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Why Senators should give Avalanche their first pick this year

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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.

[Related: Senators trade Hoffman for underwhelming return]

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.

Related: Senators face long odds in ‘winning’ Erik Karlsson trade

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

WATCH LIVE: Bruins-Leafs deadlocked; Avs try to finish off Flames

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Game 5: Boston Bruins at Toronto Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
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Call: Mike Emrick, Brian Boucher, Mike Milbury
Series preview
Stream here

Game 5: Calgary Flames at Colorado Avalanche, 10 p.m. ET (Avalanche lead 3-1)
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Call: Gord Miller, Ray Ferraro
Series preview 
Stream here

NHL Live, hosted by Mike Tirico, Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Red Wings rebuild won’t be easy, but Yzerman is right GM choice

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Detroit Red Wings fans are right to rejoice. While the move’s been telegraphed for a while, this is indeed a good Friday for the Red Wings, as Steve Yzerman was officially named as their next GM.

Whether it was convincing Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman to sign team-friendly deals, or identifying the league’s general prejudice against smaller players to unearth draft day bargains, Yzerman* did such a great job with the Tampa Bay Lightning, that I’ve called him a magician and/or wizard on multiple occasions.

Even if you’re a vociferous defender of Ken Holland’s latter, sometimes-rebuild-resistant years, chances are, you’re probably very excited about Yzerman’s hiring. The team announced official titles for both Yzerman and Holland, if you like your updates especially granular.

So, to me and plenty others – not just Red Wings fans – this is a shrewd hire.

Still, if there’s one talking point that stands out as especially valid, it’s this: when Yzerman took over the Lightning, he already had an elite center in Steven Stamkos, and a future Norris-winning defenseman in Victor Hedman.

All due respect to Dylan Larkin (who had a strong season, and is only 22) and some other nice players, but the Red Wings don’t have foundational players at quite that superstar level. They do, however, have a pretty interesting setup. If Yzerman is as bright as he seemed to be in Tampa Bay, the Red Wings could really turn things around. All they need is some luck and patience.

Let’s get an idea of the path ahead for Yzerman.

On a Larkin

Look, there’s no shame in Larkin not being quite what Stamkos was in 2010, when Stevie Y took over in Tampa Bay. It’s easy to forget just how potent Stamkos was (the NHL’s most goals [156] and second-most points [283] from 2009-10 to 2010-11), possibly because a few catastrophic injuries briefly derailed his career.

Larkin is fantastic, and stands as the sort of contract you’d build around: a 22-year-old star with a bargain $6.1 million cap hit running through 2022-23.

Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi showed great chemistry with Larkin late in the season, with Mantha in particular boasting the sort of pedigree that points to continued success. One of Yzerman’s early challenges will be to strike affordable deals with Mantha, Bertuzzi, and Andreas Athanasiou, three useful forwards whose contracts expire after 2019-20. Would the best deals come in earlier extensions, or would the Red Wings be wiser to wait? It’s up to Yzerman & Co. to decide, and getting good deals could be key if they want to build a winning core.

Early fruits of rebuild

While I’d argue that Holland dragged his feet multiple times when it came to the rebuilding process, the good news is that when Holland did act, he landed some nice building blocks. In trading away Gustav Nyquist, Nick Jensen, and especially Tomas Tatar, the Red Wings have really loaded up on draft picks, most of which land in the top three rounds.

The development processes are already underway for a few interesting prospects, particularly 2018 first-rounders Filip Zadina (sixth overall) and Joe Veleno (30th). The Red Wings once again pick sixth overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, so it’s up to Yzerman to land another blue-chipper, even if Detroit doesn’t get the luxury of a more obvious choice like Jack Hughes or Kappo Kakko.

Almost as important is that the Red Wings have loaded up on picks like they’re at Prospect Costco:

  • Last year, they had those two first-rounders, plus: two second-rounders, and three third-rounders to go with their normal set of choices (minus a fifth-rounder).
  • Via Cap Friendly’s handy chart, the Red Wings have two extra second-round picks and one additional fifth-rounder in 2019.
  • In 2020, they have an extra second and third-round pick. (The third-rounder could turn into a second-rounder depending upon the San Jose Sharks’ actions.)
  • They already have an extra third-rounder in 2021.

That’s a fantastic start, eh? Even the best drafting teams would admit that there’s a lot of “dart throwing” involved in drafting, so it makes sense to load up on those darts, especially when you get the added precision of picks in earlier rounds.

The Lightning were adept at finding quality talent off-the-beaten-path under Yzerman,* most notably identifying Brayden Point as a third-rounder (79th in 2014) and Nikita Kucherov in a second round (58th in 2011). If Yzerman can carry that success over to Detroit, even partially, the Red Wings could really make some exciting leaps.

