Bob McKenzie Talks Sens: Struggles, Trades, Budget

Making an appearance on TSN 1050’s The Drive with Dave Naylor and Steve Simmons, Bob McKenzie spent the bulk of a segment breaking down what’s been going on in Ottawa over the first quarter of the season.

For whatever reason, TSN 1050’s audio clips aren’t anywhere near as accessible as TSN 1200’s for example, but through the magic of Itunes, I listened to the McKenzie and transcribed what he had to say.

Put succinctly, it’s concerning.

As always, my thoughts will be in bold.

On what is going on with the struggling Ottawa Senators…

“I don’t really know. You know what, there’s going to be people, they are going to say ‘Well, it’s obvious they miss Daniel Alfredsson. (There are) leadership issues,’ and they’re going to point the fingers at (Jason Spezza). I don’t think any of that’s fair. If you want to know the truth, and it’s all anecdotal evidence as opposed to anything else, but I think this team is cracking under the pressure under the burden of expectations that they missed a year ago. It was that they lost all those guys to injury last year – Anderson, Karlsson and Spezza — everybody got hurt. It was almost like, ‘Okay you know what, we’re free and easy, nice and loose and nobody expects anything of us.’ They created that pesky Sens mentality and they had fun. And they were the underdog and they kicked everybody’s butt or a lot of peoples’ butts along the way and they weren’t supposed to do anything, and they did great things. And coming into this year, the expectation level got ratcheted up because the theory was, ‘Well, if they did all that without Anderson, and Spezza, and Karlsson, not to mention Michalek and a whole bunch of other guys that got hurt, even with the changeover with Alfredsson leaving but they brought Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur in, that this team was going to take the next big step forward.’ Because if healthy, this might be a team that would push Boston for the division title and it might be a team that would push Boston or Pittsburgh for the Eastern Conference title. That’s the kind of expectation and burden or pressure that these guys were on. And almost from the get go, I’ve talked to some people in Ottawa, and they said, ‘Everything about this year was tense and tight right out of the gate.’ That Paul MacLean, who’s normally a pretty loose guy and everything else, he seemed to be more tense. There just seems to be an air of tension about this team right from the get go. Guys like Jared Cowen, who’s a good NHL defenceman, he hasn’t played very well at all. Eric Gryba, who looked so good last year in the absence of some of these other guys, he’s played very poorly. So they’re looking for a defenceman and they’re trying to stabilize things but boy, oh boy, it seems to me like I just think they’re just cracking under the weight of the pressure.”

Considering how the organization handled the Alfredsson fallout and how persistent Eugene Melnyk was with comments on the casino issue, it’s not really that surprising to hear from McKenzie that those close to the Senators situation perceived a tense group. Rather than building off the momentum and optimism that accompanied the team’s first round playoff victory over Montreal, a lot of the positives were overshadowed by the loss of the captain and this hockey club’s financial concerns.

Now we’re in a situation in which many pundits and fans expected some linear progression and for this organization to take a step towards Cup contention thanks to the return of its healthy players.

On whether some of these problems stem culturally from the owner and the off-ice distractions…

“I don’t think it contributed to it out of the gate, but what I think can happen, is that now they find themselves in a situation in which they’re not playing well. And I’m sure a lot of the players will look in the mirror and say ‘Okay, we need to be better.’ And they do, but I’m sure that a lot of players now, once you’re in trouble and the wheels are spinning and it’s raining you know what, and everybody is on you and the pressure… everybody’s tightening up… that’s when they might say, ‘Well, what do you expect, we’re not a cap team.’ And that, I don’t think it’s a necessarily valid thing because I mean, they did great things in a shortened season last year without so many of their key players. And they were a budget team last year, not a cap team, but the notion now that they can’t spend a single dollar more than what they’re currently spending… when a team gets in trouble and when the players sense that a team is in trouble, if you don’t want to say that the answer is not internal that maybe we should be looking externally for some help but you can’t get it because the owner won’t pay a single dollar more.

Okay, I’ll jump in here. Just last week, Cyril Leeder was on TSN 1200 talking to the guys from TGOR about ownership’s willingness to take on salary if it meant the team would be put in a better position to compete.

Here’s what he said:

“I think we always try to run the team on a prudent and responsible basis, but at the same time, I know how Eugene (Melnyk) views the hockey operations. He really has bought the team and owns the team because he wants to win the Stanley Cup. This is not a financial return. There has never been an ROI (Return On Investment) calculation done in the ten years that Eugene has been an owner, so I know that if we get in this position where a decision has to be made on whether adding a body to help (the organization) compete on the hockey side, he’ll do that. Does he look at the revenues? Sure he does and he pays attention there. But, what’s driving the entire process here really is, ‘how good is the team and how close are we?’ That will drive our decisions on players. Not so much on the business side of things.”

McKenzie isn’t the first to point out that when making a deal, Ottawa had to make a dollar-for-dollar deal. Pierre Lebrun brought up money being a primary concern for Ottawa in a blog post that expressed their interest in Rangers defenceman Michael Del Zotto.

To the organization’s credit, they have been pretty consistent with their message that the money will be available for a ‘hockey move’. Now, whether they’re just saying this to pander to a fan base remains to be seen, but at some point, the fans are going to insist that the organization put its money where its mouth is.

Conversely, hockey insiders like Lebrun and McKenzie, I’m assuming are using their connections and contacts from around the league or with the teams that Ottawa is talking trade with to corroborate whether the Senators can take on salary without having to shed any salary of their own.

Alright, getting back to McKenzie…

“Like, Bryan Murray is trying to make a trade and has been for a while, but he has also got financial handcuffs on. He’s got a budget, it’s ‘x’ number of dollars and he can’t go over it. And that means for every dollar that he brings in, he has got to send a dollar out and those deals are real hard to do. So I would say the only time the ownership thing might become an issue is now that players are starting to look at each other a little sideways and say, ‘Let’s get some help from outside the organization. We can’t get it? Oh, why can’t we get it? Because we’re on a budget.’ And maybe some negativity would creep in that way, but in their order of where they started the season and how they’ve played, I don’t think they think too much of Eugene (Melnyk), to be honest.”

Eeeesh. Amazing (but probably unintentional) double-entendre in his last line though. After dropping that line, McKenzie should have just ended dropped the call and ended the interview there with that closer.

On whether the Senators are team that shows how great goaltending masks the problems the team may have had last season…

“Well, you know what though, (Robin) Lehner has played pretty well a lot of the time. And there was a mini goaltending controversy there where they kept on running with Anderson there even though he lost and Lehner had won three straight. And they came back with Anderson once he was healthy after getting run over there – he had the neck injury. But even on the nights when Lehner has played well, there’s been some games that they’ve lost. So you know what, I’m not convinced that the… I’m not convinced that their goaltending… ‘cause Anderson was hurt for a good chunk of last year and that and Lehner was good… but I’m not convinced that their goaltending is that much appreciably worse this year than it was last year. I think it’s their overall team play. As I say, I don’t have an explanation for why Jared Cowen and Eric Gryba , two guys who I think are real good, big defenceman that, at various times last year looked really good, aren’t playing well at all right now. I don’t understand why there are so many defensive miscues. I don’t understand why this team that reacted positively to every button that Paul MacLean pushed last year seems so out of sorts now. It defies explanation.”

I should preface this response by mentioning that it was Steve Simmons who asked the question. It’s pretty lazy explanation for what has plagued the Sens this season. Although Anderson’s peripherals have regressed, especially on the PK, the Senators have gone from being a decent puck possession team to a horrifically bad one – the play of Gryba and Cowen has contributed to this problem, but you hope in Cowen’s case that it’s simply a by-product of missing a season’s worth of hockey following his hip surgery.

Interestingly, I think part of what made Paul MacLean so successful last season in pushing buttons was his willingness to play his young players, regardless of the number of mistakes they made, so that they could develop as pros. Sure, the volume of injuries that the team had gave players opportunities, but it’s not like MacLean gave his players short leashes. This season it seems like particular players don’t have anywhere near as much rope. Patrick Wiercioch and Mika Zibanejad in particular have been juggled in-and-out of the lineup while other veterans have been given numerous opportunities to play. I can completely understand why the organization wants to get a guy like Greening going by playing with Spezza (especially if the organization is thinking of using him as trade candidate), but a lot of this team’s success last season was attributable to the youthful exuberance and inexperience. It’s almost like the team couldn’t realize that it wasn’t supposed to be that good. Now that they’re expected to be good, they can’t relax and just play. 

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