On Saving Face, Assets and The Draft Date

Shortly before I left on vacation, Eugene Melnyk publicly demonstrated his loyalty towards Bryan Murray by announcing that his general manager inked an extension that will keep the Shawville native with the Senators for the next three years. While it may not have been the house cleaning that Jeffrey Simpson or other like-minded fans had envisioned a few short months ago, the Senators were quick to dismiss Cory Clouston, the bulk of the coaching staff, the VP of communications and the director of player services.

Were the firings warranted?

It depends on who you ask. Without being privy to the inside information and reasoning behind some of the decisions, it’s tough to formulate an educated opinion. However, if you asked former assistant coach Greg Carvel for his unbiased opinion

“Since we traded (goalie) Brian Elliott away (Feb. 18), we had the No. 1 PK in the NHL,” said Carvel. “We were over 90%, which is phenomenal. I don’t feel like the media would ever write that story … look at Ottawa’s PK, they’re tops in the league since this date, and they’re doing it with young kids.

“Obviously, goaltending was the biggest part of it,” added Carvel, who also gave credit to the work of Ryan Shannon, Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, who he says is a “tremendous” penalty killer. But again, it just felt like when Brian Elliott was in the net, the whole team struggled. When Craig Anderson was in the net, the team did pretty well. That provided confidence for the whole group, whereas with Elliott there was almost no confidence because any and every shot had the possibility of going in.”

“I think as a staff we’re more than willing to take our share of the blame,” said Carvel. “There was plenty to go around. I just think we took a lot of blame for the losses, but we never got much credit for the wins.”

I suppose if one looks past the innumerable too many men penalties, the perimeter play that characterized the early portion of the season, the criticisms that Sergei Gonchar was playing on his wrong side on the power play, the unmistakable complacency that had set in amongst the players and the communication problems that Jason Spezza alluded to during his exit interview… then yes, great job coaches.

As Tim mentioned to me in an email, if a goalie can fix whatever ailed the team, why the hell was Carvel here in the first place? His job is to turn lemons into lemonade and one guy just made his job redundant. I realize that you’re only as good as the team on the ice, but he also has to be accountable for the failures as a whole – regardless as to how well the team adjusted to Anderson.

Now Carvel did say that the staff should absorb some of the blame, but he does raise an interesting point and it’s one that I brought up in an article earlier in the month and touched upon in a recent episode of the podcast – Should the coaching staff not be extended the same opportunity that management received once the team received some NHL-calibre goaltending?

Looking at the poll results over at the Ottawa Citizen’s Senators Extra website, the topics of Cory Clouston’s dismissal and Bryan Murray’s approval rate were quite polarizing – 55% felt that Clouston didn’t deserve to be fired and 54% of respondents were happy that Bryan Murray was staying on as GM.

Many have cut Bryan Murray some slack for a few reasons: his staff has demonstrated some strong amateur scouting and drafting ability; his personnel moves towards the NHL Trade Deadline were highly regarded; the Senators had a small sample size of success down the stretch; and people have used more digital ink fellating Murray’s Craig Anderson deal than Pippa Middleton’s looks from the Royal Wedding. (Tim’s ed note: Topical, but we had a dynamite Bin Laden line we just didn’t think we could get away with)

Here’s what some of the members of the traditional media had to say about the Anderson deal:

  • Sherman should be fired for dealing G Craig Anderson to Ottawa for G Brian Elliott. ~ Bruce Garrioch, The Ottawa Sun
  • The Senators, with nothing to lose but a top draft choice, have been on such a roll that there are those who, as late as January loudly cursing the team, now say the general manager is a genius, the coach should stay and all the problems have been solved by young players and a new goaltender. ~ Roy MacGregor, The Globe and Mail
  • Maybe Murray deserves consideration as NHL executive of the year. ~ Don Brennan, Slam! Sports
  • Even Wayne Scanlan, Ottawa’s voice of reason this season, referred to it as the unarmed robbery of the Colorado Avalanche.
  • Why did Murray keep the job? I’d bet it has a lot to do with Craig Anderson. ~ Elliotte Friedman, CBC

With the organization in rebuild mode at the time of the deal, the Oilers had a one-point lead over the Senators for the Landeskog/Larsson/Nugent-Hopkins sweepstakes — the timing of the deal struck me as odd.

