Retooling on the Fly (I Think?) — The Bryan Murray Era

Three years ago, I attended my brother’s birthday party at the Shanghai restaurant on Somerset. It was a Saturday night and like any other Saturday night at Shanghai, karaoke was added to their menu starting at 9pm. Before 10pm, I was introduced to Doctor Watson.

For those who are unfamiliar with him, the good doctor appears to be a Shanghai karaoke regular who is easily recognizable since he spends the majority of the evening with his headphones on. Listening to what I can only imagine were the songs that he had planned to sing along to.

When it came time for him to take the stage, he graced us with his interpretation of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android. Three minutes and five seconds later, a functional green Star Wars lightsaber had been pulled out to compliment Doctor Watson’s airguitar solo.

Fast forward to this past Saturday night…

I returned to Shanghai for another one of my brother’s birthday celebrations and there he was. Doctor Watson. Complete with headphones and lightsaber. Paying homage to Paranoid Android yet again. Across town, the Senators were busy getting shellacked 3-0 by the Montreal Canadiens. On the same night that one of Ottawa’s best kept secrets entertained, Ottawa’s worst kept secret risked being exposed with another loss.

With a 2-5-1 record, it’s becoming painfully obvious that this version of the Senators no longer resembles a team that is built for success. Sure, it’s still early and yes, the Eastern Conference is so inherently mediocre that the Senators can climb back into the playoff picture. However, Ottawa’s digging themselves a hole that they might have trouble climbing out of.

The first few weeks have essentially exposed all of Ottawa’s weaknesses: poor team speed; a soft and unbalanced blueline; a lack of natural goal scorers amongst their top two lines; an abundance of third and fourth line players; and average goaltending.

If Brett Favre can admit to leaving some voice messages on Jenn Sterger’s answering machine, maybe it’s about time that we, as fans, faced the ugly truth in regards to the Ottawa Senators: the direction of this team needs to be addressed and revisited.

For the past few years, I’ve given Bryan Murray the benefit of the doubt. Taking over for John Muckler was akin to getting hired by the city of New Orleans to clean up the streets after the Mardi Gras celebration. Sure, it was a great, drunken debauchery of a party while it lasted but what a mess that he left.

When Murray took over the GM reins, 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 — Brian Lee and retaining Wade Redden instead of Zdeno Chara —  compounded the problem and the Senators’ window of opportunity had closed. We just didn’t know it at the time.

Following the 2007 Cup Finals, fans naively expected a perennial contender. But without any young talent that was ready to crack the lineup, management was forced to re-sign 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.

There’s an old adage in hockey that General Managers should be evaluated like politicians. You have to wait three years before you can actually begin to see the fruits of their labour. In the three years that Murray has remained in power, he has blown through coaches and cap space faster than Kevin Stevens could go through hookers and crack.

With the way that I’m talking, you’re probably thinking that Murray’s tenure has been a reign of terror?

It hasn’t been that bad.

Much of the respect paid to Murray is attributed to his restocking the farm system with prospects and players who could or should be able to play in some capacity at the NHL level.

Here’s a look at the players drafted under Murray:

1st round (29th overall): Jim O’Brien, C
2nd round (60th overall): Ruslan Bashkirov, LW
3rd round (90th overall): Louie Caporusso, C/LW
4th round (120th overall): Ben Blood, D

1st round (15th overall): Erik Karlsson, D
2nd round (42nd overall): Patrick Wiercioch, D
3rd round (79th overall): Zack Smith, C
4th round (109th overall): Andre Petersson, F
4th round (119th overall): Derek Grant, C
5th round: (139th overall): Mark Borowiecki, D
7th round: (199th overall): Emil Sandin, LW

1st round (9th overall): Jared Cowen, D
2nd round (39th overall): Jakob Silfverberg, F
2nd round (46th overall): Robin Lehner, G
4th round (100th overall): Chris Wideman, D
5th round (130th overall): Mike Hoffman, F
5th round (146th overall): Jeff Costello, LW
6th round (160th overall): Corey Cowick, LW
7th round (190th overall): Brad Peltz, LW
7th round (191st overall): Michael Sdao, D

3rd round (76th overall): Jakub Culek, LW
4th round (106th overall): Markus Sorensen, RW
6th round (178th overall): Mark Stone, RW
7th round (196th overall) Bryce Aneloski, D

Looking back at his draft record, a couple of things stand out: One, it’s tough to fault Murray for what turned out to be a weak 2007 class. After being named as the GM at the 11th hour before the draft, Murray was handicapped by having to rely on Muckler’s staff for amateur player evaluations.

