Melnyk Speaks: Finicky Fans, Budget, Alfie’s Return

Following the release of the Forbes valuations, the announcement of the Rogers NHL contract, and Daniel Alfredsson's impending return to the nation's capital, it was only a matter of time before Senators owner Eugene Melnyk graced the airwaves to weigh in on some pretty important matters that should affect the Ottawa Senators.

Melnyk joined Ian Mendes and Lee Versage on TSN 1200's The Drive to shoot the breeze 

To listen to the full interview, you can click here or you can stream the full interview via the embedded audio below.

As always, my thoughts in bold.

On his take of this hockey team after 24 hockey games and not meeting expectations…

“It’s kind of a… in my eleven years now, this is my eleventh year in owning the team, I’ve never seen anything like it where when we go up against our biggest of divisional rivals – Toronto, Montreal, Detroit and Boston – we smoke those guys and then we come up against what I call the ‘two foot putt games’, we blow them.  That can’t continue ‘cause those are the one that you’re going to win. And those are the ones that you’ve got to win or you’re going to be killing yourself at the end of the season. You know, why and what. But overall, I think we’ve got awesome goaltending. Bobby Ryan has contributed. (Clarke) MacArthur has contributed. Spezza and Karlsson are healthy and back, but I think it’s early. And I think all you need is one good run and we saw it happen last year with Pittsburgh. Or maybe it was the year before. But, we need one hot run and all of a sudden, we’re right there. It’s still tight, so I have certainly not given up hope. More than anything, I really believe everybody is starting to understand what they have to do to get a game in.”

Good job by Mr. Melnyk recognizing that the Senators are 4-0-1 and have outscored these four division rivals by a combined score of 22-10 this season. Nevertheless, let’s not simply dismiss Ottawa’s other games as simply ‘two foot putt games’.

As Scott (@wham_city) pointed out: 

Throw in Ottawa's historic struggles against the elite teams in the East like the Bruins and the Penguins and Scott's tweet gives reason to ask the question, "What is this roster's current and future upside?" 

If the Sens can't beat the best teams regularly now, and with most of this team's best young players already on its roster, how or when is this team going to put itself in a position to succeed moving forward knowing that its limited financial resources already put them at a disadvantage. And how can this organization feel confident about being able to augment this current group when other high spending teams around the league will be able open the purse strings as the salary cap contines to climb over the next few seasons?

Because let's be honest, if this team is going to get better, it will have to be done through internal growth and development. Whether that means seeing more of their own young players play and develop or having management parlay their young depth for better talent remains to be seen, but Ottawa simply cannot satisfy itself being a bubble playoff team.

What's disconcerting about Ottawa's situation is that with the exception of Robin Lehner and Mika Zibanejad, their best players have already reached their highest levels of performance production and while they do boast a nice assortment of young players, with the exception of Cody Ceci (and it'd be unfair to put him in that position right away), it's not like there is the next wave of superstars or other high ceiling guys are knocking on the door ready to make their mark.

Maybe guys like Cowen and Wiercioch can begin to fulfill the potential that Murray saw in them when he inked the pair to extensions in the offseason, but this team currently sits 7 points out of third in the Atlantic Division and if there's not much more room for growth here, then that is simply not good enough.

Melnyk can talk about being one good run away from making a push at the playoffs, but at some point, making playoffs should stop being the threshold to categorize a season as a success. If you can't contend in the present, fans need to feel like the organization is building towards something.

And if this season's struggles continue and it turns into a bit of a throwaway campaign, how much harder is it going to be to convince guys like Ryan and Spezza to stay?

On the upcoming Detroit Red Wings and what they might have planned for Alfie’s return…

“Well, I think we’ll recognize what Daniel’s done for Ottawa and what he means for our fans and there’s no question that we’re going to honour him and make sure that everybody is behind him. We’re going to do a very nice tribute video and it’s going to be before the game starts. So hopefully everybody gets to their seats early and watches it. But we now have a new captain and a new team and all we can do is wish Daniel and his family all the best where he is now in Detroit. But certainly, there is going to be a recognition of what he’s done for us, so yeah, I think he’ll be happy. I think the fans will be happy and we’re going to give him his due recognition.”

So expect something like this… 

On looking at that game, it looks like a sellout and whether he’s been disappointed with the number of empty seats thus far through the season…

“Well of course I am, but like I’ve said, it’s kind of a funky start for us. You start off with everybody else is playing at home and everybody else is excited about hockey and we’re out on the road somewhere in California. What are we doing out in California when everybody else is in the northeast playing hockey? So that didn’t help, but as the season starts… you know, we have a finicky fan base and you’ve got to live with it. But ultimately, when (the fans) start seeing the team turn into its own character and they have an… really an identification to themselves and people recognize, okay, this is what we are. Even the players themselves will say it and the coaches will say it, ‘Who are we? Are we a defensive team? Are we offensive? Are we a mix of both?’ I think a lot of that is going to start resonating amongst the fans. And now that the things… the snow is here. It’s really winter. It’s real hockey. I think you’re going to see a bump up in attendance and we’re fine. We also changed dramatically our policies internally and that is about any type of comps and promos and that kind of stuff. You know what, you pay for a ticket, you buy a ticket and that’s it. If you want to kill your future fan base, start giving away tickets to the guy next to you when you paid $150. It’s not going to happen, so what you’re seeing is truly the fan base which we want to grow off of. We’re doing very well with our seasons tickets but the walk ups have been what hasn’t happened yet. But you know what, eventually it’s going to be tough to get a ticket. Like good luck on trying to get a ticket to the Detroit game. It’s not going to happen. Unless you’re a seasons  ticket holder or you bought your packages or whatever else, you won’t see that game. You certainly will at home (watching on tv) but you’re not going to be there.”

Isn't ripping on hockey being played in the state of California so very 1990ish? It's probably not a great idea to describe your paying customers as finicky either. 

On another note, it is interesting to hear that Ottawa has suffered from poor walk up crowds this season. The city historically has soldified its reputation for having strong walk up numbers, so it'd be interesting to find out why the Senators have had such a difficult time drawing the casual fans to games.

On the Rogers television deal and how it may  affect Ottawa and the league in general…

“Well it’s certainly a positive for us, there’s no question about that. It’s a very substantial deal. It’s a long-term deal. It helps make up for a lot of things that we need to deal in our market – which is what I call a mid-cap type of market — but also some of the weaker markets as well. It’s what we’ve been looking for, for a long time and I think it can only help.  Every bit helps. The more revenue stream we have, the more we can spend on players and a better team I think we can have. It’s almost a self-perpetuating kind of… what’s the word I’m looking for… it’s an opportunity for us… the more you win, the more fans you are going to get… the more fans you get, the more you’re going to win. And it just goes back and forth like that and to us, it’s a very substantial deal.”

In referring to Ottawa as a mid-cap team, I'm working under the assumption that Melnyk is comfortable continuing to put the Senators near the midpoint of the cap ceiling and floor. It's right where the team currently is now – with a cap payroll of approximately $58.9M sitting almost halfway between the $44M cap floor and $64.3M ceiling.

According to James Mirtle's conservative estimations, here are his cap projections for the next few seasons: 

Being a mid-cap team sounds fine in theory, but should other organizations continue to outspend the Senators and Ottawa preserves their place amongst the lowest five payrolls in the league, the team will continue to be at a competitive  disadvantage – unable to paper over their mistakes like the big market teams. Their margin for error is much, much bigger. 

On the cap going up and the gap widening between the haves and the have-nots…

“Well yeah, but this is the way you compensate for that. Sure, you’re never going to outspend some of the big market teams. You’re just going to face that reality. What you can do though is you can maximize other ways of bringing in revenues and I’m not going to rehash old stuff from this summer of what I was trying to do. We’re going to trying come up with other ways to bring up our revenues and leverage off our brand. But it also comes and speaks to your development team. If you don’t have a great development group – coaches, the trainers, the development people, the scouts and all those people behind the scenes that nobody ever sees who work their tails off to ensure that we have a future and a future pipeline of players. That’s where you should spend your money. It’s amazing how teams will spend millions and millions and millions of dollars on a player, and a lot fans will actually come out and say, ‘If you had more money, you’d spend it on this player or that player.’ You know, why don’t I take this money that this one player who is at the end of his career pretty much and put that into the development of my future pipeline. That’s the smart thing to do and I think people are starting to recognize it and look at our model and say, ‘You know what, that’s the way you do it.’ It’s much more productive developing your own than trying to go out and buy that talent. I really believe that.”

It's actually a fantastic point by Melnyk. If the Senators are going to sustain any kind of success, it's going to come because their scouting staff and player development personnel are doing an excellent job of cultivating prospects and turning them into NHL-calibre talent. But, it's worth remembering that this is only part of what makes a GM successful. He also needs to identify talent that can push the team towards Stanley Cup contention, avoid overrating his own prospects and internally developed players, avoid signing expensive past their prime free agents and sign franchise building blocks to contracts that are in the team's best interests (in terms of term and cost). I think where Murray has had some trouble is in his loyalty to particular players – wherein there were significant reasons to move a player and sell when said player's value was more optimal. For example, the team could have moved Colin Greening, Milan Michalek and Craig Anderson when their value was at their probable peak. Would the Senators have taken on risk? Absolutely, but if the organization's weakness is its financial wherewithal, why not play to its own player development and amateur scouting strengths and attempt to complementing their current young core while the team was acknowledging that it was still in a rebuilding phase? 

