Sunday is draft day in New Jersey.
Teams selecting in the opening round traditionally try to fill a specific need.
However, there being no 18-year-old surgeons available, the Ottawa Senators have decided to “take the best player available,” regardless of position.
Coming out of a better-than-expected year – and despite major surgeries to star centre Jason Spezza (back) and James Norris Memorial Trophy-winning defenceman Erik Karlsson (Achilles heel) – the Senators find themselves holding the 17th spot, several Stanley Cup rounds from the twin superteens – American defenceman Seth Jones and Canadian forward Nathan MacKinnon – who have long been spoken of as the top picks of a “decent” draft year.
Last year’s 17th-overall pick, Tomas Hertl, went to the San Jose Sharks but played in the Czech elite league in 2012-13. He just signed a three-year deal with the Sharks and will attend training camp, but is considered a good distance away from playing in the NHL.
Thumbing through the hockey cards of recent No. 17 picks won’t get Ottawa fans excited: Nathan Beaulieu (2011, Montreal Canadiens), David Rundblad (2009, St. Louis Blues), Trevor Lewis (2006, L.A. Kings) and Marek Schwarz (2004, St. Louis) all had cups of coffee with various NHL teams; Martin Hanzal (2005, Phoenix Coyotes) is a regular and Jake Gardiner (2008, Toronto Maple Leafs) is a semi-regular.
You have to go back a full decade to find a true star. That would be 2003, when Zach Parise went 17th to the New Jersey Devils. Parise, of course, just finished the first season of his 13-year, $98-million (U.S.) deal with the Minnesota Wild.
The Senators have struck gold in the first round before – Karlsson went 15th overall in 2008 – but the draft pick that most concerns them at the moment didn’t come up until the sixth round.
That would be captain Daniel Alfredsson, taken 133rd overall in the 1994 draft – the year the Buffalo Sabres had pick No. 17 and took Wayne Primeau.
The Senators took Radek Bonk, Stanislav Neckar, Bryan Masotta and Mike Gaffney all ahead of Alfredsson, who at 40 was the team’s most consistent performer this shortened season in which they went to the second round of the playoffs, farther than any Canadian franchise.
Alfredsson was widely expected to retire had it been a full season. Four young boys and a guaranteed managerial career with the Senators make it tempting, but he’s still undecided for 2013-14.
The thinking was he might hold on until the 2014 Winter Olympics, where he has already represented his country four times and was a key player in the Swedish gold-medal victory at the Turin Games in 2006. But just this week, he was left off the list of 18 forwards invited to a three-day information gathering in preparation for the Sochi Games.
That may mean nothing. But then there is that other thing that’s supposed to mean nothing: the July 5 deadline for unrestricted free agency. Technically, Alfredsson is about to become one: he played out the final year, for $1-million, of his four-year, $19.5-million deal.
Having had a far-better year than former teammate Sergei Gonchar, 39, who recently signed with the Dallas Stars for a mind-boggling $10-million over two years (the Senators offered a one-year deal at $3.5-million), it’s entirely conceivable a team in need (roughly 29 of them) might dangle a golden carrot. Not that Alfredsson would be likely to grab for it. But they might try.
“We’ll have an answer before this weekend,” Sens general manager Bryan Murray says.
Murray and Alfredsson have had one good long talk. Alfredsson is taking his family home to Sweden now that school is out and he has to decide, first, if he is prepared to do the physical preparation that is required for professional hockey players. If he starts running, he’ll most assuredly soon be skating.
“He doesn’t want to be a player that’s just hanging on,” Murray says. “I agree with that.”
He is hardly hanging on – Alfredsson averaged a point a game during the Senators’ 10 postseason matches – and, as this year’s recipient of the Mark Messier Leadership Award, he carries more of hockey’s treasured “intangibles” than anyone else ever has on the Ottawa team.
Murray says after their talks he came away with “a feeling that he certainly wants to play.”
But the team would like to know for sure before Sunday at 3:00 p.m. (EDT), when the NHL entry draft officially gets under way at the Prudential Center in Newark.
If he’s not coming back, that 17th pick becomes just a bit more important. And as for the other picks, you just never know what hidden gem you mind discover in a sixth round.