The first fireworks of the upcoming NHL Draft may show up at pick #4. When the Ottawa Senators acquired Matt Duchene from the Colorado Avalanche, part of the substantial package was a top-ten protected 2018 first-round pick. The terms of the deal afforded the Senators a choice between trading this year’s pick or next year’s pick to Colorado if the pick landed within the top ten spots. Finishing the season with the second-worst record in the league, Ottawa was obviously locked in to the top ten. Even after bad luck dropped them to fourth overall in the NHL Draft Lottery, GM Pierre Dorion confirmed that they would hold on to the pick this year and defer to the 2019 first-rounder.
However, that was back in April and things change. It seems more likely than ever that Erik Karlsson and/or Mike Hoffman will be traded away from Ottawa this off-season and that doesn’t bode well for a Duchene extension either. There also continue to be frustrations over the management of owner Eugene Melnyk and the fiscal future of the organization. Ottawa seems far from a free agent destination right now and no closer to turning around one of the worst records in the NHL. The initial Stanley Cup odds for next season reflect this, as the Senators at 100/1 odds are alone in last place. It’s understandable for public relations purposes that the Sens keep this year’s #4, both to add an exciting new prospect and to all but confirm to fans that the outlook for next season is better this season. It may not be the smart move though.
There is a trio of top prospects in the draft this year: defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and forwards Andrei Svechnikov and Filip Zadina. After that, there is no consensus on the next-best player. In fact, the fourth overall pick more or less marks the beginning of a lesser tier of prospects; not exactly a power position in 2018. Next year, the Senators are almost certainly going to miss the playoffs and will be a lottery team with a chance to land in the top three with a lucky draw. According to odds makers, they are also the favorite to finish 31st, which would give them the best odds at the first overall pick – highly-touted franchise center Jack Hughes – and would mean that they could fall no farther than fourth again. There is risk in giving up a pick as high as #4 this year, but there is also substantial risk in not giving it away, blowing up the roster, and simply hoping for a better finish next year. The pain that the organization and the fans would feel about losing #1 after another brutal season would be far worse than giving up a non-consensus top player at #4 this year. The mounting pressure of that very real possibility could force the Senators to give in and surrender the 2018 pick.
The Avalanche know this and are remaining vigilant. The Denver Post’s Mike Chambers caught up with Colorado Director of Scouting Alan Hepple, who says the team knows what direction they would go in if they wind up with #4 this year after all. Per Chambers, the Senators can wait all the way until they are on the clock to make the pick to instead complete the trade this year. Hepple doesn’t think that will be the case, but the Avs are prepared in case it is. They certainly wouldn’t mind the spot, as the team nabbed defensive phenom Cale Makar in that same draft slot last year and would be happy to make a repeat performance. With their own pick at #16, Hepple says that the team will simply take the best player available, regardless of position, but at #4 they have identified a more pressing organizational need, as they did with the UMass puck-mover Makar last year.
If the first three picks go as expected and Ottawa isn’t thrilled by the next-best name on their draft board, they could crumble under the pressure of the potential repercussions: losing a higher pick next year. It could pay off or it could be a mistake in hindsight; there is no way to tell with a lot riding on the decision. However, if they do, Colorado is ready to jump in. It’s not the most likely outcome, but it remains a possibility, and an intriguing one, as draft day approaches.