On the surface, why would the Senators want to blow it? Didn’t it seem counter-intuitive for the team to plug holes late in the year, win some meaningless games and risk making the ascent up the NHL standings – especially when Anderson was having a terrible season with the Avalanche and would have entered free agency as the third best goalie in a market in which few teams will be looking for a starting goaltender. And if goaltenders like Jonathan Bernier or Cory Schneider become available for trade, the market would be exacerbated further and favour the buyers.

When the Anderson trade was announced, Murray made a point of mentioning that the motivation behind the deal was to evaluate how Anderson could handle this market and give the organization an exclusive window of opportunity to sign Anderson before July 1st.  In light of how quickly Anderson agreed to a deal without ever facing the wrath of a media/fan base that has a tendency to overanalyze every goal that is scored against the Senators (as Murray point out to the Sun’s Don Brennan), would it not have been more prudent to wait until the start of free agency and avoid the unnecessary risk of deteriorating lottery odds?

As I’ve perused the interwebs and newspapers, I feel as though some are ignoring other important motivating factors that were at play. With seventh-worst mark and removed from the Western Conference playoff picture, the Avalanche’s motivation for the trade was clear: to rid itself of an underachieving (albeit talented) player who was headed towards UFA and wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with head coach Joe Sacco. (Note: As I mentioned earlier, Garrioch and Peter Statsny knocked Sherman for his moves and I don’t understand why. Sherman took a meddling non-playoff team and re-tooled it quickly – Eric Johnson, one of Landeskog, Nugent-Hopkins or Larsson, St. Louis’ 11th overall pick and they’re also expected to be the primary suitor for one of Vokoun or Bryzgalov. That’s not bad. Hell, in comparison to what Ottawa received – the 6th overall pick, a late first rounder, a few seconds and Craig Anderson, I think Colorado had the better rebuild.)

Unlike his Colorado counterpart, Murray works for a whimsical owner who admittedly has affected some hockey ops decisions (ie. Fisher trade – told management to take a lesser deal and ship him to Nashville) and finds it unbearable to finally admit you’re a loser.” (As an aside, Melnyk may have just been paying lip service to his role in the day-to-day hockey operations. Even if this is untrue, Melnyk needs to stop this and hopefully with the restructured PR dept, this will come to fruition. The Euge may think that he’s doing damage control by telling white lies but it’s become incredibly difficult to distinguish how much involvement he actually has. Whether it was the Fisher trade, the allegations that he was primarily responsible for the Kovalev signing, he seems impatient and leaves me wondering whether he has the makeup/personality to oversee a rebuild. I can only cross my fingers that he doesn’t get overzealous, overestimate the current talent and tell Murray to augment the roster with some ill advised signings that handcuff the organization’s ability to re-sign some key home grown talent when their contracts eventually expire.)

Murray also works in a one-sport Canadian city where the fans live and breathe Senators hockey 365 days a year and micro-analyze every transaction, no matter how minor the detail. Of course it compounds matters that the city has also been stigmatized with the label of being unwilling to support a loser. And need I mention the media scrutiny? Okay. Moving on…

Perhaps most importantly, Murray was in the last year of his contract and his future was uncertain. Considering that Murray was the initiator of the trade discussions, one can’t help but wonder whether self-preservation was a driving factor in making this deal. Fortunately for the GM, Anderson stood on his head and fans and the owner alike, after years of exposure to mediocre goaltending, were seduced by the unsustainable numbers that Anderson posted – an 11-5-0 W/L record; a save percentage of .939 and a GAA of 2.05. And everyone, including The Euge, got caught up in the team’s success down the stretch. “I was ready for three, four years,” Melnyk said. “Then all of a sudden you started seeing him (Murray) at work. We could be back in the playoffs next year and we could be a major contender within two years.”

In fairness to Murray, whether it was his intent or not, the early round draft picks that he acquired for the likes of Kelly, Fisher and Campoli have insulated the organization and given it the flexibility to parlay some draft picks to move up in the draft. More importantly, with the strict financial implications of the NHL’s salary cap, it’s become incredibly challenging for teams to contend for the Stanley Cup without finding dynamic young talent in the Entry Draft. As a few studies have shown, the historical difference in value between receiving a top five selection and a top ten pick is quite significant. While it is true that some prospects like Anze Kopitar or Jeff Skinner can slip through the cracks, those are just some select examples. Sometimes the difference between a top three pick and a top six pick can be a Jonathan Toews and a Derek Brassard.

