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A Historical Review of the Ottawa Senators "Can't-Miss" Prospects: Part One - The 1990's

Given the amazing World Junior Hockey Tournament he had, and the way he’s played in limited action so far with the Ottawa Senators, there’s no reason to assume that Tim Stuetzle won’t be a great NHL player.

Often, we can look back at history to see how players of the past performed to gauge how players of today might play. Sometimes, we hope they can emulate some of those old greats. And sometimes, we would hope they don’t.

Today, we’ll take a look back at the Senators’ top draft picks of the 1990s.

We’ll talk about what was expected of them and how they performed against those expectations. And often, their performances – whether good or bad - and their relationships with the team and the city of Ottawa dictated how these players were remembered.

1992 Alexei Yashin – 2nd pick overall

Alexei Yashin was a great player and an enigmatic personality. He was the first player the Senators ever took in a draft. His talent was unquestioned. He was once described as being “able to stickhandle out of a crowded phone booth”. He played seven years for the Sens and scored 218 goals and tallied 491 points in 504 games.

But he never seemed to be happy in Ottawa.

Part of his ambivalence was said to be due to the fact that he was always given second billing to Alexandre Daigle. The two started their NHL careers at the beginning of the 1993-94 season. Daigle was celebrated and promoted by the team while Yashin was not. Yashin put up the big numbers and became a star in the league while Daigle never did.

I can remember going down to the then Corel Centre to do a sit down interview with Yashin in 1997 or 1998. He seemed like he didn’t want to be there. He was sullen and gave answers that were comprised of a few words. Of all of the Senators’ players from that era, he was by far the most difficult to get any real responses from.

Yashin sought to renegotiate his contract on at least two occasions, and there always appeared to be discord between himself and the team. His best season in Ottawa was 1998-99 when he scored 44 goals and notched 94 points. He was named to the Second All-Star team that year and he finished second in the Hart Trophy balloting as well. But with that came frustration and the feeling that the team didn’t fully appreciate him. That was accompanied by his wish to renegotiate his deal again, which the team, of course, did not want to do.

So Yashin refused to report for the 1999-2000 season and the Sens suspended him. That didn’t really engender love from the Ottawa fans. He played one more year in Ottawa in 2000-01 and played reasonably well before being traded to the Islanders for Zdeno Chara and a draft pick that would later turn out to be Jason Spezza.

Yashin played five seasons on Long Island in which he averaged less than 60 points per year. After leaving the Islanders following the 2006-07 season, he played for three different teams in the KHL.

- With hindsight, who could/should the Senators have taken in 1992? Sergei Gonchar was taken 14th overall by Washington. He had a twenty year career, played 1301 NHL games, scored more than 200 goals and had more than 800 points and won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009.

1993 Alexandre Daigle – 1st overall

No player came to Ottawa with more promise or more fanfare than Alexandre Daigle. He was a player with tremendous talent. He had put up 137 points in his last year in the Quebec Major Junior League and teams were clamouring for his services.

There were many rumours around the time of the 1993 draft that other teams wanted to trade with Ottawa to acquire the first overall pick and take Daigle. One such rumour has it that the Quebec Nordiques were offering any three of Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Owen Nolan or Ron Hextall for the right to select Daigle. Those guys were all quite young at that point but one can only imagine how the fortunes of the Senators might have been changed had they made that deal.

Sens’ GM Randy Sexton was adamant that he was not going to trade the pick though. And he was true to his word. People since have laughed at the Senators for holding on to the pick and taking Daigle but the consensus at the time among most GMs was that Daigle was an absolute sure thing. If only he could have been that.

There have been hockey people who have talked often of players who look at being drafted as being the finish line. Their hard work is now done and playing in the best league in the world is their reward. But, in truth, that’s where the real work begins. For Daigle, sadly, he saw it as the final destination and never took it upon himself to put in the hard work to keep improving and to keep building upon the success he had in Junior.

Daigle never lived up to the hype that came with his draft status. He was quoted as saying that he only played hockey because he was good at it. Not because he loved it. He also loved the life of being an NHL player as opposed to actually working to be one. He played parts of five seasons in Ottawa and put up 172 points over the course of 301 games. He went on to play parts of five more seasons in the league for five other teams.

Hindsight is always 20-20 and when you look at who was taken behind Daigle, it’s easy to say “coulda-woulda-shoulda”. Chris Pronger was taken with the second pick by Hartford. Pronger would go on to play 18 seasons in the league. He won a Stanley Cup and also took home a Hart Trophy and a Norris Trophy as well. Paul Kariya was taken fourth overall by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Kariya played 15 seasons and was a First or Second-Team All-Star five times. The number three pick was used by the Tampa Bay Lightning to select centre Chris Gratton. He went on to play 15 years in the league and played 1,092 games over that span.

