There are a lot of good options for the Ottawa Senators at the 2022 NHL Draft. Juraj Slafkovsky brings physicality and goals, David Jiricek can be a top-pairing playmaking defender, Jonathan Lekkerimaki and Joakim Kemell are perfect complements to their young core, and Cutter Gauthier could be the next big power forward in the NHL. All those prospects bring a different aspect to the team that they have been lacking, and while they may not be ready to join the team immediately, the potential to create a dangerous lineup with them is tantalizing.
But fans also know that the Senators don’t always target the best player available. By now, most fans have heard of the Ottawa Senators’ head scout Trent Mann and his comments regarding their 2021 first-round pick, Tyler Boucher. In the interview on TSN 1200, he described some of the thought processes behind the unpopular pick, saying, “…some of these kids, they’re going to pay dividends, just maybe it won’t be this year, maybe people will question it, but we’re not really worried about that. We have to be worried about what the Ottawa Senators need down the road and in a salary cap world, you need certain things, certain types of players to move forward and help you win, and teams don’t give you those players.”
For a team that struggled to win games, score goals, and defend against other NHL teams, those comments aren’t especially comforting. There are good pieces in place, including a core of Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Tim Stutzle, and Thomas Chabot, but assuming that the team can therefore use picks to grab cheaper, depth options in the top end of the first round are, in my opinion, misguided. There are still too many holes and limited options to fill them for the team to be throwing away their first-round picks on safe options.
But what’s done is done, and after admittedly looking at lower-impact players last year because of possible cap constraints in the future, they need to add, at the very least, one more high-impact player if they want to get through this rebuild. If the Senators are serious about competing for a playoff spot in the near future, they need to focus on bringing in some big names and high-potential prospects to their organization through the draft. There are plenty of players to target beyond my list of five, but these are three players that they should stay away from.
There’s a lot to like about Conor Geekie. He’s an elite offensive forward, finishing the 2021-22 season with 70 points in 63 games, plus another 11 points in 13 playoff games. Primarily a playmaker, he loves to create high-danger scoring chances and owns one of the best hockey minds in his draft class, but he’s no slouch when it comes to firing the puck on the net, possessing a strong, hard shot. A set of skills like that is rare in any player but even rarer in someone who stands 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds. He uses his size well, too, protecting the puck and winning battles along the boards. With the Senators in the market for another top-six forward, Geekie seems to make a lot of sense to pick seventh overall.
However, there’s significant concern around Geekie’s skating in that he already looks only average at the Western Hockey League (WHL) level, which means he’s well below average by NHL standards. He has been unable to get back onto defence consistently and can easily get caught out of position by quicker players. His skating issues also make him an ineffective play driver as he frequently is the last player to get back on the transition. While he has stated that he’s been working on these areas and plans to invest even more time in them over the offseason, he has a lot of ground to make up, especially when compared to other forwards in his draft class.
So, while the Senators undoubtedly love his size and offensive abilities, the team is also built around speed. Stutzle, Norris, Batherson, and Alex Formenton are all some of the fastest youngsters in the league. Drafting a high-profile player who may not be able to keep up to their core will hurt both the franchise’s and Geekie’s future. It also doesn’t help that he plays center, which is not an area the Senators need more players in. If he’s available later on, or Ottawa decides to trade down into the latter half of the first round, then he would be a great option, but stay away from him at seventh overall.
Noah Warren has been a great shutdown defender during his time with the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). He’s a big, strong defenceman who plays a physical two-way game. He’s patient when he needs to be, able to read plays well and wait for the perfect opportunity to use a burst of speed but also can aggressively pressure opponents, blocking out passing lanes and blocking shots with his hulking 6-foot-5 frame. He doesn’t have a well-developed offensive side but still put up 24 points in 62 games this season, and he owns a highly-coveted right-handed shot.
Related: 2022 NHL Draft Guide
Warren projects to be a third-pairing shutdown defender and will likely hear his name called in the early part of the second round, thanks to his blend of intelligence and size. Yet there are some teams, like the Senators, who may overvalue his frame and decent skating skills enough to make him a first-round pick. Ottawa is no stranger to reaching for the player that they want, no matter where they pick, and there is some hint that they may be looking at him with their seventh overall selection. In the promotional Draft Combine video below, which features Warren, the scouting staff reference size and physicality 10 times; skating is mentioned less than half that total. Even though it’s promotional material, it’s still concerning that size was brought up so frequently in a league that is growing faster each season.
