The Problem Isn’t the Internal Budget, It’s the Senators’ Philosophy

When it comes to getting under the skin of Ottawa Senators fans, there’s a few guaranteed ways to do it: 1) wear a Maple Leafs jersey to a Senators game at the Canadian Tire Centre that doesn’t involve Toronto; 2) reference Patrick Lalime’s save percentage in series clinching games; 3) bring up John Muckler’s draft record; 4) mention how your adductor muscle has been bothering you of late; and 5) bring up the words ‘internal budget’.

Due to the financial limitations put on the Senators’ budget, a quick glance around social media or a listen on talk radio underlines how many fans truly believe that the Senators’ shortcomings and inability to take the next step in the franchise’s development cycle is the direct result of the team’s ability to spend more on payroll. Unfortunately, this belief is just an oversimplification of what truly plagues the Ottawa Senators.

I can understand why most fans are hypersensitive to the subject of money.

For the past few months, Senators fans have endured listening to Eugene Melnyk go on at length downplaying the relationship between spending and contending. (Well, except for that one time Eugene he lobbied the City of Ottawa to put a prospective casino adjacent to the Canadian Tire Centre because he needed to increase revenues to put the Senators in the top half of league spending.)

Since this instance, Melnyk’s rhetoric has rarely had its intended effect; illogically linking the fans pleas to spend money on payroll with spending frivolously.

It is a ridiculous assertion because no fan wants to see the organization spend stupidly or spend for the sake of spending.

Fans simply want reassurance that when the Senators are in a position to be competitive and win, the organization has the ability to use its resources to get that final piece of the puzzle or retain its best young assets when it comes time for them to re-up.

The problem right now for the Ottawa Senators is that from the moment the 2010/11 season ended.

What was supposed to be a three-year process was really only one trade deadline in which the team jettisoned Chris Kelly, Mike Fisher and Chris Campoli, decent players but expendable ones who filled specific niches on teams that had Stanley Cup aspirations. This process allowed the Senators to maximize the returns and helped usher in some draft picks that the organization could use to improve the quality and depth of their farm system.

Coupled with the success and ability of the organization’s amateur scouting staff to identify talent, this fan base welcomed and readily embraced the idea of rebuild.

Having endured the hardships during the franchise’s formative expansion years, this fan base understood the time and process necessary to build a team up from the ashes. And better yet, this fan base witnessed the fruits of that labour: a lengthy window of Stanley Cup contention that was built on a budget.

Although that window did not ultimately culminate with a parade, for a time, the Senators were generally regarded as one of the best teams in the league and with the right bounce, a healthy adductor or one of Martin Havlat, Karel Rachunek or Wade Redden not shitting the bed on Jeff Friesen’s game winning goal in game seven of the 2003 Eastern Conference final, things might have been different.

The point remains however that the best teams recognize how difficult and how lucky you have to be to win the Stanley Cup. By building for that large window, teams hope that their talent will put them in positions in which they don’t have to rely as heavily upon luck for success.

For whatever reason however, there is this perpetuated myth that the Senators fan base won’t support a rebuild – which would an interesting theory that would carry more weight if the Senators weren’t papering the building during the team’s “pesky Sens” days in which the team was exciting and worked hard. If they were having difficulty selling tickets then, how much longer are fans going to tolerate this cycle and culture of mediocrity that Eugene Melnyk and Bryan Murray have imbued?

Seriously, how much more can fans take of this organization operating like it cannot stomach the idea of patiently building a winner.

When asked about whether the “rebuilding days were over” Bryan Murray said in his media availability:

“No, we’re past that. We’re going to have a good hockey team here. We’re going to compete. We lose a little bit at center ice. We gain a little bit on the wing. We’ve got a couple young guys coming that are going to be a different brand of player in (Mark) Borowiecki and (Curtis) Lazar – guys like that, they bring real character to the team. I think our team is going to be a real competitive, hardworking group of people. I think the leadership, I’ve talked to Erik Karlsson in the last day or two and all that type of thing, I think we’re going to be well off going forward.”

I’m glad we’re counting on Borowiecki and Lazar’s leadership skills to take this rag tag group of players to the next level. Maybe they use other mythical powers — like sacrificing a unicorn or appealing to Gandalf and the elves for some assistance — to ensure that the Senators get into the playoffs as underdogs next season.

Of course I’m being facetious but whether this refusal to build patiently is the consequence of employing an aging general manager who is entering the final two years of his reign as general manager or it’s the by-product of the mandate given to Murray by Melnyk (or maybe a combination of both), the current philosophy of trying to contend on a bottom five payroll while obviously not having the financial resources to augment their best offensive talent is a terrible, terrible philosophy.

It’s a terrible philosophy compounded by the problem that the organization is encouraging fans to be patient because when the circumstances are ideal, the team will take on salary sometime down the road to make the team more competitive. To put things in perspective, the Senators currently have $18.7 million available per player to sign under the allotted salary cap ceiling – the highest average amount in the NHL.

If the Senators are going to compete and keep promising to spend, put your money where your mouth is. There was no time more ripe than past two years – when the bulk of the roster was healthy and signed to cost-efficient deals. Heck, you can even make an argument that with the Senators’ decision to go out and flip a trio of controllable assets for Bobby Ryan, a risky decision in itself given the limited term left on Ryan’s deal, as well as the financial benefits of the league’s national Canadian broadcast agreement and their own regional broadcast agreement with Bell Media, the Senators should be in a position to spend more and want to spend more.

As a private organization, the Senators are never going to open their books and disclose their finances, but many fans look at the dollars coming in and want to see the organization reinvest at least some of it into their payroll. As a collective that keep telling its fans that ticket revenues and broadcast revenues are up, they’re still not spending any money.

The Senators aren’t even a mid-cap team anymore, but that doesn’t mean the organization will stop asking fans to sit tight and patiently hold out hope because someday the Senators might spend one year from now, or two years from now or even three because someday they will spend, right?! Right!? RIGHT?!?!

Unfortunately this promise has become a running joke – a joke that some fans continue buy into before blindly towing the company line without using any kind of critical thinking skills.

The organization has cautioned that it’s not that simple, and even though I suspect the Senators will be using whatever additional revenues they generate to reduce their debt load, the corollary of their budget conscious strategy is that fans question Eugene Melnyk’s ability or unwillingness to spend.

And it’s an unnecessary distraction that hangs over the organization like a black cloud.

The shittiest part for me is that I still believe the Senators can win or at least be better than a bubble team that perennially vies for a playoff spot. I agree with Bryan Murray when he says that the team can win on a budget.

I grew up watching this organization patiently build a President’s Trophy winning team on a budget, and I certainly don’t think the process will be busy, but it’s something that will require more shrewd decisions and a focus on the bigger picture rather than some short-lived success.

Shrewd doesn’t involve spending 21.7-percent of your salary payroll on the likes of Greening, Michalek, Phillips and Neil.

At the very least there should have been a recognition that this team’s success was predicated on the performance of its best offensive forwards, who unfortunately weren’t part of this team’s young core. The likes of Michalek, Spezza, and Alfredsson – shouldn’t have been part of the team’s long-term plans. I’m not saying that the Senators should have dealt Daniel Alfredsson, he could have retired here as a legacy player but whether he left or played, his presence for the future was going to be short. Spezza and Michalek on the other hand were two players who had and have no business being part of the Senators’ plans to contend.

Now 29 with the knees of a 75-year old, Michalek’s success in Ottawa has been aided by the fact that he’s piggybacked the play of Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. Spezza on the other hand was on a contract that would take him to 32 years of age. Given his style of play, his medical history and the risk of diminished returns, it never really made sense for the organization to retain Spezza beyond the length of his current contract. Yet, instead of awaiting a season in which either player was performing at their peak value, the organization preferred to hold onto the players.

So not only did the Senators sell low on Spezza and retain Michalek on a deal that he may not be capable of living up to, the Senators are worse off now for not biting the bullet and making difficult decisions at a juncture in this franchise’s development cycle when fans were more accepting of a rebuild.

This isn’t to say that the organization has been completely incompetent. They’ve made some nice moves, but for every Kyle Turris or Ben Bishop acquisition, there have been an Ales Hemsky acquisition, a Cory Conacher acquisition, inexplicable signings like a Chris Phillips (twice), a Michalek, a Colin Greening and etc. Hell, the Senators even acquired Craig Anderson when he was an impending UFA and he played themselves out of the Gabriel Landeskog sweepstakes in their rebuilding year. Hell, they even made overtures to Rick Nash (could you imagine where the Sens would be had they actually shipped off a reported package featuring Robin Lehner and Mika Zibanejad?).

The shitty part in all of this is that I believe Bryan Murray when he says that the Senators can win on a budget. I don’t think they need to have the largest budget in the league to be a viable playoff team, but they do need more elite talent. Things like hard work, Lazar’s leadership, unicorn blood just isn’t going to be enough.

And as a Canadian city that is not an attractive destination for free agents or for players who have no-trade clauses in their contracts, the only way to get elite talent on controllable contracts that carry term is via the draft.

The problem is that I simply cannot trust ownership and management accomplish that goal.

From the preference for short-term results, to the reactive decision to acquire Bobby Ryan and satiate a market that had just learned that it lost Daniel Alfredsson, its captain and legacy player, I can’t trust Eugene Melnyk to oversee the construction of a winner.

This current philosophy of trying to perennially compete for a playoff spot on a bottom-five payroll and hope that once you make the playoffs, you can luck into enough favorable playoff matchups to go on a significant run, is not a long-term strategy for Stanley Cup success. And given the thin margin for error, it’s almost impossible to do well.

This ‘If we get in, anything can happen’ groupthink mentality pervades the front office and is the kind of short-term strategy that has plagued the organization since the conclusion of the 2010/11 season needs to stop – otherwise, it’s only going to continue to lend itself to fans wondering how much of a motivating factor money (and coveted playoff gate revenue) really is.

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