But,in the moments leading up to that 1993 draft, it would have been really difficult to find a team or a GM who would have done something other than take Daigle.

With hindsight, who could/should the Senators have taken in 1993? Chris Pronger.

1994 Radek Bonk – 3rd overall

No player went into the 1994 draft with the buzz that accompanied Radek Bonk. Bonk had left the Czech Republic in 1993 at the age of 17 to play for the IHL’s Las Vegas Thunder in order to prepare himself for the North American pro game. Simply put, he lit it up. Bonk scored 42 goals and put up 87 points in 76 games. He also added 208 penalty minutes and was the easy choice for the league’s Rookie Of The Year. He was the youngest player to play professional hockey since Mark Messier in 1978.

He was thought to easily be in the top two picks at the draft. The Florida Panthers selected first and they needed help on their blue line. They chose Ed Jovanovski. Anaheim was up next and many thought they would take Bonk. But Bonk’s agent was Michael Barnett who also represented Paul Kariya. The Ducks were still stinging from their negotiations with Paul Kariya the year before. Kariya also had Barnett as an agent. They chose defenseman Oleg Tverdovsky, rather than have to deal with an agent they didn’t like. The Senators were now on the clock. They happily took Bonk.

The Sens’ offer of three years for a total of $1 million felt low to Barnett given the hype of that summer and the amount Ottawa paid Daigle the year before. Bonk and Barnett turned down the offer as a negotiation ploy. Then the lockout occurred and teams were forbidden to talk to players who were not currently signed. Bonk went back to Vegas and started the 1994-95 season in the IHL.

But he struggled in the new season, scoring just seven goals and totalling just 20 points in 33 games. When the NHL season resumed, Bonk went to Ottawa and signed for less money than he would have received in the original offer. In 42 games in Ottawa, he recorded just 11 points. In 1995-96, he had 16 goals and 35 points in 76 games. The next year, he fell back with just 18 points in 53 games. In 1997-98, he had just 16 points in 65 games. All the hype that came before the 1994 draft seemed to be just so much hot air. But when Daigle was traded to Philadelphia in January of 1998, that freed up a space up the middle of the ice and Bonk was able to fill in well. In 1998-99, his first full season, his ice time increased and the next year was time for him to break out. With Yashin sitting out the 1999-2000 season, Bonk moved up to the first line with Vaclav Prospal on one side and Daniel Alfredsson on the other. He led the team in scoring and was Ottawa’s lone representative at the All-Star Game.

He continued to play well until the 2002-03 season when Jason Spezza was earning more ice time and Todd White was coming on as well. After a rough 2003-04, Bonk was traded to Los Angeles who then flipped him to Montreal.

While Bonk never reached the potential that people foresaw for him back when he was drafted in 1994, his career was not a bad one. He played ten seasons in Ottawa and notched 399 points in 689 games and in the process of that, turned himself into a very able face-off man. After leaving Ottawa, he played two seasons for the Canadiens and two more in Nashville as well. He later played part of a season in the KHL and four years in the Czech League.

With hindsight, who could/should the Senators have taken in 1994? Patrik Elias (51st overall by New Jersey) or Tim Thomas (217th overall by Quebec). Elias played twenty seasons with the Devils, playing 1240 games and totalling 1025 points, including 408 goals. Thomas played eight seasons with the Boston Bruinsand won a Stanley Cup in 2010-11. He also won two Vezina Trophies and a Conn Smythe Trophy.

1995 Bryan Berard – 1st overall

Prior to the 1995 NHL draft, Bryan Berard had been a stellar offensive defenseman with the OHL’s Detroit Junior Red Wings. In the 1994-95 season, Berard put up 20 goals and 55 assists for a total of 75 points in just 58 games. In that ’95 draft, the Senators took him with the first overall pick. Soon after, Berard said he would never play for Ottawa. In 1995-96, Berard spent that season with the Detroit Juniors and had better numbers than the year before: 31 goals, 58 assists, 89 points, 116 penalty minutes. But because he said he would never report to Ottawa, the Senators traded him and goalie Don Beaupre in January of 1996 to the New York Islanders for Wade Redden and goalie Damian Rhodes.

Berard was a gifted offensive player and had no problem playing while his team had the puck. He scored eight goals and assisted on 40 others. His play was good enough to earn him the Calder Trophy as Rookie Of The Year. But as time went by, his play in his own zone never was able to match his offensive skill, and in January of 1999, the Islanders dealt him to Toronto for goalie Felix Potvin.

Tragedy struck in March of 2000 when the stick of Ottawa’s Marian Hossa clipped Berard in the right eye, resulting in a retinal tear and a detached retina. He missed the rest of that season and the entire 2000-01 year. After many surgeries, he was able to get enough vision back to enable him to play in the NHL again and he returned in 2001-02 with the New York Rangers. He bounced around with a few other teams finishing his NHL career after the 2007-08 season with the organization that originally traded for him, the Islanders. He played one more year in the KHL after that. The unfortunate part of it all is that we will never know how good Bryan Berard could have been.