Now I’m not saying that Ottawa can’t grab a good player at the six spot, but if they really want to grab a player, they’re going to have to hope that player slides to them or they’re going to have to make trade up. Thanks to The Euge’s bravado, Sens fans already know that if the opportunity presented itself, the organization would make a trade and move up in the draft and grab the player that the scouts prefer. Even if it means trading Nashville’s first round pick to move up, they have do it. Unfortunately, this whole process serves as a lesson in failed asset management. Depending on what the organization gives up at the draft table, that was the hidden cost to acquire Craig Anderson.

Looking back over Murray’s tenure, I think that I’ve been pretty fair in the sense that I’ve defended and criticized Murray when I felt that it was warranted. In fact, I can empathize with many of the moves that Murray has made over the past few seasons but it’s just that many of them haven’t worked out favourably for the organization. (As a side note, isn’t it sad that Ryan Potulny is the first player acquired at a trade deadline who has actually had an impact in the playoffs for the Sens?)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s foolish to hold any GM to some unreasonable gold standard since no GM is infallible or immune to mistakes. Murray’s record has some blemishes but he’s also far removed from being mentioned in the same breath with the Milburys, Sutters and MacLeans of the NHL realm. For the past four years that Murray has held the GM title, his reign has been characterized by short-term fixes, cut-and-pasting to maintain his team’s level of competition because the owner encourages or demands it and management wanted to afford their veteran core every opportunity to turn things around. Yet, despite some poor signings and trades, what the Murray regime has done well is that has added some organizational depth and built a respectable foundation of prospects that is slowly starting to trickle into Ottawa’s every day roster.

So once Ottawa acknowledged that was changing its philosophy and was willing to embrace the “rebuilding” phase of the cycle (well, depending on who you ask), it was an ideal time for the organization to distance itself from its previous philosophy and serve some humble pie to ownership. Nevertheless, when The Euge revealed that Ottawa could have received a better deal than the one offered by Nashville for Fisher, it seized much of the goodwill that the organization had created and took some of the lustre off of Murray’s deadline activity. I kept asking myself questions like: where’s the GM’s autonomy? What was this “better deal” that Ottawa allegedly turned down? Shouldn’t a good GM be more like Theo Epstein, keep the owner at arm’s length and threaten to walk if it becomes an issue? Will Melnyk ever stop portraying himself as a meddlesome owner?

Much like the effects of the Anderson trade, it’s going to take some time before these kinds of questions can answered. Sure, right now, on paper, the deal looks great for the organization in the short-term but it will take years before we can truly begin to understand the ramifications of the deadline moves. (Not only is revisionist history awesome but it’s also a timely cop-out!)

One year from now or maybe more, we’ll be able to look back upon the last few months and be better suited to evaluate Murray’s moves. Maybe by then, the organization will be a major contender.  In the meantime, I’ll wait and hope that the organization is truly genuine about its desire to be good year in and out. Something tells me that The Euge hasn’t figured out what it takes. His heart may be in the right place and Bryan Murray may be armed with a new 3-year extension and mandate but unless the managerial infrastructure has learned from their previous mistakes, it ultimately won’t matter.

As Tampa Bay Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman said in The Extra 2%, “People ask all the time what our expectations are. We don’t get caught up in the process. We believe, with the right process, good things will happen.”

I want to believe in Ottawa’s process. I want to believe that good things will happen. More importantly, I want to see the process in motion and carried out the right way. I can only hope taking lesser deals and ill advised signings and acquisitions hoping to falsely expedite the process are not going t be common place in this rebuild. The draft will give us an idea of where we stand and provide a new depth chart to stare at but ultimately everyone’s a winner on paper at the draft. The Senators will just have to wait until the skates hit the ice in the fall to see what’s in the stable. I can only hope that the right process is more concerned with the long term success of the franchise and not a premature quick fix. Thankfully, time holds all truths and is willing to release them to the public.

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