On Re-Upping With The Bryan Murray Era

The Ottawa Sun’s Don Brennan answered a loaded question in yesterday morning’s paper – should the Ottawa Senators sign Bryan Murray to a contract extension to ensure that the GM continues to preside over this team’s future.

He believes that they should and to be fair, a compelling argument can be made that they should.

Having penned a piece for SenatorsExtra on ‘Retooling in the Bryan Murray Era’, I don’t believe you can understate how poor of a situation it was that he inherited.

The farm system was barren – Josh Hennessy, Alexander Nikulin, Alexei Kaigorodov, and Ilya Zubov headlined their prospect base. A number of key pieces were slated to hit unrestricted free agency, and for good measure, this team was coming off an unanticipated Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Despite the fact that the 2006/07 Senators was one of their lesser talented teams, their first Finals appearance in modern history meant that the expectations that accompanied this season, were perhaps, unfairly sky-high.

Now throw in an owner who liberally threw money around desperately trying to paper over mistakes and maintain this team’s competitiveness without really disrupting the team’s core, eventually the organization bit bullet and decided that it could no longer wait for the team’s pipeline of prospects to replenish itself. It had to start moving veteran assets away and to expedite this process.

Gone were the days when the team would sign veteran placeholders like Alexei Kovalev or roll the dice moving futures for youngish shitbags like Chris Campoli.

To his credit, Murray improved the organization’s amateur scouting department and began signing unrestricted collegiate free agents and the end result was exponentially improved prospect base that started to graduate prospects through the system at a more accelerated rate.

Like any team going through a rebuild, the concept is the same: continue to build around its nucleus of young players in hopes that it can create a lengthy window of opportunity in which the team can contend and hopefully have everything culminate with a Stanley Cup parade.

Unlike teams like the Sabres or Islanders, Ottawa’s best offensive players were still its veteran guys. Although the team could plug in players like a Jakob Silfverberg, a Mika Zibanejad, a Colin Greening, a Kyle Turris or a Zack Smith, players like Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek were still expected to shoulder the load.

The fundamental issue, and a potential flaw depending on how events unfold, with Ottawa’s plan is that the overlap between the peak years of its best offensive guys will likely never overlap with that of its nucleus of good young players.

The Senators’ 2011/12 team featured a point-per-game first line center in Jason Spezza, a Norris Trophy winning Erik Karlsson and healthy and productive years out of Milan Michalek (35 goals) and Daniel Alfredsson (27 goals). But through injuries, players leaving the prime years of their respective career, or players departing via free agency, the reality of Ottawa’s situation is that players like Spezza, Michalek, and Alfredsson could potentially be gone within the same two-year period.

Whether it was a move intended to curb fan tensions after Alfredsson bolted to Detroit or whether the Sens were going to bring Bobby Ryan into the fold with or without Alfie on the roster, the Senators moved a package of future assets to the Anaheim Ducks for what could be as little as two seasons worth of hockey.

The moment Ottawa moved futures for Ryan signified the end of the rebuild, it was a ‘We’re going for it’ kind of moment meant to make the Senators a better in the now and potentially in the future could they ink Ryan to an extension before he hits UFA in July of 2015.

But as this season continues to go down the tube and the realities of the internal constraints on this team’s budget set in, the more you have to question whether this is a situation in which Ryan would want to stay; especially when the salary cap is expected to go up significantly. I realize there is something to be said about cost certainty and that an injury during the 2014/15 season could limit his earning power, but we’re still talking about a youngish winger who has had four 30-goal seasons and is on pace to score 40 this year. The enticement of money and control over where he wants to play next may be too tempting for him to pass up.

Many pundits expected more of the Senators this season and yes, there is time for them to salvage their season. By design or because the team’s financial situation has precluded them from making a move, the Senators have not made a trade to shake things up and improve their worth. The obvious concern is that the organization isn’t really in a place to be sacrificing more future assets for a short-term fix.

And therein lies the issue for me with management and ownership right now, since the moment last season’s team flirted and eventually solidified a playoff position, this team has been doing everything with the short-term in mind.

