Tim Murray – The Next GM of the Buffalo Sabres

It is nothing but a foregone conclusion that Assistant General Manager (AGM) Tim Murray is leaving the Ottawa Senators to take a promotion and fill the vacant General Manager position with the Buffalo Sabres.

Earlier this afternoon, Sportsnet indicated that Buffalo’s decision had been whittled down to four candidates: Boston AGM Jim Benning, Tim Murray, Toronto AGM Claude Loiselle and Pittsburgh AGM Jason Botterill.

Bob McKenzie would later clarify the specific details pertaining to the hiring process.

By now, Senators fans should be used to seeing people leave.

Over the past calendar year, we will have seen the Senators lose a prospective Vezina candidate, Daniel Alfredsson and the man many believed to be Bryan Murray’s heir apparent to Atlantic Division rivals.

As I wrote in a blog the other day, this organization over the past few years has been nothing but a revolving door of players and coaches, but the one constant has been its hockey operations staff.

Perhaps more than anyone, I’ve maligned former GM John Muckler for overseeing the collapse of the Senators’ dynasty. Years of neglect in respect to his amateur scouting staff and years of late first round picks thanks – thanks to the Senators’ regular season success – contributed to poor draft selections. Of course this problem was further exacerbated by short-sighted deals that decimated Ottawa’s depth and the farm system – essentially killing the organization’s ability to have any chance of sustained success.

Even when a talent-laden team lucked into the ninth overall selection in the 2005 NHL Draft — thanks to a lottery system created in the wake of the 2004-05 lockout to give each team a chance to draft first overall and select Sidney Crosby –John Muckler and his staff found a way to fuck it up. It would have been one thing for the organization to shy away from the industry-favored Anze Kopitar because he was born in Slovenia, a country not exactly renowned as a hockey hotbed, but the organization passed on him and other more highly thought of names like Marc Staal, so that they could reach on Brian Lee. Even then, the decision was indefensible.

Unfortunately after years of regular season dominance, fans, media and ownership mistakenly believed the team’s 2007 Stanley Cup Finals appearance was the pinnacle of success and a reflected a group of players that could perennially contend for a championship. Ignoring how much luck plays such a pivotal role in the playoffs and dismissing the possibility that this team's window of success was drawing to a close. After all, the 2006/07 Senators team was franchise’s worst team, at least on paper, since the late 1990’s.

Eugene Melnyk shocked the hockey world by firing John Muckler following the 2007 Finals. Whether Bryan Murray had his ear or the decision to fire Muckler was simply the fallout from the GM’s inability to heed Melnyk’s orders and acquire Gary Roberts at the trade deadline, the decision wound up being a blessing.

To Bryan Murray’s credit, the hiring of Tim Murray as AGM and the overhaul of the scouting staff’s process helped lay the foundation for what would ultimately allow this franchise to turn itself around.

But rather than begrudgingly admit that the team was inherently flawed and expedite the rebuilding process by moving veteran pieces for future assets, management attempted to paper over its mistakes while exhausting its efforts to shake up the team without touching that 2007 Cup Finals core (ie. the Stillman and Commodore for Eaves and Corvo trade). I suspect pressure from ownership played a large part in influencing management’s to vainly keep trying to go for it, but during these years, wasted a number of assets like the first rounder to bring in Chris Campoli and the second rounder to bring in Andy Sutton. Instead, these picks could have been moved with other draft picks to help the organization move up in the draft and with it, better odds of landing an elite, young talent.

It took four years before the organization would bite the bullet and throw in the towel on the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals core, but during this stretch, the organization began to hit consistently on its draft picks – not only the early ones, but also with its mid and late round picks.

It didn’t happen immediately. Bryan Murray has always been quick to point out that 2008 was really his first draft because he had his own scouts and personnel in place to prepare for the draft. Tim Murray assuredly played a role in this process, but I seem to recall an article or an interview featuring Bryan in which he described the scouting process under Muckler and how the scouts only scouted for their regions and how it changed to having scouts cross-checking other regions so that there could be more insight and opinion which in turn, would lead to more engaging debates and perspectives when the scouts would assemble for their meetings.

Alas, I couldn’t find it, but the main takeaway here is that too often in sports, we create this image of ‘good’ GMs like they are some kind of saviour or hero, when in truth, it’s the collective whole and infrastructure that supports these individuals and gives an organization a better chance to succeed.

Make no mistake, Ottawa’s turnaround story over the past three seasons would not have happened if it wasn’t for the player development overseen by Randy Lee or the amateur scouting staff operating under Pierre Dorion’s watch. Hell, much of Ottawa’s success can be attributed to the work of former European scout, Anders Forsberg, who convinced the Senators to draft Erik Karlsson, Jakob Silfverberg, and Robin Lehner and trade for David Rundblad.

In his own right, Tim Murray is widely acknowledged as an excellent talent evaluator and to his credit, he has helped craft a winning environment down in Binghamton. Moreover, with the help of capologist Randy Lee, the Murrays have helped craft a roster that is incredibly competitive and cost-efficient.

Looking at this team’s situation on Capgeek, the only bad contract moving forward past this season is probably Colin Greening’s.

Combine these good things with our familiarity of Tim Murray, and the prospect of losing a front office employee to the Buffalo Sabres does not exactly soothe the soul. Of course, it doesn’t help that the last time this happened in Ottawa, Peter Chiarelli joined Zdeno Chara in Boston and they won a Stanley Cup in 2011.