Two, although a handful of the above players have played at the NHL level, it’s still far too early to praise Murray’s draft record when most of these guys haven’t played at the NHL level yet. Granted, it’s lengthy grassroots player development process that’s necessary in the cap era to ensure that when the time comes, you can replace expendable NHL-calibre players with cheaper in-house alternatives.

Three, I can’t but help that notice that the majority of Murray’s high upside prospects are Swedes. Even though Anders Forsberg is still listed as an amateur scout on Ottawa’s website, when Bryan Murray dealt the 2010 16th overall pick for 2009 1st rounder David Rundblad last summer, the Ottawa Sun indicated that 2010 would be his last draft with Ottawa since he had formally accepted a job as coach of Skelleftea in the Swedish Elite League.

What Senators fans have been left with is an average NHL team that is up against the cap ceiling. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts or podcasts, Murray’s trade record is incredibly spotty. He has sacrificed money and assets to keep this team intact and relatively competitive.

After a strong first half to the 2007-08 season that saw the team draw comparisons to the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, the Senators spiraled into a free fall that only Jonathan Cheechoo could appreciate. Rather than opting to shake up the roster by touching the core, Murray moved the popular Patrick Eaves and Don Brennan’s whipping boy, Joe Corvo for Mike Commodore and Cory Stillman. Although this trade is heavily criticized in some circles, I don’t think it was the unmitigated disaster that some fans make it out to be. Eaves has never amounted to anything more than an injury prone fourth liner and Corvo had allegedly asked to be dealt. I appreciate the fact that Murray tried to shake things up and even though it didn’t work out, it’s not like the organization took on some bad contracts.

In the summer of 2008, the Tampa Bay Lightning were allegedly threatening to reacquire the third round pick that they had traded to Pittsburgh. Had they done so, they would have had the first, second and third round picks necessary to sign restricted free agent Andrej Meszaros to an offer sheet.

At the time, I wasn’t fond of the trade. If Tampa was really willing to pony up with an offer sheet for Meszaros, I felt like any deal with the Lightning should have centred around Tampa’s first round selection instead. Having already lost a puck moving defenceman in Wade Redden to unrestricted free agency, Murray balked at exclusively receiving multiple draft picks from Tampa and instead acquired Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and the 1st round pick that Tampa had received from the Stanley Cup contending San Jose Sharks. (Ed. note: Despite missing out on a potential lottery pick. The trade still worked out in Ottawa’s favor. San Jose’s first rounder was eventually shipped to the Islanders for Chris Campoli. When the dust had settled, the deal broke down into Campoli and Kuba for Meszaros. Considering that Meszaros’ career path is resembling Wade Redden’s, it’s an Ottawa win.)

Even when the team was out of the playoff picture during the 2008-09 season, Murray refused to parlay impending UFAs — Filip Kuba and Chris Neil — into draft picks. Instead, he opted to move a first round pick and Dean McAmmond to the Islanders for Chris Campoli and Mike Comrie. To this day, it’s one of the more confusing trades in modern Senators history. Why had Murray waited until the team was out of postseason contention to overpay for a need that the team had since training camp? And why pay a premium for a defenceman who couldn’t stick in a lowly Islanders lineup?  How the hell did Comrie manage to pass his physical with an ailing hip condition?

Not every blown acquisition was necessarily Murray’s fault. Many believe that the Kovalev signing was pushed upon him by ownership and his situation has been exacerbated by Dany Heatley’s frontrunning trade request. Although, it’s not like he has made situations easier on himself either. During his time as a head coach, a lot of stuff was swept under the rug because the team was winning. As the tides turned and the organization suffered from lofty expectations, players were expected to be held accountable. Ray Emery signed a became iconicized as a disruptive force within the dressing room. Although much of the blame fell on Emery’s shoulders, Murray was the one who had no issue giving him a raise following Ottawa’s first Cup Finals appearance. (Ed. note: It should be noted that Murray was protected somewhat by a relatively cheap buyout clause that is available to other young players around the league.)

With a new emphasis on optics and how the organization was perceived locally and nationally, Murray eventually put roster in remission and cleared the locker room of the perceived cancers. To this date, I believe that Bryan Murray trying to change the perception of Ottawa as a viable destination to play.

