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Wild Turkey: Revisiting the Muckler Era

Seventeen years ago today, the Ottawa Senators recorded their first modern NHL victory and seventeen years later, we’re still waiting for our first Stanley Cup celebration. That’s not to say that the Senators haven’t had the opportunity to win, they have. The Senators were the sports equivalent to the television series Seinfeld. It had a strong cast that regularly made minor personnel changes, had minor plot changes, nothing got resolved and the end was nowhere in sight. Like Seinfeld, Ottawa fielded some very seasons, and like the Seinfeld finale, their postseasons have never quite lived up to the hype. Even the recent Curb Your Enthusiasm Seinfeld reunion mirrors Ottawa’s situation. Some of the key players are still here, but it’s just not the same.

It was late September, and John Muckler sat in his bunker-like general manager’s office at the then Corel Centre, talking hockey before an Ottawa Senators pre-season game. Outside, the sounds of the National Hockey League were cranking up for the first time in a year, as the NHL clambered out of hibernation. A reporter noted that the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa’s chief rival, did not appear to be set up for the post-lockout NHL.

“No,” said Muckler, shaking his head. “No, they don’t.” ~ Arthur Bruce, The Financial Post

It was early October and Tim sat in his unfinished basement, talking about hockey before the Ottawa Senators home opener. Outside, the sound of his mother could be heard. The tone of her voiced cranked up so that it was audible enough to be heard. Quit your hibernation Tim, and get a real job. In an exchange of emails, a Senators blogger named Nichols noted that two years removed from the Muckler era, the Senators still had not fully recovered from the damage that their former GM had caused.

“No,” said Tim, shaking his head. “No, they have not.”

For a long time, I’ve argued that John Muckler was the primary reason why Ottawa struggled since making the Cup Finals in ’07. Since Ottawa’s playing Long Island, and I have absolutely no desire to over-hype a Karlsson versus Tavares meeting, I’ve decided to do some research and put my theory to the test. Was John Muckler as shitty of a GM as I remember?

There’s an old adage in the NHL: GMs are like politicians, you never really see the consequences of their actions until three years after their term has expired. Perhaps it’s indicative when the results of the John Muckler era were transparent after one.

I’ll make no bones about this. When John Muckler was hired by the Ottawa Senators on June 12th, 2002, he was the beneficiary of a young and talented organization that had prided itself upon strong drafting and player development. Also renowned for playoff disappointment and a hamstrung budget, the hiring of Muckler was intended to the put the Senators over the top.

Actually, over the top is the perfect way to characterize the Muckler regime. In one of his first duties, Muckler was hands on in the painting the Stanley Cup on the wall of the dressing room. Word has it that it looked something like this…

“I’ve said many times over the past 10 years that this has been a very good, very competitive organization. Whether it was luck of the draw, bad luck on the ice or whatever, they haven’t gone as far as some people thought they might. I’m glad we rewrote all that.”~ John Muckler

Rewrote what? You didn’t win anything! In case you’re wondering that above quote was made before the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals had started. Good ol’ Mucks, maybe too much Wild Turkey that night induced that comment. Truth is, the sports fans aren’t like American Idol fans. Not many people always fondly remember those Stanley Cup finalists. (With the lone exception being when you want to rub the appearance in the face of Leafs fans. And may the 1990-1991 Minnesota North Stars rest in peace. Their uniforms are amongst the greatest of all time.)

The fact is, too many casual Sens fans give Muckler credit for getting the Senators to that 2007 Final. He said it himself, luck and a good draw has a lot to do with it. When a team like Ottawa has been as competitive as they have, it was only a matter of time before there’s an opportunity to win a championship. (Remember, in the pre-lockout days, players were typically under contractual control until they reached the age of 31. So the ability to keep a team together was easier than it is now.)

When Muckler was handed the reigns to this team, it was like he was given a free lease on a sportscar. One that he treated like an ’83 Chevette. And as the lease was passed on to Bryan Murray and the hood was finally lifted, the carmay have hada lot of the same parts. However, the machinery under the hood was corroded and in the motor had ceased. “But hey, it’s still a sports car!”

Here’s what I wrote about Murray a week ago:

When Bryan Murray took over the GM reigns from John Muckler, he not only inherited a Stanley Cup Finalist, he inherited a team that was inherently flawed. After years of poor drafting and neglecting the depth on the farm, a few bad personnel moves compounded the problem and the Senators window of opportunity had closed. Only we didn’t know it at the time.

