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Ottawa’s Farm System Gets an Average Grade

Photo: Robin Lehner wants to remind Hockey Prospect Analysts Not to Forget About Him

This past January, Eugene Melnyk shocked everyone when he indirectly cited Hockey’s Futurea third party prospect scouting resource – during an interview on the Fan 590.

“We’ve got a great fan base. They were there when we were one and five. That’s the way that we started our season. Everybody kind of… it wasn’t pleasant but it was expected that we would go through a minimum of two years, possibly three, before we had a contender back out on the ice. Now you see people and they are almost giddy. It almost reminds me of when we were going back into the playoffs of ’07. They’re just walking around and they cannot believe their luck in that we’re in a rebuild and you’ve got to see the pipeline that we’ve got. It’s mindboggling. We have probably five players in the minors that are NHL status today that we had to send back because we just don’t have room. Look at (Mark) Stone. Where did this guy (come from)? He was fifth in the draft. Fifth round and he’s the number one kid on the Canadian team in the World Juniors. I mean, that’s our player. We’ve got (Robin) Lehner down in… who’s already played in the NHL as a goalie and he’s hot to go. He can’t wait to get up to Ottawa to play. Then we’ve got Mika… it was kind of sad to see him go back but it was the best thing for him as a player long-term. But he’s one of the top Swedes, if not the top rated Swede, in the Elite league up there. These kids are all like 20 years old, 19, 20, 21. I think we were rated number two by a service that rates everybody’s pipeline of players throughout the whole NHL, so it can only get better as our veterans mature. They won’t be around forever but we really have some great years coming.

How hilarious is it that Melnyk sounds like the archetypal prospect porn indulging Hfboards.com user? I can actually envision Melnyk sitting in a dark room; his face illuminated by his computer’s monitor. His index finger rolling the scroll wheel of his mouse, thumbing his way through the names and write-ups; drooling over the reviews and projections for the organization’s most celebrated prospects.

So what was written that got Melnyk so ‘hot to go’?

That service that the Euge referred to had this to say:

Strengths: The Senators have top-end talent at every forward position, headlined by wingers Matt Puempel and Stefan Noesen, and center Mika Zibanejad. The organization possesses one of the best one-two punches on defense in physical stalwart Jared Cowen and puck-mover David Rundlad. There are also a deep group of players who can fill a variety of roles and provide depth at the NHL level including Stephane Da Costa, Jim O’Brien, and Bobby Butler. Weaknesses: Robin Lenher is a quality goaltending prospect but there is no one behind him. Many of their mid-tier prospects such as Butler and Colin Greening are set to graduate this season and leave a hole in the prospect pool. Top 5 Prospects: 1. David Rundblad, D, 2. Jared Cowen, D, 3. Mika Zibanejad, C, 4. Robin Lehner, G, 5. Jakob Silfverberg, C.

Forever the salesman, Melnyk overlooked the obvious fact (and the spelling mistakes) that by the time he made his comments, the organization had moved their most highly regarded prospect as part of the Kyle Turris trade. In fairness to the owner however, between the team’s unexpected success and a system that made it look like its best days were ahead of it, who could blame him for enthusiastically pumping the organization’s tires?

Six months later…

With the loss of Rundblad and the graduation of players like Erik Condra, Kaspars Daugavins, Bobby Butler, Jared Cowen, and Colin Greening from the 2011 Calder Cup winning Binghamton Senators, seeing the Senators slide in some organizational prospect rankings is not a surprise. Albeit, I never expected to see one that ranked the Senators much lower than anyone could have anticipated.

ESPN Insider (behind a pay-wall) ranked 30 NHL teams and slotted them according to their perceived strength (note: they included the 2012 NHL Draft selections as well.) Ottawa was assessed as having the fourteenth best system.

The Sens had a breakthrough season in 2011-12, and now expectations are high for more of the same success. To that end, their prospect pool is going to be a key down the road. Cody Ceci (Ottawa-OHL), the Sens’ first-rounder from 2012, could play sooner rather than later on the blue line. However, after Jared Cowen got the call to the big club and David Rundblad was dealt away — leading to the Sens’ drop down these rankings — most of Ottawa’s prospect strength derives from the forward position. Mika Zibanejad (SWE) had a bit of a rough season after failing to crack the Sens’ roster last fall, but he’ll join top hopes Stefan Noesen (Plymouth-OHL), Matt Puempel (Kitchener-OHL) and Mark Stone (Brandon-WHL) as prospects with a legitimate chance to eventually make the Sens’ lineup. Stone actually made his debut in the first-round playoff series against the Rangers, recording an assist in his one game.

Sleeper Prospect: Max McCormick, LW, (Ohio-NCAA) (sixth round/2011)
McCormick has so much character that he will look to prove everyone wrong. Underrated skills make a nice pair to go along with his coachable approach to the game.

Of course the common kneejerk reaction is to immediately dismiss what Sonier has written based exclusively on the fact that he’s employed by ESPN – the self-professed ‘worldwide leader in sports’. Hockey fans have typically taken anything ESPN says with a grain of salt because the company rarely devotes any television time to the sports’ coverage.

Nevertheless, Grant Sonier, the man responsible for the rankings is a former scout who worked for six NHL organizations and most recently for the Atlanta Thrashers during the 2010-11 season. He is the same person who had previously ranked the Senators as having the fifth best system, so it’s not like he is incapable of giving credit to the organization where he feels that it’s due. Interestingly, as part of the aftermath of the 2012 Draft, he had glowing things to say about first round pick Cody Ceci – a player who he projected to be taken seventh overall in his 2012 mock draft. 

Here’s what he wrote on Ceci in the live blog that covered the first round of the draft:

Obviously the Senators know him well, as he plays in their backyard with the 67s. Ceci is a big, strong, two-way defenseman, who — in my opinion — is as NHL-ready as anyone in this draft. I’d describe him as a heavy player who wins all his battles in the defensive zone, combined with an excellent transitional game. Perhaps his greatest asset is his cannon-like shot. He put up 60 points in 64 games, which isn’t too shabby for a blueliner.

With Erik Karlsson and Jared Cowen, Ceci’s selection really sets up the Sens well for years to come with high-end defensemen.

And here’s more on Ceci from Sonier’s Top 50 Pre-Draft Rankings:

Ceci quietly had 60 points in 64 games. It may have been quiet because it is his defensive game that is so attractive. He’s strong on the puck and possesses a solid one-on-one game. His shot from the point is a weapon. Perhaps the most NHL-ready player in the draft, he could be targeted by a team that needs an impact blueliner today rather than down the road.

In the aftermath of the draft, Sonier gave the Senators a B- grade citing the absence of a second round pick that affected the depth of their haul.

Without getting too defensive about the evaluation of the system, my immediate thought from this write-up is that Swedes Robin Lehner and Jakob Silfverberg were conspicuously absent. Albeit, Lehner, like many of the organization’s better prospects – ie.  Zibanejad, Puempel, Da Costa, Filatov, and Wiercioch – suffered through some setbacks last season. Bouts of inconsistency, concussions, a career threatening throat injury or the allure of Russian rubles all played a hand in negatively impacting upon the performances of these players.

While it by no means is any definitive indication as to the level of success that these prospects can have in the NHL (especially since it is just one review), Sonier’s perspective is a humble reminder that serves to temper expectations around the group that management has cultivated to this point.

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