder (acquired for Brian McGrattan), the Sens took winger Jeff Costello playing in Cedar Rapids of the USHL (the same team Chris Wideman had been on before leaving for the NCAA).  Costello spent an additional season at Cedar Rapids before playing his freshman season with Notre Dame this past season.  Costello is a physical winger who likes to get his nose dirty but can also put the puck in the net (he was a top scorer in the USHL and managed to net 12 goals as a freshman at Notre Dame).  His physical dimensions andstyleare very similar  to those of Chris Neil if you’re looking for a comparable.  It remains to be seen what kind of prospect he will ultimately become but he will certainly work on his game at the NCAA before making the move to be a pro.  Slide him into the long term project category with the acknowledgement that he hasn’t disappointed thus far.

Local fans were very familiar with the Sens 6th round pick.  Corey Cowick from the 67’s was yet another overager the Sens decided to take on.   Helped in part by a glowing recommendation from Brian Kilrea who is a very close friend of  both Murray and Cyril Leeder, the Sens were not under any illusions that they were taking a guy with big point potential.  What attracted the scouting staff to Cowick was his work ethic and physicality.  He is the prototypical heart and soul player and Murray was a big proponent of filling thier prospect pool with players of this ilk.  After finishing up his junior career with the 67’s (where he sustained a major injury that wiped out almost his whole year), Cowick signed on as a pro this past season and started the season with Bingo.  Like Hoffman, Cowick struggled for icetime and a role with the B-Sens but unlike Hoffman, he was unable to force his way back into the lineup.  He spent a large part of the season in the ECHL just so he could get minutes.  As he is not the most skilled player in the organization, he will need to do the things that made him desirable to the Sens well so that he can continue his pro development in Bingo next year.  A big offseason to strengthen his skating and core is a must.

In the 7th round, the Sens did something a little curious at first glance.  They took a USHL forward who had not played a game that year due to illness.  That in itself was not the curious part, it was the player’s name.  Brad Peltz was the son of Nelson Peltz, Snapple owner and fellow billionaire who had once looked into purchasing the Sens before Eugene Melnyk rode in on his white horse.  So was this a solid from billionaire to billionaire or was this kid an actual legit prospect?  We may never know the answer because Brad Peltz has not played enough since then to make any kind of determination.  At the time he was drafted, it was reported that he could indeed be a viable prospect should he recover from his mysterious illness but at this point, he has not recovered fully so this will have to be marked as an incomplete verging on the edge of “bust” category (although with 7th rounders, can you label anyone a bust?).  Peltz just completed his freshman year at Yale but only played 1 game all season because of illness.  But hey, in that 1 game, he got a goal and an assist.  So who the hell knows right?

And finally, the Sens made another late draft curious move by immediately after taking Peltz finding a way to trade for the very next pick (they traded their 6th rounder in the following year).  So obviously there was someone still on the board who they wanted to ensure they grabbed.  Michael Sdao is a big, hulking defenseman who was yet another USHL player set to attend the NCAA.  Sdao (6’4, 220) racked up a ton of PIM’s in his two USHL seasons and was not adverse to dropping the gloves on a regular basis.  But going to the NCAA, where fighting does not take place would be a new challenge for Sdao.  At Princeton, Sdao has blossomed into a very effective defensive defenseman.  His PIM’s are still substantial but nowhere near what they were in highschool.  He is a lethal open ice  hitter andhas led Princeton in hits in both his first 2 seasons there.  He will never be considered an offensive defenseman but he does possess a bomb of a shot that could serve him well as a pro.  He will remain at Princeton for the foreseeable future and would be looked at as a long term project.  But a very interesting one at that.  A 7th rounder that the Sens felt strongly enough about to trade for.

When evaluating the drafts like these that have come so relatively recently, it is very hard to make any kind of finite conclusion about the merits of the draft class because not enough time has expired yet to know exactly what you’ve got.  But just on the basis of the progress of many of the picks alone, it would not be going too far out on a limb to say that the 2009 draft haul looks very promising for the Sens.  One encouraging measure is that in both the 2008 and 2009 drafts, it has been a rare occasion when there hasn’t been a significant step up from each draftee the year after being brought into the fold.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of this series as I wrap up the 2010 draft and look forward to this year’s possible trends and probablilities.