As a one-sport town with a hockey-starved fanbase and some critical media who thrive when there’s controversy, Murray hasn’t exactly helped himself by speaking out so publicly candid with his comments. Not only has it negatively affected his leverage in the Heatley trade negotiations but is has helped fuel unnecessary drama with Jason Spezza.

Whether it’s something like these aforementioned trades, the Kovalev signing or some deadline deals like Sutton and Cullen, many believe that it’s the result of some overt pressure from management to go for it. Earlier in the season in an editorial feature with Sun Media, Melnyk made this comment in regards to a question that asked whether or not the Senators could contend for a Stanley Cup this season, “I think so. If we’re healthy. Otherwise, why are we dropping the puck today, if we didn’t believe that?”

Judging by management’s willingness to cut and paste a lineup together at the NHL level, or The Euge’s insistence that fans who want to blow things up should blow themselves up, I have no reason to believe that Melnyk’s words are just lip service. If anything, The Euge’s words just perpetuate that stereotype that the city of Ottawa will only support a winner.

So where does the team go from here?

Well, with the way things are going, hopefully the Sens won’t be playing golf in April at Loch March’s Ottawa Golf and Country Club.

Although I am starting to believe that a major retooling is necessary, I have to assume that it’s not the most realistic choice during the season. Based off of what he said in a media scrum earlier this week, Murray believes that it’s bull for pundits to blame the age of Ottawa’s core as a primary problem for this team. Even though the Ottawa Citizen’s Wayne Scanlan broke down the numbers and identified Ottawa as the fourth oldest team in the league when everyone is healthy, I tend to agree with Murray here.

The problem isn’t necessarily that some of Ottawa’s best players are seasoned veterans. Ottawa’s “core” features many players who are in the prime years of their careers. The problem is that these same players are being paid market value or greater than market value for their talents. As it stands, you could count the number of players on one hand who have outproduced their contractual terms.

Fortunately, Ottawa’s in a unique position.

A quick glance at the roster reveals that much of the team’s expensive deadweight will come off the books on July 1st. Names like Chris Phillips, Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Campoli, Brian Lee, Pascal Leclaire, Ryan Shannon, Alexei Kovalev can all be let go, freeing up more than $15-million in cap space. Thanks to a philosophy of building a team from the net out, the organization has a number of blue chip prospects like Lehner, Cowen, and Wiercioch who all look like they’ll be ready to crack the roster within the next calendar year.

Like it or not, looking ahead to the 2011 offseason, the team is destined to undergo a major retooling process. As much as I’m looking forward to how the next few months are going to unfold, given Bryan Murray’s track record for asset management involving NHL-ready talent, I have some genuine concern for how this team is going to be handled moving forward.

Rather than see management make another short-sighted decision that benefits the team, I would prefer that the organization holds tight and waits for some key pieces like Kuba and Spezza to return to health. And coming off of his ACL surgery, Kovalev should be given until January 1st to find his legs and demonstrate that he can still put up some offensive numbers. (Ed. note: I’m talking about his offensive production, not that -20 rating that he’s carried in his past 25 games) If he can’t find his game or help the power play by then, management should bury him rather than risk sending him to a Conference rival. (Ed. note: Assuming that Ottawa’s still in the playoff hunt by then. Or that another team would actually want this guy.)

We’re only fooling ourselves if we think that this is anything more than a middle of the pack team when everything is going well and as injuries have shown, this team is precariously thin at important positions. If the team plays itself out of contention by the time that these players return, then so be it. At that point, if any serious offers for Kovalev (Ha!) and other expendable veterans come in, Murray should listen. That being said, it’s important to keep in mind that with so many Eastern Conference competitors pressed up against the cap ceiling, vets on expiring contracts are luxuries to have. I would hate to see management move some of these expiring contracts for some short term solutions who are on longer term contracts.

Hopefully Bryan Murray has learned from this Kovy signing and Blackhawks’ Huet and Brian Campbell signings. He shouldn’t forsake fiscal sanity to bring the best free agent right now to the Senators this season. He should be looking at bringing in some younger and less expensive alternatives that are still developing. Instead of targeting big tickets like Brad Richards or an Andrei Markov, perhaps a player like David Backes will do. (Ed. note: If you think this summer’s projected free agent crop is unflattering, just wait until you see who’s available in 2012.)

In talking with reporters, Cory Clouston mentioned last week that there’s a fine line between panic and concern and he’s right. Although I’m concerned with how management and ownership will handle this season’s personnel moves. I promise not to panic until Murray makes an inane move that only benefits this team now.