It’s hard not to imagine the damage that Warren could do alongside the likes of Tyler Kleven on the third pairing in two or three years. And the Senators are actively looking for another top-four defender, especially one with a right-handed shot. But, unless their name is Jiricek or Simon Nemec, who both project to be top-five picks, using the seventh overall pick to grab a top defenceman is a mistake. The rest of the defensive class of 2022 is a significant drop down from those two elite defenders, and Warren is another step down from the second tier, as he lacks a lot of offensive abilities and is only an average skater.
Yet that hasn’t stopped some from speculating that the Senators will still reach for defencemen with their pick. Bruce Garrioch wrote in the Ottawa Sun, “The belief is that by the time the No. 7 pick rolls around there may be some good defencemen there for the Senators to select, but there’s only a player or two in the top 10 that may be able to play in the NHL next season” (from ‘GARRIOCH: The Senators prepare for draft with no shortage of options on the table,’ Ottawa Sun – 14/06/2022).
If the Senators are serious about adding a top defenceman at the 2022 draft, their best option is to look for a trade. However, if there are no willing trade partners for Ottawa for their seventh-overall selection, then they need to play it safe and take the best player available, not one who will fill a depth role in the future. As for Warren, the Senators can revisit him with one of their second-round picks if he’s still available.
Owen Pickering is another big, skilled defenceman who has been climbing up the draft rankings lately and could be one of the first blueliners called on draft day after Nemec and Jiricek. He’s a much better skater than Geekie, has a more developed offensive sense than Warren, and can play in almost any situation. His overall game is quite raw and didn’t develop as well as it could have this season with the Swift Current Broncos, but even on one of the weakest teams in the WHL, he scored nine goals and 33 points in 62 games. TSN’s scout Craig Button ranked him 13th on his latest draft board, a testament to his rapid rise and interest among NHL scouts.
Drafting Pickering seventh overall makes a lot more sense than reaching for a player like Warren, yet targeting him would be a big mistake for the Senators. First of all, he’s a left-handed shooter, and with Jake Sanderson, Erik Brannstrom, and Jonathan Aspirot already in the system, along with right-handed shooters Lassi Thomson, Jacob Bernard-Docker, and Maxence Guenette, Pickering doesn’t bring a level of potential or skill that Ottawa doesn’t already have. He also has been criticized for not using his size effectively and not having been the best puck handler, two aspects that do not fit with the Senators’ current persona.
Being that Pickering is on the bigger side, the Senators may see him as a potential shutdown player with higher offensive upside than Warren. However, according to Smaht Scouting, he is not a smothering defensive player, and trying to turn him into one will hurt his development. His skill set is very raw, too, and if the Senators are looking for immediate help, this is the wrong player to target. Targeting any defenceman in the draft for immediate help is misguided, as defenders almost always take longer to develop than forwards. Better to look through trades or free agency than rely on the draft to fill a specific need for next season or the season after.
Focus on the Best Player Available
The statement may be a bit cliche now, but for a team trying to end a lengthy rebuild, the Senators need to focus on grabbing the best player they can with each of their picks. Last year, they tried to add players they believed would fill out their lineup, which is a fine strategy for a stronger team looking for simple tweaks and minor fixes down the road. Ottawa is not that team. They have two big holes to fill with a top-six winger and a top-four defender, and if they want to fix that soon, then the draft is the wrong place to turn.
Look at the Tampa Bay Lightning — they used their top picks on fairly safe options like Victor Hedman, Jonathan Drouin, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, then grabbed underrated, riskier prospects like Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov later in the draft, knowing they could become incredible players if given the chance and put in the best situation to succeed. Not all their picks panned out — Drouin has been largely disappointing after going third overall — but they used him to grab a player they needed in Mikhail Sergachev. As several leagues recover from pandemic shutdowns and delays, the 2022 draft will have plenty of underrated prospects looking for a chance. Ottawa needs to take this year and focus on adding as many high-skill players as they can, hoping that some of them will turn out to be future Hart and Art Ross trophy winners.
An elementary teacher by day and an avid hockey fan, Dayton joined The Hockey Writers in 2019 and currently covers the Ottawa Senators, World Juniors, and NHL Entry Draft.