Boom or Bust: The Senators' Best and Worst Examples of Player Development
In recent articles, we've evaluated amateur scouting and its role in the Ottawa Senators current trajectory. However, as we all know, there is a lot more to getting a player to the show than simply calling their names on draft day.
Once a player has a system to develop in, that's when the work really starts. This is true not only of the player but the entire organization. The decisions made by the organization on which trajectory a player follows to get there are as important as the effort from the player.
Let us take a look at the 4 biggest success stories from draft day and their 3 biggest disappointments and see if there are any patterns we can discern.
To narrow the field of view, let us ignore, for the moment, anyone on entry level contracts or unsigned free agents or drafted players. We showed in a previous article that the outcome of a trade can take 5 or more years to be known. Why would the outcome of a drafted player’s development be any different?
Ryan Dzingel – 2011 Draft 7th RD 204th overall
Though Dzingel has had difficulty replicating his success in cities other than Ottawa, his time as a Senator has been effective and productive.
Only 7 players went later than Dzingel in that draft. Amazingly, 3 of them made the NHL and played over 100 games in the league. The most notable of them being Ondrej Palat, who's played 548 games and won a Cup with the Bolts.
Upon being drafted from the USHL, Dzingel attended Ohio State University for 3 seasons before signing his entry level contract. He finished out the 2013-14 season in Binghamton and remained there until he ascended to the NHL full time in 2016-17. Dzingel played a significant role in the 2017 run to the conference finals.
He did not come to the Senators as an early pick and, therefore, there was no pressure or expectation of the organization to get him to the NHL quickly. He was allowed to follow his own trajectory and he got there when he got there.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau – 2011 Draft 4th RD 96th overall
Many of us have heard Pierre Dorion tell the story of he and the late Bryan Murray attending a Gatineau Olympiques game where Murray told Dorion “You can have everyone else, and I will take both number 11s”. One of those 11s was Jonathan Huberdeau and the other was Pageau. They went 93 picks apart that year but Murray got part of his wish.
Pageau is playing on Long Island now. However, before leaving, he played 428 regular season and 35 playoff games for the team and was a huge part of the 2017 run to the conference finals.
Before playing in the NHL, he completed his final year of junior eligibility after being drafted. He was born after September 15th, so he played an extra year of junior before being draft eligible. He played 142 regular season and 14 playoff games for the Binghamton Senators before moving up to the NHL.
Importantly, like Dzingel, because he was not a top round selection, he was given the appropriate time to develop. The organization did not hesitate to send him to Binghamton when he struggled in Ottawa. They realized the importance of him not forgetting what it was like to score, something he had done often as a junior hockey player. Now, at the age of 28, Pageau is approaching 500 regular season games and looking at another playoff run with the Islanders.
Mark Stone – 2010 Draft 6th RD 178th overall
This one probably hurts the most. You are welcome, Las Vegas. Though he was a late round pick in the draft, it became apparent the following season that the rest of the league could not look past his skating stride to see something special. In his final year of junior eligibility, Stone also made the Canadian World Junior team. It was clear that the Senators had found another 6th round gem (Alfredsson). Having said that, and despite giving him a taste of a playoff game against the Rangers in 2012, the team allowed Stone to simmer in the AHL, playing a full season in 2012-13 and a partial season in 2013-14, before moving full time to the NHL in 2014-15. He's never looked back. We had the pleasure of his company for 366 regular season and 27 playoff games. Stone was also a key piece in the 2017 run to the conference finals.
Again, perhaps it was because he was a late round pick in his draft year that the team did not feel the need to rush him to the NHL, despite his junior hockey prowess. Now he's on the cusp of 500 NHL regular season games played and the 1st captain in Las Vegas Golden Knights' history.
Thomas Chabot – 2015 Draft 1st RD 18th Overall
Unlike the previous cases, Chabot was an early round selection and expected to make the NHL. He did not disappoint, signing an entry level contract that year at training camp. Having said that, he did end up playing his remaining junior eligibility in Saint John after playing 1 NHL game in 2016-17.
Unlike prospects who are selected in later rounds, Chabot was able to represent Canada twice in the World Junior Hockey Championship and did so once as an assistant captain. The World Junior tournament is considered the best development experience a player outside the NHL can get and clearly this helped Chabot’s rise.
He did, however, make a pit stop of 13 games in Belleville in the 2017-18 season. It was long enough to show he was too good to be there and should be in the NHL. The 13 games came after the season had started. Props to the Senators for not thinking a 1st round selection with pedigree was above a bus ride. Safe to say, he is now a cornerstone piece of the franchise.
