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Senators Week

How Could You Not Like The Drake?

Drake Batherson #19 of the Ottawa Senators skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Canadian Tire Centre on January 15, 2021 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
Matt Zambonin/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

Two summers ago, Drake Batherson, then a 21-year-old standout on the Ottawa Senators’ AHL affiliate, was in his home province of Nova Scotia, at an intense offseason practice with fellow Maritimers Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, and Brad Marchand. To recap the attendance there, that’s an all-time great, one of the best active players in the world, an unmistakably elite winger, and a Drake Batherson. At one of their sessions, they did a drill involving deflections in front of the net. MacKinnon made only two of three tip-in attempts and was furious with himself. “He just lost it,” Batherson remembered. Batherson had felt pretty happy to make just one.

He told this story on a Senators podcast co-hosted by Marc Methot in mid-March, two weeks removed from a hot stretch in which he’d scored seven goals in six games. Batherson leads Ottawa with 17 goals this season—his first spent full-time in the NHL—but you get the endearing sense he’s kind of surprised to be as good as he is. And maybe he should be. He went undrafted in his first draft-eligible year and was only selected by the Senators in the fourth round the following year, in 2017. It’s the rite every sports fan must endure, to groan in hindsight at the stud taken a spot or two after your team’s pick. Here’s a guy your team and mine each passed on at least 10 times.

Going unnoticed is kind of Batherson’s thing. The quickest route to the NHL for Canadians, playing in the “major junior” leagues, tends to reward physically mature early bloomers. While, say, Connor McDavid’s electric age-15 year in the OHL clearly foretold his stardom, there wasn’t much to get excited about with the 15-year-old Batherson, who showed some skill in Junior A but stood an unremarkable 5-foot-5. The first year he was eligible to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (the elegantly abbreviated QMJHL), he went undrafted.

But kids are weird! They grow at weird rates and at weird times, and sometimes later than everyone else. The next year, age 17 and a more respectable 5-foot-8, Batherson was taken in the sixth round of the QMJHL draft, 97th overall. He didn’t play much that season, ironically in part because Batherson’s coach thought he still hadn’t adjusted to his new height. (If you ever want to contribute to a discussion of any prospect in any sport, try this universal bit of scoutspeak: “Needs to learn how to use his size.”) But by the time the Senators took a fourth-round flier on Batherson, ancient at 19, he’d grown to an intriguing 6-foot-1 and had a solid QMJHL season under his belt.

Being patient sucks. Everybody wants to see the young guys play in the NHL and wants to see them right now and wants them to be very obviously and immediately good. Consider Batherson, then, a shining example of patience’s potential rewards. The lesson of his story is not quite Trust The Process, but Respect The Development Arc; give a prospect whatever time and opportunities they need to improve before they move to the next level. For that is exactly what Batherson did. He grew a little more, and played so well in his second full QMJHL season that he ended up with a spot on Team Canada’s roster for the 2018 World Juniors. He then proceeded to tear it up!

The Senators, Respecting The Development Arc, let Batherson simmer in the AHL for two seasons where he dominated, scoring at slightly over a point-per-game pace. In his occasional NHL call-ups during that time, he looked promising but a little slow and unsure of himself. That’s OK! Patience!

Batherson is now one of Ottawa’s best players and looks like he’s having a ton of fun every night. I’d like to tell you that he’s newly 7-foot-4 and still growing. Alas, he seems to have stopped at 6-foot-3. He’s spent most of his ice time lately on the right side of a buzzing top line with 21-year-olds Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris. (I can’t tell how real this nickname is, but the commentator on the local TSN radio station is calling the line “The Offspring,” because their fathers all played professional hockey.) Batherson may have taken a little longer to get here than the other two, but he hasn’t seemed at all out of place this season. If you’re a great goal-scorer and playmaker, who cares if things came together for you a bit late? Batherson’s shot can beat a goalie clean, and his combination of long reach, big frame, and surprisingly silky skating means he can also pretty much carry the puck undisturbed through the offensive zone. He isn’t laying down hits at the same rate as Tkachuk (almost no one in the NHL is) but there’s an undeniable physical edge to his game. Say it with me: He’s learned how to use his size.

This is a big first step to “unparalleled success” for a hockey club: turning what were once little-valued picks into valuable contributors. If the Senators have a looming problem, it’s that someone six years ago probably wrote this same exact post about Mark Stone, the late-rounder whom the Sens developed into a star, only to trade him to Vegas when owner Eugene Melnyk did not feel like paying him. The real challenge for this team is going to be simply retaining the valuable contributors. I’m reminded of Jerry Seinfeld’s squabble with the rental car agent: “You know how to take the reservation. You just don’t know how to hold the reservation.” But until he’s driven away by Melnyk’s thrift, Drake Batherson is a top-six guy to feel great about. He’s proof that developing prospects at their own pace can pay off, and he’s a nice reminder not to write off scrawny teens too fast.

Also, he just seems swell. “I had a great day,” Batherson said in his Atlantic Canadian brogue during media availability last week, on his 23rd birthday. “Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but at the rink with the boys.”