Senators take close look at three top draft prospects

Marc Power, Ottawa Senators skating coach, directs top NHL prospects (L2R) Ryan Strome, Sean Couturier and Mika Zibanejad before a skating drill at the Bell Sensplex in Kanata. Mike Carroccetto, The Ottawa Citizen

It’s a mark of how important, in this age of the salary cap and early free agency, the NHL draft has become.
It’s not enough anymore to spend barrels of money scouting the top North American and European prospects all season.
It’s not even enough to meet, test, and interview many of them during a NHL-sponsored combine in Toronto.
Today, NHL teams want to get up-close and personal by bringing the top prospects to town for more in-depth testing and interviewing.
It’s a trend that has started slowly. But it’s growing and this year you can count the Ottawa Senators among those teams looking for that one last advantage.
In an indication of how serious they are about building a base for the future, the Senators for the first time have invited five top prospects to the city for a round of tests, interviews, and a dinner with the team’s hockey braintrust, including captain Daniel Alfredsson.
They hosted three players on Sunday evening and Monday morning, and will host another two today. These players were invited because they stand a decent chance of being available when the Senators use their first first-round pick, No. 6.
Director of player personnel Pierre Dorion said it’s around 99 per cent certain that one of the five will be available and picked by the Senators.
The Senators will also pick 21st, the pick coming from the Nashville Predators in the trade for Mike Fisher.
These sessions are not so much about seeing how the players perform in the skill tests they’re put through. They’re more about getting a chance to meet the players over dinner and assess character.
“Spending 20 minutes with them at the combine doesn’t give you a fair evaluation of who they are as people,” he said.
“But when you spend a day and a half with them, you get to know them more as individuals. These guys are probably going to be here for the franchise for the next 10 years, and the extra day and a half really helps us evaluate the player.”
The three players tested and interviewed on Monday were: 6-4, 197-pound Drummondville Voltigeurs centre Sean Couturier; 6-0, 175-pound Niagara IceDog centre Ryan Strome; and 6-2, 191-pound Djurgarden (Sweden) centre Mika Zibanejad.
Today, the Senators will interview 6-1, 170-pound Saint John Sea Dog centre Jonathan Huberdeau, and 6-0, 207-pound Kitchener Ranger left wing Gabriel Landeskog.
Niagara IceDog defenceman Dougie Hamilton, ranked fourth in the Central Scouting final rankings, was supposed to be here today but had a school commitment and couldn’t attend.
That four of the five are centres gives you an idea of what the Senators are looking for.
For their part, the players have been caught in a whirlwind. This is just one of many pre-draft commitments.
Zibanejad won’t be free to head home to Sweden until Thursday. After the combine, he flew to Ottawa. Monday afternoon, he headed to Buffalo. From there it was to Boston and New York.
“It’s fun to have this attention,” he said.
“You don’t have it back home. So I’m just trying to enjoy it as much as possible. I hope I get used to this.”
Zibanejad was second in the Central Scouting’s final European rankings. He’s been called the Persian Prince. His father is Iranian and his mother is Finnish.
He had nine points (five goals, four assists) in 26 games with Djurgarden. He began the season by getting 21 points (12 goals, nine assists) in 27 games with Djurgarden’s junior team before being recalled.
Couturier, who finished sixth in the Central Scouting rankings, a drop from No. 2 on the mid-term list, figures to be the player who will be available when Ottawa picks.
He had 96 points (36 goals, 60 assists) and 36 penalty minutes in 58 games for Drummondville in 2010-11, and won a silver medal with Team Canada at the 2011 world juniors in Buffalo, N.Y.
Coutourier was uncertain whether his solo interview would be a deciding factor.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I mean, they’ve seen us play a lot this winter and game situations are a lot different than (Monday’s skills tests).
“They’re just getting to know us more personally. Maybe it could make a difference.”
Strome was ranked eighth by Central Scouting. He had 106 points (33 goals, 73 assists) and 82 penalty minutes in 65 games for IceDogs in 2010-11.
Strome thought the solo interviews are important, because they reveal the player behind the skills. He’ll also be going to Buffalo for an interview.
If he lands here, though, he’ll be more than happy, having come to know the city quite well through his OHL games against the 67’s.
“I love Ottawa, personally,” he said. “Nice people and it’s a great city.”

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