It was the most innocuous of encounters. Walking through the bowels of Scotiabank Place during the 2008 draft, I ran into Mr. Senator himself, Daniel Alfredsson. With the 15th selection that night, his Ottawa squad had selected Swedish defenseman Erik Karlsson from Frolunda, the same organization that ‘Alfie’ hailed from. I asked the captain what he thought of the shiny new prospect. “Honestly?” Alfredsson said. “I don’t know much about him…I hear he’s good.”
Norris Trophy good, as it would turn out.
Karlsson was taken in a defensively stout draft with Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian and Alex Pietrangelo already claimed, but the Sens still had other options – Colby Robak was on the board, as was Tyler Cuma of the hometown 67’s. Ottawa GM Bryan Murray got the player he wanted and now Karlsson is a key member of that Senators squad.
Whether the team can pull off the upset over Pittsburgh or not, it’s been a remarkable year for the Senators. Sophomore coach Paul MacLean will likely get his official credit when the Jack Adams Award is handed out and he can thank his GM for giving him the tools with which he put together this impressive Sens machine.
Because it’s not just about picking the right guys at the top of the draft, it’s about developing all prospects over an appropriate timeline. Just look at the Senators.
While Alfredsson was still leading the pack offensively in the post-season, the second-highest scorer on the team is Erik Condra, a seventh-rounder who spent all four years at the University of Notre Dame before winning a Calder Cup in 2010-11 with the Baby Sens in Binghamton. Overtime hero Colin Greening also played on that AHL title team and came from similar humble roots: he was the 204th pick overall in 2005, then spent four years at Cornell before turning pro. And of course there is hat-trick-and-a-missing-tooth folk hero Jean-Gabriel Pageau, an undersized scorer from the Quebec League whom the Sens snapped up 96th overall in 2011.
Are there tales of draft gold mining for every NHL team? Pretty much, but the key for Ottawa has been the ability of Murray to consistently develop his talent and by MacLean to give the players roles they can handle: note how imports Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg have also contributed to the cause at the beginning of their pro careers.
Most fascinating for me is that the Senators didn’t have to hit rock bottom before they saw the light. This is a franchise that has missed the post-season just three times since Alfredsson slung on the jersey and never in consecutive years. Are the Sens long for this year’s playoffs? If the Penguins get their act together, no. But let’s not forget that the Sens went for long stretches this year without their No. 1 center Jason Spezza, their top netminder Craig Anderson and Norris defenseman Karlsson. Not only does that change this year’s playoff bracket (Spezza just returned for Game 3 of the second round), but it bodes well for next season as well.
Even if the 40-year-old Alfredsson calls it a career this summer, the Senators are better positioned for success, especially if the young core continues to mature on its current pace. And there is no indication that ‘Alfie’ is ready to pack it in. After all, he’s gotten to know that Karlsson kid a lot better in recent years and I have to imagine it’s been a positive experience.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.