Following the 2007 Cup Finals, fans expected a perennial contender. But without any young talent that was ready to crack the lineup, management was forced to resign its core because there were no other in-house alternatives.

Even though it’s not really problematic to sign one’s elite talent to long-term deals, it’s counter intuitive to sign replaceable veterans to inflated, long-term deals making them completely untradeable in the process. Without young, NHL-ready talent, Ottawa’s veterans could print their own tickets and bleeding heart fans applauded the moves because they’d hate to see one of their own homegrown guys go.

And that’s the problem right now. Too many fans are using revisionist views of the Senators to evaluate Bryan Murray’s tenure for the past two seasons. Where once stood a Cup Finalist, is now a team that whose sole aspiration is to get back into the playoffs. “Lynch Murray! Bring back Mucks! The Murray regime moves slower than the pacing of a Wayne Scanlan column!”

Using some resources, I’ve pieced together John Muckler’s transaction history. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, shall we? (Note to readers: If you’re reading this for the first time, you may want to put a bucket or pail by your side to throw up into. You’ve been warned.)

John was hired in June of 2002, and with his hire, he brought in this bravado that he’d help put this team over the hump. Six months later, he made his mark by trading Josef Boumedienne to the Washington Capitals for Dean Melanson. After a few more months of watching the Senators get pushed around by their opponents, Muckler established himself by acquiring shitty, gritty players who he had connections to. Vaclav Varada for Jakub Klepis. (As an aside, I was completely disappointed with how shitty Varada was as a player and agitator. For a guy who had hands of cement, he should have inflicted more damage with his fists than he did.)

In retrospect, it was a banner year in Ottawa when the organization dealt for Bob Wren and Rob Ray on February 10th. Fortunately, any err in judgment was atoned for the next day when he sent Tim Gleason to Los Angeles for Bryan Smolinski. Even though Gleason has turned into a quick defenceman who can log big minutes and who ideally would have been a great candidate to replace Chris Phillips, I don’t necessarily blame Muckler for moving him. If you’re not familiar, Muckler and Gleason couldn’t agree to terms on an entry-level contract because Gleason wanted Volchenkov-like salary. I’ll hang this one on Rod Bryden’s frugal regime and on Gleason for having the nerve to ask for $900k per year. Unacceptable.

On the heels of another playoff disappointment, Muckler reacted swiftly. He finally rid the organization of Mathieu Chouinard when he failed to qualify him as a restricted free agent. And who could possibly forget the three-way deal that netted Petr Smrek and sent Chris Bala to Minnesota and Chris Murphy to Nashville?

Denis Hamel was acquired for future considerations. I’ve always wondered what it must feel like to be dealt for something that’s likely to be nothing. I don’t know what I’d do if Bloguin was listening to offers for my wares. “Hey Bloguin, I’ll take The 6th Sens off your hands, but only for future considerations. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get another traffic generating rumours site like Sens Chirp. Or maybe you’ll wind up with a Sens site that’s updated as frequently as Kevin Lee’s. Them’s the breaks.”

Magnus Arvedsson was also allowed to leave for Vancouver as a free agent without much fanfare. I feel like if this happened last summer, there would have been an outcry of public support for him. Like he was Chris Kelly or something.

In January of 2004, Ottawa acquired Brad Tapper for Daniel Corso. The city yawned. One month later, Muckler dealt an enigmatic Russian named Alexei Kovalev Petr Schastlivy to Anaheim for Todd Simpson. The next month, Mucker feels compelled to add Peter Bondra because a skilled team like Ottawa could never have enough perimeter scoring. Going the other way were Brooks Laich and a 2nd round pick (Chris Durand).

In March of 2004, Shane Hnidy is dealt for a third rounder (Peter Regin) and a package of Karl Rachunek and Alexandre Giroux fetch Greg DeVries.

After another playoff collapse to the Leafs, Jacques Martin is fired and Patrick Lalime is dealt to St. Louis for a third rounder (Vitali Aneykeyenko). To fill the goaltending void, John Muckler reaches back into the Buffalo well and pulls out Dominik Hasek from the bargain bin. The League locks out the players and nothing matters for over a year.

Fast forward to 2005. The lock out ends. Hasek still wants to play. Hossa needs a new contract. Hossa and Muckler agree on a new deal. Three hours later, Hossa is dealt with Greg DeVries to Atlanta for Dany Heatley. Heatley is labelled by all as a power forward. Four months later, Senators fans call bullshit on the power forward label but love his Brett Hull’esque goalscoring ability. Another thing that Sens fans are loving, the Filip Novak acquisition. Tits! (I’d mention how Ottawa won the draft lottery by being awarded a top 10 pick…but John Muckler blew that pick on Brian Lee and it’s been discussed ad nauseum. Google it, you’ll see what I mean.)

