Monday, November 24, 2008

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to the Sens

To give you an idea as to just how concerned hockey fans in the Nations capital are these days, the plight of the local hockey team has moved from the usual scribbling and pecking of the sports department, to the word processing wordcraft of the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson.

Simpson, an award winning National Affairs journalist with the Globe, is normally tasked with the responsibility to help us make sense of the machinations of our Federal government, our never ending national debate on unity and a wider global perspective on the nation's place in the world of nations.

When he's not writing for the national paper, he enters the halls of academia to offer up history and opinion to those thirsting for knowledge at the nation's universities.

So, things are apparently so off the charts in Ottawa now, that Professor Simpson has been forced to enter the debate, providing worrisome background, a few helpful suggestions and a bit of the work of Nostradamus to divine the future for what was once the NHL's most highly regarded franchise.

Pointing the finger at poor management decisions, resulting in poor draft picks, worse trades and a confusing on ice presence, Simpson suggests that the Sens, like their cousins to the south in Toronto, need to blow the whole thing up and start over.

But before they do that, he provides the theory that yet another change in the front offices is required with Bryan Murray to be parted from his duties and a new name, with new ideas and a better plan brought in to guide the rebuilding job that Simpson suggests is needed.

High on his list for a new GM is Steve Yzerman, a local hero from his days in Nepean, an Ottawa suburb and of course a life long Detroit Red Wing, having basked in the success of the NHL's template for excellent management. Having had a front bench seat into how a dynasty of the NHL operates and what it takes to claim Lord Stanley's Cup.

Just a few years removed from their Stanley Cup final appearance, the atrocious start this season and unfamiliar location of the Senators in the bottom regions of the East Division standings has caught many by surprise and added to a palpable sense of panic across Eastern Ontario.

There's a good number of those fans who will be reading Mr. Simpson's column on Tuesday and nodding their head in agreement, providing they're not too shell shocked from the remarkable reversal of fortunes of their local heroes.

A capital collapse
With the Senators swooning, can major changes and a new GM such as Yzerman be far behind?
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail
November 24, 2008 at 10:22 PM EST

OTTAWA — What's happened to the Ottawa Senators? Canada's best NHL team a year ago is now the worst, with bleak prospects.

After 20 games last year, the Senators were 16-4, the best team in the Eastern Conference. After 20 games this year, the Senators are 7-9-4, down with the bottom feeders in the conference, a long shot to make the playoffs.

In the 2006-07 season, the Senators were Stanley Cup finalists. Their collapse is the biggest untold story in Canadian hockey. It's the culmination of a series of dubious or bad management decisions, not one of which caused the plunge but, taken together, rotted the team.

Ottawa fans have watched the slide to mediocrity with incredulity. Unlike Toronto Maple Leafs fans, Sens supporters expect their team to be in the playoffs. (What the Senators did once in the playoffs was another matter.)

After last year's early spurt, the Senators played below .500 for the rest of the season, barely made the playoffs, were swept in four games by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and again this year are below .500.

They have burned through two coaches — John Paddock and Bryan Murray — and are not responding for the third, Craig Hartsburg. He whips them like a mule, but a mule is a mule. It can speed up a little under the whipping, but it remains a mule.

The Senators won Saturday 4-1 against the New York Rangers, offering a spirited effort. They won the only way they can, given a limited amount of talent, playing a chip-and-chase game and outworking their opponents.

The days of a fast, skilled Senators team are over. Apart from the trio of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, they have nothing but pluggers up front.

Their Saturday victory broke a six-game winless skid in which they scored only seven goals. During that skid, they were booed off the ice in Ottawa after losing 3-1 to the lowly New York Islanders, held players-only meetings, and were tongue-lashed by Murray, now the general manager.

Senators fans are smart. They can see the team for what it is, a shadow of yesteryear's dynamic units, crippled by a long series of management errors under general managers John Muckler and Murray that have finally caught up to the franchise.

It's a team with only three bona fide scorers, two backup goalies, four sixth defencemen, no speed on the back end, little secondary scoring, not much size and, chillingly, little help on the farm.

The team's options, broadly defined, are clear. The first — the one likely to be chosen — is to patch and paste through trades in a desperate attempt to stumble into the playoffs again in order to sell seats in the Canadian market with the smallest season-ticket base.

The second is to blow up the team, as the Maple Leafs are doing, in the knowledge that this Senators team, even an improved version of it, will never again threaten for the Stanley Cup. That window for this group is shut, and every honest fan knows it.

The start-again strategy would require a new general manager. One intriguing choice would be Steve Yzerman, who played some hockey before turning professional in Ottawa and is popular in the city.

Yzerman played for the best coach of the modern era, Scotty Bowman, has been learning the general manager's craft under the league's best, Ken Holland of Detroit, and has been named supremo of Canada's 2010 Olympic team.

A longer shot would be Pierre McGuire, once an assistant coach at Ottawa and now a TSN analyst. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things hockey, knows the team inside out and understands the Ottawa market.

The decision about which way to go, and who should execute the strategy, lies with owner Eugene Melnyk, who, if newspaper reports are correct, has been wooing Mats Sundin, an indication he favours the patch-and-paste strategy. Melnyk put Bryan Murray into the general manager's chair, but Melnyk is not known for patience when a product has deteriorated so badly.