As the season wears on and you notice that this team’s most disappointing players have been those returning from major injury, you have to wonder what the hell the organization was thinking rushing pieces like Jared Cowen, Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson (who admitted that he was probably close to 40-percent during the playoffs last season) back last year. Moreover, they parlayed a strength (goaltending) for an older, undrafted collegiate rookie who possibly padded his offensive numbers on the strength of his linemates and an unsustainable shooting percentage.

Throughout Murray’s tenure, he’s never been able or willing to make a move that shakes up the Senators while they are in the hunt for a playoff spot. Whether it’s loyalty to his players or pressure from management to maintain this image of the Senators being competitive, the organization has ignored statistical warning signs and held onto depreciating assets like Michalek, Greening, and Anderson when the organization had players (especially in regards to Greening and Anderson) to replace them.

Time and time again we’ve been reminded that the Senators are a small market team that cannot spend with the big market clubs, but for a team that cannot simply paper over its mistakes like these big market clubs, Ottawa hasn’t done an exceptional job of parlaying expendable assets at their peak value while continuing to supplement their core.

That’s not to say that Bryan Murray hasn’t made good moves either. The acquisitions of Marc Methot, Kyle Turris and Craig Anderson help reinforce the understanding that Bryan’s best moves have been the ones in which he’s acquired talent that was seriously undervalued at time of the move. Moreover, Colin Greening’s extension notwithstanding, he and his staff have excelled at signing players like Kyle Turris to team friendly extensions. Ottawa’s roster, with the exception of a few, is relatively cost-efficient.

There is a lot to like, but there is also the imminent threat of seeing players like Spezza and Ryan leave in a two-year window as others like Alfie, Silfverberg, Noesen, and a 2014 first rounder. The Sens simply cannot allow this to happen. At some point next summer, they have to broach the topic of extensions with Spezza and Ryan. These players cannot simply be allowed to leave at the ends of their deals and I don’t believe the Senators can enter the season with their uncertain status hanging over the team like a black cloud and serving as a distraction.

Getting Ryan inked to a contract should be a priority, but if he wants the right to test free agency, then that is his right.

Having had his second back surgery last season, Spezza’s an entirely different case. He’s a career Senator whose wife is from the area. But, with that being said, the key to negotiating with Spez is to sign him to a deal that isn’t prohibitive in cost or term. The greatest fear is that his back problems continue to be chronic and force him to miss games, the Sens simply aren’t in a position to be hamstrung by a contract that hinders their ability to build around the next wave of talent.

And if he’s unwilling to do that I’m not sure the organization would want to inherit the risk associated with money and term that he would rightfully be looking for on the market.

Essentially what I’m saying here is if Ryan and Spezza do not want to stay on terms that are amenable to a small market team, I would be okay with seeing the organization move them to supplement the young core of Lehner, Turris, Karlsson, and Zibanejad instead. I’d love for Ryan to be a part of that core, but if he’s unwilling to sign an extension next summer, at least the organization will be able to move him knowing that he’s probably improved his worth over the course of this season.

I know this would signify a return to the rebuilding stages of the franchise, but for me, this move would signify a return to stockpiling future assets that give this organization the depth and talent to eventually match up with the NHL’s powerhouses.

If Bryan Murray can play to his strengths – stockpiling assets, drafting well and buying low on identifiable undervalued talent – and ignore that feeling of loyalty and stop holding onto overvalued talents because they were developed internally or have an abundance of physical tools, this team could be an excellent and efficient small market team.

And to be fair, maybe there is a lot of internal pressure from management to win and maintain competitiveness now so that the team can retain sponsors, sell ads and season tickets. It’s easy for me to sit here and say that this team can be smarter with their personnel moves.

Whatever the case, Bryan Murray nor any GM for that matter, is perfect and he seems to be doing a lot of things well.

Can he be better?

Yes, and he’s not alone.

I would sign him to an extension, but if he had to make tough decisions on Bobby Ryan and Jason Spezza, there are people out there like me, who would be receptive to seeing the organization make tough decisions.

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