Season ends in February when Hasek tweaks muscle at Olympics. Ottawa fans learn the word abductor adductor but rely upon old favorites like “Shitty cockballs!” and “That fucking Czech! Prioritize!” when referencing this event. But it’s okay, Muckler fixes the issue by relying on Emery and making two minor moves — claiming Mike Morrison off of waivers and trading a second rounder and Brandon Bochenski to Chicago for Tyler Arnason. Arnason’s acquisition hits a climax when I bump into him after Ottawa eliminated Tampa in the first round of the playoffs. An obviously intoxicated Arnason was stumbling around the parking lot outside The Centrum’s Baton Rouge and for whatever reason, I yelled “Hey Arnason. You’re AWESOME.”

That offseason, Ottawa opts to retain Wade Redden instead of Zdeno Chara in a move that’s still hotly debated. In order to replace Chara, Muckler signs Joe Corvo. Apparently, he had a great plus minus in LA. (Note to self: When a trivial stat like +/- is used as the reason why it’s a great signing, don’t buy the hype. Interestingly, LA figured this out when they signed Tom Preissing as a Free Agent one year later.)

Editor’s Note: This was originally where I intended to mention Gerber in the piece. But I forgot. I know, an egregious oversight on my part. Maybe I was too focused on all the other positive things that Muckler had been doing at the time.

If losing Hasek, Chara wasn’t enough, Muckler continued to purge the roster of Czechs by trading Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski to the Blackhawks in three-way deal that involved the Sharks. Ottawa received Josh Hennessey, Michal Barinka, Tom Preissing and a second rounder (Patrick Wiercioch). In retrospect, the trade actually works out to be Havlat and Gleason for that package. It’s one thing to give up a talent like Havlat, it’s another to give up arguably the two biggest talents in that trade. What’s that old spiel that some teams give at a trade deadline? “Sometimes, it’s not the moves you make. It’s the moves you don’t make.” Well, that’s a deal I wish Ottawa never made.

Thankfully, Muckler atoned for the Havlat deal by signing Dean McAmmond and Serge Payer during the free agency period. It also helped that he was able to parlay another disgruntled Russian — Alexei Kaigorodov — into Mike Comrie.

Matt Koalska for Tomas Malec? Yawn. Lawrence Nycholat for Andy Hedlund? Yawn. Oleg Saprykin for a second rounder (Jared Staal)? Arrrgggg!

Here’s a look at Muckler’s entry draft record:

Editor’s Note #2: I went easy on Mucker here and didn’t include that 2007 Draft because Muckler was fired and replaced Murray before the draft began. But because Murray took over at the 24th hour, Muckler’s scouting department was still in place and Murray based his selections upon the work done by Muckler’s guys. Did I mention that Ottawa only had four picks from that draft? Enough said.

2002

1st round: Jakub Klepis

2nd round: Alexei Kaigorodov

3rd round: Arttu Luttinen

4th round: Scott Dobben; Johan Bjork

5th round: Brock Hooton

8th round: Josef Vavra

9th round: Vitaly Atyushov

2003

1st round: Patrick Eaves

2nd round: Igor Mirnov

3rd round: Phillipe Seydoux

4th round: Mattias Karlsson

5th round: Tim Cook

6th round: Sergei Gimayev

7th round: Will Colbert

8th round: Ossi Louhivaara

9th round: Brian Elliott

2004

1st round: Andrej Meszaros

2nd round: Kirill Lyamin

3rd round: Shawn Weller; Peter Regin; Jeff Glass

4th round: Alexander Nikulin

5th round: Jim McKenzie; Roman Wick

7th round: Joe Cooper

8th: Matt McIllvane

9th: John Wikner

2005

1st round: Anze Kopitar; MarcStaal; Brian Lee

3rd round: Vitali Anikeyenko

4th round: Cody Bass; Ilya Zubov; Janne Kolehmainen;

5th round: Tomas Kudelka

6th round: Dmitry Megalinsky

7th round: Colin Greening

2006

1st round: Nick Foligno

3rd round: Eric Gryba; Kaspars Daugavins

4th round: Pierre-Luc Lessard

5th round: Ryan Daniels

6th round: Kevin Koopman

7th round: Erik Condra

 

“John, what do you think of the job you did?”

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