What frightens Sens fans is that the patch-and-paste strategy would be executed by Murray, who has presided over the final phases of the Senators' slump.

Last year, he shipped defenceman Joe Corvo and serviceable winger Patrick Eaves to the Carolina Hurricanes for Mike Commodore, perhaps the slowest defenceman in the league, and winger Cory Stillman. Both were free agents, and both departed at season's end, leaving two more holes in an already shaky Sens lineup.

This year, when faced with exorbitant salary demands from defenceman Andrej Meszaros, Murray sent him to the Tampa Bay Lightning for two sixth defencemen, Filip Kuba and Alexandre Picard, and a late first-round draft pick.

But the rot that has eaten away at the Senators started before Murray won a power struggle against Muckler to become general manager.

Muckler had inherited a brilliant team and proceeded to erode its foundations. Sami Salo, still a top-four defenceman for Vancouver, was traded for Peter Schaefer, who is no longer in the league. He blew the draft after the lockout, in which the Senators got a huge break by picking ninth. He selected Brian Lee, who remains in the minor leagues, while passing on other players such as Marc Staal and Anze Kopitar, now young stars.

Always trying to get a player for the playoffs who might round out the team, Muckler traded three No. 2 draft picks and got almost nothing serviceable in return: Peter Bondra, Greg de Vries, Vaclav Varada, Tyler Arnason.

Under Muckler, a team that used to surprise other teams and delight their fans with brilliant late-round draft picks, lost some of its best scouts and player-development personnel. The result was a dreadful American Hockey League team in Binghamton.

The Senators might have survived these Muckler moves. But they could not remain strong after losing Zdeno Chara to free agency, Martin Havlat to a terrible trade, and, before this season, Wade Redden to free agency.

The team had to choose for cap reasons between Chara and Redden after the 2005-06 season. Chara had looked a little shaky in the 2006 playoffs, in which Ottawa, favoured perhaps to win the Cup, choked in losing to the upstart Buffalo Sabres, plagued again by inconsistent goaltending that has always been the franchise's curse.

Management therefore chose to keep Redden over Chara, a franchise-crippling move, since Chara remains an all-star defenceman whereas Redden's game began to deteriorate so sharply that by last season he had played himself off the first power-play unit and had his ice time restricted. Why the Rangers signed him to a long-term, $6-million-a-year (U.S.) contract was the league's biggest off-season mystery.

Senator insiders claim that a deal for Chara had already been cooked up by Peter Chiarelli, the Sens' former assistant general manager who went to Boston as general manager, to lure Chara to Boston. Who knows, as an outsider, what machinations occurred? But the Sens seem to have decided they could not afford Chara, and/or did not want him compared to Redden.

That bad choice was made on Muckler's watch. Having lost Chara, Muckler then panicked by trading the gifted, although oft-injured Havlat, who had said he would test the market as an unrestricted free agent the following summer, to the Chicago Blackhawks in a three-way trade that netted Ottawa two career minor-leaguers and Tom Preissing, a sixth defenceman who played one season in Ottawa and then opted for free agency.

Chara, Redden, Havlat, Corvo, Eaves. For these players, the Senators have nothing to show today. No team so mismanaged can remain competitive. Coming up empty for these five, coupled with indifferent draft picks, plus those end-of-season Muckler trades, meant that past mistakes suddenly caught up with the Senators.

So did the demise of Ray Emery, the goalie who showed promise of evolving perhaps into a solid No. 1, only to play himself out of the league through what are euphemistically called "off-ice" distractions. He is now playing in Russia.

It's one thing to have a weak team; it's worse to have a weak and expensive one, which is what Ottawa has. The team plunked down huge contracts for Spezza, Heatley and Alfredsson, and large sums for Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. Murray then far overspent for forwards Mike Fisher (a third line-centre forced to play second-line centre), two goals; Antoine Vermette, two goals; Chris Kelly, one goal. The result is that the Senators, supposedly a small-market team, are only about $3-million under the league salary cap.

Murray brought in what he called "character" players last year and this year, the knock on the Senators having been that they had lacked intestinal fortitude.

Alas, these "character" players such as 39-year-old Luke Richardson, defenceman Jason Smith, forward Jarkko Ruutu and forward Shean Donovan were either past their prime, or never had much of a prime, except for Smith some years ago with Edmonton.

One arrival, career backup goalie Alex Auld, has made a positive difference. He has played solidly, and bumped Martin Gerber from the No. 1 position, a place Gerber should never had had, but for the inexplicable and costly decision before the 2006-2007 season to sign him to a three-year, $11-million contract that, combined with his B-class abilities, had made him untradeable.

Gerber had played for Anaheim when Murray ran that organization. Apparently, he liked Gerber and argued for signing him to the albatross contract.

Scouts from opposing teams these days are following Senators games like seagulls behind a boat, expecting trade offers from the beleaguered franchise. Either by patching-and-pasting, or blowing up the team, the Senators' organization cannot stand still.

The team will not make the playoffs with the current mess, so existing or new management either has to make short-term trades to try for rapid, if ephemeral, improvement; or clean house, fall further to the bottom, and try to put together in three-to-five years the kind of team that not so long ago was the envy of the league.

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