For the Ottawa Senators, they were able to turn a player who had no intention of playing for them into Wade Redden and Damian Rhodes. Redden spent eleven years in Ottawa before leaving as a free agent and signing with the New York Rangers in July of 2008. Rhodes played three and a half seasons for the Senators and he and goaltending partner Ron Tugnutt backstopped the Sens into respectability in the late 1990s. Rhodes was the man in goal when Ottawa won their first playoff series, an upset of the number 1 seed New Jersey Devils in the 1998 postseason.

After the 2005-06 season, the Senators looked at their financial situation and decided they could only keep one of Redden and Zdeno Chara. They chose to keep Redden and Chara went on the free agent market. He was snapped up by the Bruins. When the Senators played in the Stanley Cup Final Series in 2007, there were many who felt that if they had kept Chara, he would have neutralized Chris Pronger and the Senators would have won that Cup.

With hindsight, who could/should the Senators have taken in 1995? Jarome Iginla was taken 11th overall by the Dallas Stars. Iginla played twenty seasons and 1554 games in the NHL. He spent sixteen seasons in Calgary. Over the course of his career, he scored 625 goals, had 675 assists, 1300 points, 1040 penalty minutes, an Art Ross Trophy, two Maurice Richard Trophies, and a Ted Lindsay Award.

1996 Chris Phillips – 1st overall

The 1996 NHL Draft was not seen as having a particularly strong draft class. The best defenseman in the group of prospects was a Russian, Andrei Zyuzin, who had played the season before in Europe. Another Russian, Alex Volchkov, had been playing with the OHL’s Barrie Colts, but there were apparent questions about his character. Chris Phillips was an undrafted Junior defenseman who caught on with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders after playing two seasons with the Tier II Junior A Fort McMurray Oil Barons of the AJHL.

He could have played in the ‘W’ at 16 but he made the decision to help his parents after a virus had debilitated his mother and put her in a wheelchair and diabetes had left his father blind in one eye. He chose to stay close to home in case they needed him. That character played in his favour when it would come to the 1996 draft.

The Senators took Phillips ahead of the others available and the selection paid off. The Senators had been weak on the blue line and they needed a defenseman who could play that shut down role while still being able to contribute on offense when necessary.

Ottawa saw their 1996 pick pay some dividends when Phillips led the Lethbridge Hurricanes, the team to which he was traded partway through the 1996-97 season, to the Western League championship and a berth in the 1997 Memorial Cup at the Bob Guertin Arena in what was then Hull, Quebec. Phillips looked like he was seeing things in slo-motion as he played a strong defensive style and picked his spots knowing when to jump into the offensive play as well.

Heading into the 1997-98 season, the Senators needed some help at the back end. Phillips seemed to be just what they needed. Playing alongside Phillips, Redden’s plus/minus improved drastically. The team finished with 83 points, the most they had ever achieved, and they allowed the fewest goals against in their short team history. Most importantly, the team made the playoffs.

They finished eighth in the East and played the top-seeded New Jersey Devils in the first round. The Sens took the series in six games. Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson were the offensive engines, Damian Rhodes was strong in goal and Chris Phillips, at just 20-years-old, was anchoring the defense.

Over the course of his career, it was no fluke that the presence of Phillips and the development of Zdeno Chara coincided with the rise of the Senators in the standings. In the spring of 2003, Ottawa played in the Conference Championship Series for the first time, losing to the Devils in seven games.

Phillips’ best season came in 2006-07. For just the second time in his nine seasons, he was able to play all 82 games, finishing with eight goals and 26 points, both career highs. Chara was no longer with the Sens, having signed with the Boston Bruins in the previous summer so, Phillips partnered with Anton Volchenkov. Phillips was a plus-36 while his defense partner was a plus-37. The Senators went on their deepest playoff run yet, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing in five games to the Anaheim Ducks.

In his 17-year career, he played 1,179 games and all were played as a Senator. He wasn’t known for his offense but his longevity helped him place third all-time on the Sens’ list of defensemen with 288 points. He was second in career penalty minutes with a total of 756.

But his lasting legacy will be the leader he was, the player he was and the way he served the people of the Ottawa-Gatineau region off the ice. It was his character that got him drafted first overall in 1996 and it was his character that was beloved by the people of the National Capital Region. The retirement of his number 4 was well deserved.

With hindsight, who might the Senators have taken in 1996? They didn’t need to draft him because they acquired him eventually, but Zdeno Chara was drafted 56th overall by the New York Islanders.

Next up: The Sens high draft picks of the 00s.

By Howie Mooney | Sens Nation Hockey


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