The Ottawa Senators are considered to be one of the better drafting teams in the NHL. There is always a pool of NHL-ready talent in their farm system to replace departing players. It begs the question of whether this success is because they draft smarter than other teams, or are they better at prospect development? The Sens do retain their draft picks longer than most teams, with 51% still being owned by the team at age 23. That's 2nd best in the NHL after the Nashville Predators (the league average at this age is just under 40%).
The chart below shows what % of Ottawa Senators draft picks are still owned by the team at each age (for draft picks from 2004-2016), with a separate line showing the average for the rest of the league. The Sens are more than 10% above the league average for ages 23 and 24; staying above the league avg at almost every age.
The Senators do not attract as many big name free agents as other more desirable destinations. They rely on homegrown talent to succeed. This creates a "chicken or the egg" debate; do the Senators sign more picks because they're better than average, or where there simply more job opportunities due to a lack of incoming free agent talent? We know that they retain ownership of their prospects at a greater rate than the rest of the league, but are they playing more NHL games?
Most NHL Draft picks will be on Entry Level Slide for age 18/19, get a 3-year Entry Level Contract for ages 20/21/22, then get their 2nd contract at age 23. It can be different for college players and Europeans, who can wait beyond age 20 to start their ELC. The Senators success rate with draft picks is very similar to the NHL rate from age 18-22. Where they beat the league average is after ELC. Although it should be pointed out that the Senators are among the NHL leaders in % of draft picks still on ELC at age 23 and 24. They are 5th in the league for % of draft picks on a 2nd contract (or more) by age 25.
The number one source of future NHL talent is the Canadian Hockey League, but only 31% of Sens draft picks played more than 9 GP of Canadian Major Junior in their first year of draft eligibility, which was the lowest % among NHL teams. More than half of their picks played North American Tier II or European junior (ranking near top of the NHL in this category), which are often higher risk lottery tickets. This helps to explain why their pick ownership % is above the league average at age 20,21, and 22 despite them not playing significantly more AHL or NHL games.
From 2004-2015 they only drafted 4 defensemen we could say are good enough to be top 4 D. Erik Karlsson at pick 15, Cody Ceci at pick 15, Thomas Chabot at pick 18, and Andrej Meszaros pick 23. They've had success drafting defensemen in the 15-23 pick range. but whiffed on both D they drafted top 10 in Brian Lee and Jared Cowen. The franchise has mixed in some bad picks with the great picks. Yes, they can make mistakes. It's possible that injuries played some part in the Cowen downward spiral, but history will look back on that as a bad draft pick.
Despite the Senators drafting CHL players at the NHL's lowest rate, many of their biggest draft day steals came from that league; Mark Stone rd 6, Zack Smith rd 3, Mike Hoffman rd 5, and JG Pageau rd 4. Getting two elite talents like Stone and Hoffman near the end of back to back drafts is a remarkable feat comparable to Zetterberg and Datsyuk (who are better players, but drafted 5th round or later in back to back drafts). In the case of Stone, he would have fallen in the draft because of his skating, pushing him to work hard to improve his skating. That may be a win for the development side. Hoffman fits more into the "late bloomer" category and took 5 years to even get mentioned in the Hockey News Future Watch.
The biggest flaw in the Sens drafting is goaltending. For all their success with drafting skaters, the net is a different issue. The Senators produced only one NHL goalie since 2003, and that was Robin Lehner (who is average at best and no longer with the team). None of their top 10 prospects in the last Future Watch was a goalie and Craig Anderson is suddenly getting old fast. They'll need to remedy their lack of quality young goaltending in the system.
In conclusion, yes the Ottawa Senators have been better at drafting than many NHL teams over the last decade. They have hit some big home runs in the later rounds, and are among the best at drafting in the middle of the 1st round. Their ability to develop their own prospects has clearly played some factor in this success, proving to be very patient with bringing their top prospects to the big leagues. I do think a big reason for this draft/development success was Bryan Murray, their former GM who is now deceased. The man helped build a dynasty in Detroit, built the foundation of a Stanley Cup champion in Anaheim, then brought his talents to Ottawa.
Murray deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the system that has been built in Ottawa. It's unclear how successful the team will be at drafting and developing going forward without him. Surely the scouting staff is high quality and it would appear that Dorion shares Murray's slow development philosophy. It's looking like they hit a pair of home runs in the 2017 draft with Formenton (47th) and Batherson (121st) who were both fantastic for a gold medal winning Canadian World Junior team. Both should be in the top 50 of the next NHL Future Watch. There is hope for this organization beyond the possible departure of Erik Karlsson.