Mika Zibanejad – 2011 Draft 1st RD 6th Overall
If Jean-Gabriel Pageau was the bright spot of the 2011 draft, the 1st round was a dark spot. The Senators had 3 picks in the 1st round that season after trading the likes of Mike Fisher in 2010. They got Zibanejad at 6, Stefan Noesen at 21 and Matt Puempel at 24. Unlike, Noesen and Puempel, Zibanejad played pro hockey in Sweden for his draft year. This may have created a belief that, because he had played against men, that his development curve would be shorter. He stayed in Sweden for 1 season of 26 games before coming over at 19 and playing 9 games to finish out the season. At 20, Zibanejad started the year in Binghamton for 23 games with 11 points and was immediately promoted to play in the NHL. He acquitted himself well enough but, the following season, he didn't make the team out of camp. Zibanejad played 6 games in Belleville, recording 7 points, and immediately returned to the parent club. Following that, he played 2 full seasons in Ottawa averaging 0.6 points per game before being traded.
The trade to the Rangers was met with some criticism from fans, me among them, as we could see that when Zibanejad was on, he was electric. Instead, he was flipped for a 1st round pick, who had never realized his own potential. Since the trade, Zibanejad has become the number 1 center we had hoped and has averaged .88 points per game, despite starting this season with Covid-19.
Though it was said that Zibanejad perhaps had an issue with work ethic and frustrated coaches, I hold the organization responsible for letting this one get away. Perhaps some tough love would have dealt with the kid's level of entitlement. Perhaps those trips to Binghamton were not long enough to drive home the message. Zibanejad played a total of 30 AHL games and our previous success cases all played significantly more. There was clearly pressure on the team to get Zibanejad to the NHL to validate his 6th overall selection.
It's one thing to struggle to find a number 1 center. It's another to have him under your nose and trade him away.
Curtis Lazar – 2013 draft 1st RD 17th Overall
Everyone remembers Lazar’s huge smile as he bit into a cheeseburger, thrown onto the ice after a win during the 2015 Hamburglar run to the playoffs. Lazar was the darling of the city who had jumped the line and made the team at 19, despite having a year left of junior eligibility.
However, his story is a sad one in some ways. Like Chabot, Lazar represented Canada twice at the World Junior tournament and was effective both times. The second time through, he was loaned to the team by the Senators when he struggled offensively. He went and played with Connor McDavid, found his scoring touch and returned to the team for the historic run to the playoffs.
The problem is that the seed of doubt about being able to produce at the NHL level had been firmly planted in Lazar’s mind. The following season, he produced at a similar pace to the year before and, by the time the next season rolled around, Lazar was a shell of himself. He recorded 1 point in 33 games and was sent to the AHL. Most of the time, when a prospect is developing, he views the AHL differently. However, Lazar had already played 109 games in the NHL and, clearly, he thought he would never play in Belleville. Being sent to the minors was likely viewed as a failure in his mind and he wasn't able to produce in Belleville either.
Upon being traded, he didn't immediately go back to the NHL and has never become a prolific point producer. However, he is back full time with the Bruins, who believe he can help with their run to the playoffs.
Jared Cowen – 2009 Draft 1st RD 9th Overall
Much like Thomas Chabot, Cowen came to the Senators with two World Junior Hockey Championships under his belt, a ton of pedigree and a frame that screamed Chris Pronger. His first World Junior was more of a learning experience. The second time through, he was named one of Canada’s three best players in the tournament.
For someone his size, Cowen was tough and surprisingly agile. He also showed the ability to score on a limited basis. He skipped the line, went straight to the NHL and had a very solid rookie season. He had some injury problems the following season. However, he played a total of 3 AHL games in his pro development curve. The injuries nagged him throughout the next few seasons and his play declined significantly. No one could believe he had regressed so noticeably. However, burning a year of his entry level deal by playing a game at the end of the 2009-10 season put the Senators in a bad spot, perhaps not being able to send him to the AHL for fear of losing him on a waiver claim.
Like Lazar, Cowen made a great first impression. But he was ordained as Erik Karlsson’s eventual partner and, when he struggled, the media and fans turned on him. Injuries may have eventually forced his retirement regardless. However, when he was healthy, he had a ton of potential and, in the club's rush to get him there, it may have put a kid in a man’s game. I would maintain that struggling with the NHL game is not what undoes a player, it's the media and fans pointing it out every day.
Looking back on the success stories, are there any common patterns? Three of them were late round picks who were not rushed to the league, even when the temptation was there to do so. One of them required less development than the others, but all of them played long enough in the AHL to know they were ready for the NHL. Most importantly, 2 of them are looking at playoff runs, playing prominent roles with their teams.
The disappointments share some similarities as well. They were all early draft picks who either showed promise right at the beginning or were moved along too quickly. They skipped some developmental processes that the success stories all benefited from. Also, all 3 have moved on from Ottawa, 2 are still playing in the league full time and 1 is a prominent member of the team.
As we look at the Stutzle, Tkachuk, Norris and Batherson era, let us try to keep in mind that two of them rode the bus in Belleville and appear to be the better for it. Tkachuk and Stutzle are showing all the signs of success without the seasoning and, if that works out, great. Just remember that the honeymoon usually lasts a week. The marriage lasts a lot longer than that. These kids are going to struggle at some point. It's inevitable. When that day comes, keep cheering for them and careful what you say on the postgame show and social media.
If we do not develop into fair-weather fans and let these guys get to where they belong WHEN they belong, we could have something really special here.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey