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Senators playing too well for their own good

The better they do, the worse they'll be.

No, we are not speaking here of the Harper Conservatives' long reach for a majority - you'll find politics in the A section - but of the Ottawa Senators and the curious Catch-22 they find themselves in as the 2010-11 NHL season draws to a close.

The Senators, in fact, though they were officially eliminated from the playoffs on the weekend, are far more interesting to watch right now than at any other time during the season.

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The Ottawa game plan, remember, was to cash in the chips before the trading deadline and go into a full rebuilding program. That would involve culling the team of older players with heavy contracts - done when the team sent Mike Fisher to Nashville, Chris Kelly to Boston, Jarkko Ruutu to Anaheim, Chris Campoli to Chicago and Alexei Kovalev to Pittsburgh - and, when possible, exchanging those veteran players for draft picks.

This was successfully done by general manager Bryan Murray, who also let it be known that the team would not be re-signing glass goaltender Pascal Leclaire. Murray did, however, extend the contract of 32-year-old defenceman Chris Phillips through to 2014. That $9-million investment can only be evaluated down the road, as Phillips, a former pillar of the franchise, has had a miserable season this year.

Murray also pulled off what may stand as the best trade of his Ottawa years when he convinced the Colorado Avalanche to swap goaltenders, Ottawa sending penny-dreadful Brian Elliott to Colorado in exchange for struggling Craig Anderson. Murray then quickly signed Anderson to a four-year deal worth $12.75-million - again a deal that can only be weighed in the future.

This, however, is the present - at least for a couple of more weeks…

Anderson's play since arriving has put in jeopardy Part III of that Master Plan: to grab one of the elite picks in this June's entry draft. Up until a week or so ago, it seemed certain Ottawa and the Edmonton Oilers would be well positioned to chose first or second, pretty much guaranteeing the two basement-dwellers one of TSN's top picks: big Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson or WHL star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Picking third or fourth would hardly be a disaster, as also available this June will be slick Quebec centre Sean Couturier and another Swede, Gabriel Landeskog, who has been playing in the OHL.

Until Anderson began his run, it was a given with Ottawa fans that the Senators would be picking very high, just as planned.

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But then the wins began mounting. As of Monday, Ottawa had risen through the standing to stand third-last with 68 points, ahead of both Edmonton (57 points) and Colorado (64 points, heading into Monday's match with Anaheim Ducks). The Senators were only one point behind the Florida Panthers, each with six games left in the season, and only two points back of the New York Islanders, at 70 points with six games remaining.

Ottawa's record over the past 10 games (6-3-0-1) was far superior to Florida's (3-5-2-1) and better than the Islanders' (4-3-2-1).

This run has some fans believing that all Ottawa needed was Anderson and it would be a contender, but these fans forget that only a year ago it was Elliott who played the major role in that 14-game winning streak that fluked the Senators into the playoffs. This is a team desperately in need of new blood, which is why far more fans have lately been quietly hoping their beloveds lose.

With the Senators scheduled to play the Panthers in South Florida on Thursday, that Thursday game could prove pivotal in the final standing of the bottom-dwellers.

If Anderson were to continue his inspired play, it is entirely conceivable that the Senators could rise to fifth from the bottom.

Then, no matter how the regular season ends, comes the lottery.

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The Senators, ironically, created the NHL draft lottery back in their first season, 1992-93, when there were charges that the team had deliberately tanked its year in order to draft first. An NHL inquiry cleared the team of fixing its finish, but fined the club $100,000 for "intemperate and inappropriate remarks" that may have suggested otherwise.

The lottery was to ensure such a situation never again arose. Through weighted odds, teams missing the playoffs get a chance to move up as many as four places, but can only drop one place. The bottom five all have varied chances of getting the first draft pick.

So, while an Ottawa team finishing 25th overall would still have a long, long, long shot of going first, it could also easily stay where it is or even conceivably drop to sixth - out of the premium sweepstakes as had been the original plan.

The one consolation in all of this is that back in 1993, when they did pick first, they chose Alexandre Daigle, who turned out to be the weakest player of the top picks. Chris Pronger went second, then Chris Gratton at third, Rob Niedermayer fourth, Paul Kariya fifth and Viktor Kozlov sixth.

It's also worth pointing out that the best player the Senators ever picked wasn't in the top five - or even the top five founds.

That would be Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa's fifth pick, sixth round, 133rd overall.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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