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Senators putting top prospects under microscope

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Drummondville Voltigeurs centre Sean Couturier answers media questions after working out for Senators management at the Bell Sensplex. Couturier is one of five candidates Ottawa is considering for its top pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).

Quite possibly, it's the most important draft in Ottawa Senators history.

And with the potential long-term gains that can be made in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, the Senators are leaving little to chance in advance of the June 24-25 proceedings at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Especially important is the No. 6 selection Ottawa holds in the first round — its highest position since selecting Jason Spezza second overall in the 2001 NHL draft, a pick that was obtained via trade with the New York Islanders.

With that thought in mind, the Senators are bringing five top prospects to the capital for some extra evaluation. The group, all of them centres, includes Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL), Ryan Strome of the Niagara IceDogs (OHL), Mika Zibanejad of Djurgarden (Sweden), Gabriel Landeskog of the Kitchener Rangers (OHL) and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL).

Couturier, ranked sixth among North American Skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final draft rankings, was in Ottawa today along with Strome (No. 8) and Zibanejad, rated second among European skaters behind Adam Larsson of Skelleftea, considered the draft's top defence prospect. Landeskog and Huberdeau, rated second and third respectively by Central Scouting, will meet up with Senators management on Tuesday.

While the Senators met with the prospects at last week's NHL Scouting Combine, today's activities — which included 30 minutes of on-ice drills and plenty of face-to-face time — offers up a further opportunity to get a better read on the players.

"For us, it’s just a chance to also get to know them as individuals," said Pierre Dorion, the Senators' director of player personnel. "At the combine, spending 20 minutes with them doesn’t give you a fair evaluation of them as people (and) what gets them excited. Spending a whole day and half with them just gives us a better evaluation of who they are.

"Kids now are so programmed. They come into the interview and they say ‘yes, I’m a good hockey player, yes I’m a good person, I work out.’ But when you spend a day and a half with them, you get to know them more as individuals. The guy (we select) is probably going to be here for our franchise for the next 10 years, and the extra day or day and a half really helps us evaluate the player."

"It's fun to have this kind of attention. You don't have it back home. I try to enjoy it as much as possible and I hope to get used to this." - Mika Zibanejad
With the organization committed to a more youthful future — and with such a prime draft position — hitting a home run is a must with the No. 6 pick. Dorion said he's "99 per cent sure" one of the five players the Senators are bringing in will be available for them at that point.

"Because the pick is so important this year, we felt we needed to do this (extra evaluation)," he said. "It just tells our fans that we've been very thorough in the whole process and we're ready to pick a strong asset for the Ottawa Senators."

Zibanejad's stock, in particular, has been skryocketing as the draft approaches. Some experts consider the 6-2, 191-pound centre a potential top-five pick and it seems likely he'll be off the board somewhere in the first 10 selections. Nicknamed the "Persian Prince" because of his family's heritage — his father is Iranian, his mother Finnish — the 18-year-old Zibanejad was interviewed by 29 teams at the combine.

"It's his offensive ability," said Dorion. "When we're talking about Mika, his skating is very good (and so is) his strength, his lower-body strength, his shooting ability and his puck skills. I was over there (in Sweden) seeing him player for Djurgarden in the playoffs and he had an impact as an 18-year-old playing against 30-year-olds. That's one of the criteria that helped his stock rise for the draft."

After his stop in Ottawa, Zibanejad is off to Buffalo, Boston and New York for further interviews.

"Spending a whole day and half with them just gives us a better evaluation of who they are. Kids now are so programmed. They come into the interview and they say ‘yes, I’m a good hockey player, yes I’m a good person, I work out.’ But when you spend a day and a half with them, you get to know them more as individuals. The guy (we select) is probably going to be here for our franchise for the next 10 years, and the extra day or day and a half really helps us evaluate the player." - Pierre Dorion
"It's fun to have this kind of attention," he said. "You don't have it back home. I try to enjoy it as much as possible and I hope to get used to this."

Strome, a 6-1, 183-pound centre, scored only three goals and 13 points in 27 points for the IceDogs in 2009-10. But he opened plenty of eyes this past season with a 106-point campaign (33-73) for Niagara, which reached the Eastern Conference final in the Ontario Hockey League. He's hoping to improve his draft status through sessions like the one today.

"It's very important that they get a feel for you and who you are," said Strome. "More importantly, they get to know you off the ice as well as on the ice. They want to draft a good person, not just a good player, so it's very important."

He also sounds bullish on the idea of being drafted by the Senators.

"I love Ottawa personally," he said. "We played here in the OHL against the 67's. It's a great place to play and we love staying downtown. Very nice people and it's a great city."

The biggest prospect of the bunch is Couturier, a rangy 6-4, 197-pound pivot who racked up 36 goals and 90 points for the Voltigeurs in 2010-11. His stock has been in a downward trend in recent weeks, but he's still optimistic about the draft.

"Wherever you're drafted, once you go to training camp, you still have to prove yourself," said Couturier, a member of Canada's silver-medal winning team at the 2011 world juniors. "Wherever I go, I'll be happy. Each team has their own (rankings) and they'll pick whatever they need. I can't control that."

The Senators also own Nashville's first-rounder (21st overall) via the Mike Fisher trade, along with a trio of second-rounders. In all, Ottawa will make 12 selections in the upcoming draft.


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