The NHL draft lottery has the potential to be a franchise-altering date in the history of the Ottawa Senators.
General manager Pierre Dorion already has his good-luck charm picked out.
The Ottawa Senators general manager will be holding a cherished family keepsake in his pocket on Friday, June 26 in the hopes of landing the first-overall selection in the draft. Dorion’s father, Pierre Dorion Sr., was the chief amateur scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs when he passed away suddenly just before the 1994 NHL Draft.
Dorion is hoping his close relationship with his late father will bring some good fortune to his hockey club next month.
“I think we developed a real close bond together in our last few years together playing golf. That day, I can tell you I have his old golf glove that I’m going to keep with me all day on the 26th,” Dorion told TSN 1200. “And hopefully it brings us good luck to the Ottawa Senators and our fans are really happy about it.”
Some good luck coming Ottawa’s way would represent a sharp plot twist, as the hockey gods have failed to dispense any good fortune onto the franchise over the past three seasons. Their cataclysmic fall from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2017 to the bottom of the NHL standings has been well-documented.
The Senators have finished no higher than 30th overall in any of the past three campaigns and the fan base has grown impatient at the thought of another season languishing at the bottom of the standings
And while the rebuild has been moving at a glacial pace, next month’s draft lottery has the potential to accelerate the process.
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was quoted this week as saying the upcoming NHL Draft “will be the most transformational in our club’s history.”
When the organization started the rebuild in February of 2018, virtually every subsequent decision was made with an eye towards a deep 2020 draft.
“We knew this would be a deep draft and we were going to stockpile picks,” Dorion said.
At worst, the Senators would be selecting twice in the top six. But a more optimistic view could see the Senators land both the No. 1 and No. 2 selections – a scenario that is certainly plausible with Ottawa also holding San Jose’s first-round pick.
Not since the Vancouver Canucks manoeuvred to get the Sedin Twins in the 1999 NHL Draft has a team had two picks in the top three. With a good core of young, talented players already in the system, the Senators could set themselves up for years of success with two more blue-chip prospects.
There was much consternation in this marketplace about how the draft lottery would play out, with many fans convinced the Senators would end up with the short end of the stick if the NHL bent the rules on its format. While there will be some play-in teams eligible to land the No. 1 overall selection, Dorion is satisfied with the way the draft lottery will be conducted.
“We’re happy with it. We’re going in with the same odds,” Dorion said. “Whether it’s one and two or five and six, we know we’ve got two good players coming to the Ottawa Senators for a long time to come.”
Even if the Senators land the top two selections, it’s not a foregone conclusion on which two players they will select. Dorion and his assistant general manager Peter MacTavish have regular Zoom meetings with chief scout Trent Mann and his amateur staff. The group has still not finalized its internal draft ranking list – a process that might still be open for debate for the foreseeable future.
“The one thing we have on our side is time. We know the draft won’t be for quite a few months,” Dorion explained. “It’s such an important time that we’re going to take time to build as good a list as possible.”
The Senators also hold the New York Islanders' first-round selection by virtue of the Jean-Gabriel Pageau trade at the deadline in February. Depending on how the Islanders fare in the return-to-play format, the pick could end up as high as No. 13 overall.
Ottawa also has a total of nine selections in the first three rounds, which gives Dorion plenty of flexibility to make trades. But the general manager cautioned against using some of those assets to acquire immediate help on the NHL roster.
“We have to think about the plan. When you’re trying to build a championship-calibre team, you know that at certain times that probably making a pick is the smarter decision than trading for a short-term asset that won’t be beneficial to you when you’re competing for the Cup,” Dorion said.
The Senators believe they will take a step forward next season – ideally moving out of the basement of the NHL standings and maybe into the middle of the pack. But Dorion stopped well short of saying the 2020-21 edition of the Senators could be a playoff team.
“We’re going to field a very competitive team next year,” Dorion said. “But we don’t feel like you should put a timeline on the playoffs. We feel it’s going to start paying dividends next year.”
Of course, there is a question as to when the 2020-21 NHL regular season is actually going to start. Some estimates have pegged January as a realistic start date, which means the Senators might go nearly 10 months between playing games.
Dorion acknowledged he’s been in communication with the league office about levelling the playing field for teams like Ottawa. Ideas being floated include allowing the seven non-playoff teams to play some exhibition games against each other at some point in the next six months to allow them to stay sharp. Another possibility would be to allow those teams to hold a training camp and internal scrimmages in the months ahead.
“They knew 24 teams will have a certain advantage going into next season. They’ll have to look into the matter of the seven teams who aren’t playing and there’s going to be some kind of solution found where we can be on an even playing field,” Dorion said. “It’s a different world. It’s a different off-season. I’m sure the league has thought about this. They’ll find a way to make sure it works.”
Towards the end of the regular season, Dorion admitted he was playing the virtual draft lottery simulator on his phone each morning while he had his cup of coffee. He would run the simulator as many times as needed for his team to end up with the No. 1 selection. Some days it would take a half-dozen spins; other times it would come up Ottawa on the very first try.
Dorion stopped that practice over the past few weeks, but after Gary Bettman formally announced the draft lottery plans on Wednesday, he admitted he was back to using the simulator.
“I ran it every day this week. Now, I just run it once [daily] and I see where we end up,” Dorion said. “And hopefully on June 26 it’s something that all our fans can be excited about and get behind.”