On the big national deal and what will happen next with the regional deal on the radio and tv side being up for negotiation at the end of the season…

“Well it will and we’re going to get all the details. You know, there is a lot of detail that we have to go through on this deal that currently exists and then assess it. I know our regional deal is up at I think the end of this June, so the negotiations are going to start fairly soon and it can only, again… it’s amazing the value of the franchise and the value of a hockey enterprise in Canada. The content is something that is just, you know, I’ve said it before, it’s almost priceless. You can’t buy this stuff. I’m  very, very fortunate. I feel fortunate that we have a great fan base and we have smart people around us that recognize that. I think at the end of the day, it’s a very coveted position to be in – to be an owner of an NHL hockey team in Canada. I thank my stars every single day that I’m there and I’m really pleased to be in Ottawa to be able do that, especially in the nation’s capital. I’ll tell you what you do want to ask me about though Ian. (laughter) Might as well plug this one.”

Take TSN to the cleaners for all their worth Eugene!

Heritage jersey?

“No, well, I’m going to let you in on a secret. So you’re getting the big scoop and 500,000 of your best friends. Yeah, tomorrow we’ve got our big day with the new jersey and it’s really something special. And I really mean that. We’re going to be paying tribute to the eleven Stanley Cups that we’ve won. And since we are the visiting team in Vancouver for that heritage game, it will be a lighter colour. And it’s going to have a very authentic heritage look. I mean, this is going to be something special. The lettering and numbering will be unique and done in felt and stuff. I hope that everybody looks at it and wears it with great pride because there is great pride in this franchise going way, way back and we want to bring it back as soon as possible. But the first place to start is to start winning some games and I think that’s going to start happening soon.”

At this point in the interview, I wish Mendes or Versage would have interjected and told Eugene that the jerseys had been leaked hours earlier on Icethetics.

On Bryan Murray having a chance to go out and add a player while adding to this team’s budget…

“Yeah, that’s a bit of a fallacy that we wouldn’t spend. We’re just spending wisely – that’s all we’re doing. We’re saying look, this is the number, let’s see what we can do with this number. But, if Bryan (Murray) comes back and says, ‘Look, it’s going to cost us an extra (x) to get so-and-so and this could make the difference for us going into the playoff run then of course we’re going to do it. You’d gotta be nuts not to, especially when you’re dealing with someone like a Bryan Murray who’s arguably one of the best GMs in the NHL; who’s probably arguably the most experienced one in the NHL. When he talks, I listen and I listen hard. And I make sure… we want to be competitive. It’s no fun being a loser. It’s really not fun. None of us like it. Nobody likes it. The players don’t like it. The fans don’t like it. I don’t like it. Bryan doesn’t like it. Paul doesn’t like it. No, we want to be winners. And like I said, we will do what we need to do to be competitive and I can ensure you of that. I don’t want to say the words ‘Money is no object’ ‘cause it is, but we’re just going to do things wisely, patiently and with a lot of forethought and with expectations that are real.”

And I don't think any fans are demanding that this organization make like the Buffalo Sabres or even the Ottawa Senators when Melnyk first arrived and spend frivolously for the sake of spending. This team's fans want to see the organization give itself the best opportunity to win and most importantly, they want to know that when the time is right and this team positions itself in a position to add a substantial talent to put them over the top, management will have the green light from ownership to acquire such a piece. That's it. 

On Forbes’ valuation of Ottawa’s franchise value at $380 million and what he thinks of it…

“Well, (laughing) I think I said ‘They’re dead wrong because (the Senators) are actually priceless,’ but that’s me talking. Look, it is what it is. It actually doesn’t matter. I don’t pay much attention to it because you know who’s going to be interested in that? (It) is my estate because that’s what it’s going to take to sell the team. You live in a house. You love your house. Somebody says it’s worth a million or two million or whatever dollars, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to find a house to live in. This is a passion of mine and I can’t find anything else to replace that. And (the Forbes valuation) is kind of meaningless to me, and all I know is I want to enjoy the game for the rest of my life, so it is what it is.”

Okay then. 

On whether he’ll be here for the game tomorrow versus Vancouver or the Sunday game versus Detroit…

“No, I just came out of Carolina. I was there for that mess. (Laugh) My next…unfortunately, I’ve got children commitments this coming weekend, so I’m not even going to be up there for that. But I will be in the Florida games and I will be up for the Leafs game, so I’m looking forward to getting my fill of hockey.  Of course, once the kids are out of school, it’s going to be… I have no idea… we play I think every Saturday and Monday for the whole December, so I’m looking forward to being up there a lot.”

I'm sort of surprised that he's not going to be there for the return, but I'm actually okay with it. This game doesn't have to be a bigger spectacle than it already will be.