Cleanup duty

Which brings us to the messier part.

For all of Holland’s accomplishments, he left behind a shaggy salary structure. There’s dead money (Stephen Weiss’ buyout lingers through 2020-21), scary contracts (Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Danny DeKeyser), and, erm, maybe too much of a “veteran presence.”

By that I mean this team is old, at least beyond the core. Niklas Kronwall is 38 with a (mercifully) expiring contract, both Jonathan Ericsson and Trevor Daley are 35, and Mike Green is a very banged-up 33. DeKeyser is oft-criticized and not really a spring chicken, either, at 29.

The goalie duo is also creaky. Jimmy Howard was fantastic in 2018-19, but at 35, it’s still surprising that the Red Wings didn’t trade him, even with the understanding that they’d come calling during free agency time in July. Jonathan Bernier is 30 and his $3M cap hit doesn’t expire until after the 2020-21 season.

Most of those trends are disturbing, and while the Red Wings need more talent basically everywhere, the defense and goaltending likely need the most strenuous surgery.

The good news is that a significant chunk of those contracts aren’t lingering too long after Yzerman takes the reins. Kronwall is headed to free agency (or retirement?), while Ericsson, Green, and Daley come off the books after 2019-20. Howard’s extension only lasts through 2019-20, so maybe Yzerman will get trade value out of the veteran where Holland could or would not.

In the short term, and in the case of a few lengthier deals, there’s a significant mess to clean up. The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t too dim, however.

Some pain for future gains

I’ve seen at least mild arguments to try to win now, with at least a portion of The Athletic’s Craig Custance piece (sub required) mentioning certain surprise stories in the NHL. And, sure, if the goal were only to make it back to the playoffs (and maybe even win a series), then speeding up the rebuild would make sense.

My guess is that mega-winner Stevie Y wants his best chance at a Stanley Cup, not merely getting the Red Wings to the playoff bubble.

The free agent market dries up pretty quickly when you realize that Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky likely wouldn’t find much of a lure to join a rebuilding team in a cold weather city (heck, “Detroiters” even got canceled).

So, instead of chasing mid-tier free agents and settling for mid-tier expectations, Yzerman should use his clout to absorb another rebuild year or two. Doing so would raise the ceiling on this rebuild, for a few reasons:

  • Most directly and obviously, tanking for an even better pick in 2020. If you look at the teams who regularly contend, virtually all of them required high-end talent found early in drafts.
  • Rather than giving valuable playing time to long-in-the-tooth veterans, why not let younger players learn on the job? You might just get an idea of what you have in, say, Michael Rasmussen. Difference-making players are hitting the NHL earlier and earlier, so why not find out which players can actually make a difference?
  • Allow the Red Wings to be a short-term receptacle to clear cap space, with Detroit taking a bribe, whether that means quality draft picks or useful players. See: the Coyotes landing an important scorer in Vinnie Hinostroza in exchange for keeping Marian Hossa‘s contract warm. Yzerman could even call up his buddies in Tampa Bay and offer to absorb the final year of Ryan Callahan‘s contract ($5.8M cap hit). Boy, Anthony Cirelli and/or Mathieu Joseph would look nice with a winged wheel …
  • Going further, getting more cap space means that the Red Wings could position themselves to land better players in trades than they’d likely entice in free agency. Perhaps teams would ready for the expansion draft by sending good, would-be-exposed players to Detroit for something? Maybe the Hurricanes would sour on Dougie Hamilton, or something similar would happen with P.K. Subban, considering his hefty $9M price tag? Could the Red Wings echo former exec Jim Nill in being the next team to say “Why, yes, we’d love to take Tyler Seguin for 25 cents on the dollar, thank you.”

***

This isn’t an easy job, and again, some of this comes down to luck. Still, it’s easy to see why Red Wings fans are excited.

Make no mistake about it, though: Yzerman has his work cut out for him. It could be the fun sort of work that you’d get from tinkering with a car in the garage, and it should be fascinating for those of us who are dorks when it comes to studying how teams are put together.

* – And his staff, including current GM Julien BriseBois. We could have a lengthy, basically impossible-to-resolve discussion about who was most responsible for the great building in Tampa Bay, but it would be pretty fruitless. And, really, wouldn’t all smart GMs want to surround themselves with other smart people?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Return to Hockeytown: Steve Yzerman named Red Wings GM

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Steve Yzerman’s return to Hockeytown is now official.

