The Ottawa Senators hold the No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 NHL draft on Friday night.
In most situations this would be seen as a big opportunity for a struggling team to potentially find an impact player and perhaps a franchise building block.
This, however, is not most situations.
Before the Senators decide which prospect they might be adding to their mess of a franchise they have another pretty big decision to make; A decision that will not only impact the future of a teenage hockey player, but also the potential direction of two franchises.
They have to decide if they are actually going to keep the pick or send it to the Colorado Avalanche.
Part of the package the Senators sent to the Avalanche in this past season’s Matt Duchene trade was a conditional first-round draft pick. The Condition on the pick was simple. The Senators get to choose whether they send the Avalanche their 2018 first-round pick or their 2019 first-round pick. When the Senators made the trade they were just a few months removed from a trip to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals where they were a double overtime goal on the road from reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
They had every intention of making the playoffs again and were probably assuming their decision regarding the 2018 first-round pick would revolve around a pick that was much later in the draft. Instead, the bottom fell out on the Senators’ 2017 Cinderella story and the team finished what would turn out to be a disastrous campaign with one of the worst records in the league. Things have only managed to get much worse for the organization after the season ended.
At first glance, the easy answer here for the Senators might be to keep the guaranteed No. 4 overall pick and hope the 2018-19 season goes better, leaving the Avalanche with a later pick in the draft. After all, giving up a top-five pick is no small thing and is not an easy thing to sell to your players or fanbase. You should be planning on getting a potential All-Star there.
Every indication is that the Senators are going to do just that. Back in April general manager Pierre Dorion said they were keeping the pick, while Sportsnet’s Chris Johnson reported on Wednesday that still seems to be the case.
The Senators should not do this.
As difficult as it might be, the smart play here for Ottawa is to just take the painful hit that is giving up a top-five pick, send it to Colorado right now, and just get the entire thing over with.
The problem for the Senators is there is a very real possibility the 2018-19 season is going to go even worse than this past season did. That means the 2019 first-round pick could be even higher than fourth overall.
Let’s consider the big picture here.
First, there is nothing to indicate that the 2017-18 season struggles for the Senators were a fluke.
They were every bit as bad as their record would indicate and they earned that dismal 67-point output.
If anything, the outlier was the 2016-17 season when they went on their stunning run through the Eastern Conference playoffs. That team was consistently beaten in the possession game and was carried by great goaltending and a superhuman performance in the playoffs by Erik Karlsson. Anyone paying attention to the way that team played had to know that for as magical as their playoff run was, the whole thing was a house of cards always teetering on the edge of a collapse.
The collapse happened this past season.
The Senators not only finished with the second-worst record in the league, they were once again completely decimated when it came the possession game finishing as a 47.2 Corsi team, the third-worst mark in the NHL. Something to keep in mind about that number is that over the past five seasons there have been 23 teams that finished a season with a Corsi number of 47.2 or worse. Out of that group, only six of them came back the next season and improved their point total, and one of them was the 2014-15 Sabres who quite literally had nowhere to go but up after finishing an 82-game season with only 52 points.
But it’s not just from a statistical standpoint that things look bleak for the Senators’ chances next season.
Consider what the roster could look like.
Derick Brassard is already gone having been traded at the deadline to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Mike Hoffman, one of their leading scorers from this past season, has already been traded this summer. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Erik Karlsson, Bobby Ryan, and Zack Smith could also all be dealt in the coming days and weeks.
Even if all three return there is not much reason for optimism that things are going to go better.
If any of them go (or even if just Karlsson goes) then the team could potentially bottom out this season.
The downside to giving up the pick is that it sends a message to the players still on the roster that management thinks they are going to be worse than they were a year ago.
But if Karlsson goes — on top of all of the other subtractions that have been made in recent months — they have to know that is a possible, if not likely, outcome anyway.
It also removes what could be a season-long distraction as the standings get watched on a nightly basis as everyone looks at what potential pick will be going to Colorado.
The reality with the Senators is this: The franchise has turned into a complete disaster and it is quite possible that it has yet to reach rock bottom on the ice.
It probably needs to go all in on a teardown right now and start from scratch (preferably with a new owner, too). If that happens the 2018-19 team is going to sink to Ted Murray “tank for McDavid” Sabres levels. That means potentially giving up would could truly be a franchise changing player in the long run if they put off the decision to send a first-round pick to Colorado until next year.
Take the hit. Give up the pick this year. Start the rebuild and hope that the lottery balls fall in your favor next season.