The Detroit Red Wings announced on Friday afternoon that Yzerman will assume the role of executive vice president and general manager, responsible for all hockey operations, and that Ken Holland, who’s been in the GM position since 1997, will stay on as senior vice president with a new multi-year extension.

“I’m extremely honored to be named General Manager of the Red Wings,” said Yzerman in a statement. “I’m very grateful to the Ilitches, both for their support when I left to become General Manager of the Lightning, and for their kindness in welcoming my family and me back to the organization. I’d also like to thank Ken Holland. I was fortunate to learn the management side of the game from Jim Devellano, Ken and others in the Red Wings organization for four seasons after I retired, and I’m very happy to have the opportunity to work alongside them once again. It was very humbling to be approached about returning home to become General Manager, and I’m looking forward to building on the exciting young core Ken has already put in place.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Yzerman stepped down as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning in September, citing a desire to spend more time with his family. Immediately, the Detroit connection was made, and after a season of rumors, the Red Wings and their fans can finally welcome the franchise legend back in the fold.

A Hockey Hall of Famer who played 22 seasons with the Red Wings, Yzerman helped the franchise win three Stanley Cups. Following his retirement in 2006, he served as Holland’s assistant as the team’s vice president. He was also executive director of Canada’s gold medal winning Olympic teams in 2010 and 2014. From 2015 to this past September he helped build a Lightning team that reached three Eastern Conference Finals and the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, and recorded the fourth-most wins in the NHL (402).

MORE: Red Wings rebuild won’t be easy, but Yzerman is right GM choice

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Playoff lineup, injury notes: Islanders lose Boychuk; Flames scratch Neal

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There were quite a few noteworthy lineup notes surrounding teams in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Friday, so let’s rattle them off.

Thomas Hickey seems to be the most likely immediate replacement for Boychuk. While both defensemen have enjoyed some nice years in the NHL, both have been on the decline. Hickey was limited to zero goals and four assists in 40 games this season after generally coming in at 20-ish points during his previous five campaigns with the Isles, while Boychuk’s ice time was down to 16:16 minute per game during the Islanders’ Round 1 sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins. So the loss of Boychuk likely has more name value than on-ice impact.

Speaking of name value, allow a moment to dream. What if the Islanders instead turn to other Sebastian Ahoand the Hurricanes advance with far more famous Sebastian Aho? Would the Internet be forced to come up with something fresher than the Spiderman pointing meme for that? Might want to do some prep with all this time on your hands, Islanders fans.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

  • Maybe the Capitals feel like they need to bring back a playoff hero after seeing their 2-0 series lead against said Hurricanes dissolve into a 2-2 tie? They recalled Devante Smith-Pelly on Friday. Smith-Pelly scored eight points in 54 NHL games with the Capitals this season, and had been fairly productive (14 points in 20 games) with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. His seven goals during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup run matched his seven goals from that 2017-18 regular season, so if DSP can carry over some of that playoff magic starting with Game 5 (Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC [livestream]), the Caps would be very pleased. He’ll certainly be fighting to stay at the top level …
  • Could the Predators (another team locked in a 2-2 series tie) get some reinforcements back a lot sooner than anticipated? Both Brian Boyle and Wayne Simmonds were recently considered week-to-week, and perhaps that was always a nebulous descriptor, as they at least were able to practice on Friday.

Interestingly, each player was wearing regular practice jerseys, which bodes reasonably well for the future, as that indicates that they could take body contact. There’s an enormous gulf between being able to practice and being ready for the sometimes-traumatic damage of playoff hockey, yet this is all pretty promising for the Preds.

With the Flames down 3-1 to the Colorado Avalanche and facing elimination in Game 5 on Friday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, live stream) this team badly needs a spark, and Neal really hasn’t been providing much of one basically since signing with the Flames. Neal failed to score a point through the first four games of this series, suffering through a -3 plus/minus, just 13:49 TOI on average, and not really excelling from a possession stats standpoint, either.

[To be fair, Neal is joined by Johnny Gaudreau and others as struggling Flames.]

One wonders if the Flames need to give Neal a pat on the back and say “We’ll get things back on track soon enough.” As mediocre as he’s been across the board, Neal also suffered from a terrible season luck-wise, managing just a five shooting percentage, way below his career average of 11.6. Maybe some of that is the aging curve, and maybe he’s depended upon some stellar linemates to grab his counting stats, but you’d have to figure that there’s some potential for a rebound … eventually. Perhaps just not this season?

Either way, it looks like Austin Czarnik is replacing Neal in the lineup. Hockey comes at you fast, gang.

For a rundown of Friday’s slate of playoff action, check out The Wraparound.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.