There is the fear of the unknown necessitated by change. There is no guarantee that the next person coming into Tim Murray’s role will do a better job. There is that fear that Tim Murray could turn around a franchise that has been nothing but incompetent over the past few years. And there is this fear that the natural succession plan in which we envisioned Tim Murray one day inheriting Bryan’s job, will never be realized.

Maybe it never existed.

The biggest concern for fans is the possibility that Tim’s decision somehow reflects the decision to pass up whatever future opportunity there may have been to be the next GM of the Ottawa Senators to take one elsewhere.

And just like with Daniel Alfredsson’s decision to flee to Detroit, fairly or unfairly, Eugene Melnyk inevitably is going to be a portrayed as a principle driving factor or motivator for people wanting to leave Ottawa.

Was the prospect of working directly under Eugene Melnyk that much of a deterrent?

I simply don’t know.

Rumours of Melnyk’s meddling in the hockey operations side of things date back to the days of pressuring Muckler to acquire Gary Roberts, and these rumours have persisted for some time. If true, think some of this probably stems from this obsession with selling tickets. The Alexei Kovalev signing was a classic example of this and in the wake of Alfredsson’s departure, it only took hours for the Senators to finalize a deal with Anaheim to bring in Bobby Ryan.

But for as much as it seems like PR drives a lot of the decision-making in Ottawa, focusing only on this aspect ignores the possibility that a succession plan never existed or that there are a finite number of GM jobs around the league and perhaps Tim simply grew tired of waiting for his uncle to retire. Throw in the fact that the days of Eugene Melnyk having the financial wherewithal or willingness to spend more money on payroll, and you can begin to understand why the Buffalo Sabres’ job was enticing for him.

The opportunity to work for a billionaire owner in Terry Pegula, who not only has roots in Buffalo, but has shown a willingness to spend money, has to be exciting. Throw in the accompanying low expectations, the patience to rebuild the franchise, and the fact that the stockpiling of draft picks has already been completed, it’s not like Buffalo can get worse. It’s a no-lose situation in which they can only improve and in turn, Tim Murray will get the credit when their fortunes do turn.

The important thing for Senators fans to remind themselves of is the strength of the collective. Tim Murray’s loss can be absorbed.

And for all the good that the amateur side staff has done, Murray was part of the management team that moved a bevy of young assets for what could potentially only amount to a two-year rental of Bobby Ryan. Similarly, Tim and Bryan also reportedly once tried to parlay a package of Mika Zibanejad, Robin Lehner and Nick Foligno to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Rick Nash – a player who ultimately did not waive his NTC to play in Ottawa.

Similarly, whether it was all for show or not, this was an organization that made overtures to David Clarkson, who they decided was their number one free agent target. Suffice it to say, this team’s internal budget and the willingness of guys like Nash and Clarkson to come to Ottawa that has saved the organization from itself.

For years, the strength of this franchise has been its amateur scouting and it will continue to be until Pierre Dorion and/or his amateur scouts move on and are replaced with lesser talents. We’ve praised the organization for cultivating assets and building a good young core, but over the past two years, many of these same pieces that we’re celebrating, could have been playing for Columbus or are/will be playing in Anaheim.

As a small market team in a salary cap system, the only way to acquire elite talent is to draft or trade for it, and I don’t blame the Senators for trying to trade for it. But the jury still remains out on whether the Bobby Ryan deal was a smart one. We can speculate as to how much ownership and this pressure to market the team and sell tickets played a role in that decision, but Ottawa’s an organization that transformed itself into a winner on the strength of its draft picks and parlaying assets at the peak of their value.

Under the Murrays, their best trades have been for a Craig Anderson, a Marc Methot or a Kyle Turris in which they bought low on an undervalued talent.

A lot of praise was bestowed on the organization for their rebuild, but the organization never bit the bullet and traded away one of their elite players (ie. Spezza, Heatley, Alfie) until Cory Clouston alienated Heatley. Instead, the organization preyed upon franchises at the 2011 NHL Trade Deadline who would overpay for Ottawa’s depth according to their need. What it meant was that Ottawa reaped the benefits of moving expensive depth players like Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, and replacing them with younger, cost-efficient players who could replace much of the production that they brought to the table.

What it created was a situation in which the Senators kept their better offensive players while continuing to augment and develop their younger core. Not only did it keep the Senators relatively competitive, it allowed their younger players to play in winning environment and avoid that losing culture that plagues a franchise like the Edmonton Oilers.

There would be a trade-off however. In keeping their better veteran players, the Senators created a situation in which the prime years of these veterans would not overlap with the inexpensive, peak years of its young core. Without a long overlap, it would be difficult for this team to ever take that realistic step towards Stanley Cup contention.

It wasn’t difficult to project down the road and identify players that the organization probably would not be in a position to extend beyond their current contracts. Injury-plagued players like Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza were scheduled to hit unrestricted at the conclusion of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons respectively, and it would not make sense for the small-market Sens to extend these players to the long-term deals and expensive contracts that they would command. Holding onto them, in my opinion, was too risky and the opportunity cost to move them when their value was highest outweighed whatever value these players could bring to the ice. (Note: you can even throw Craig Anderson into this conversation; especially because there were competent in-house alternatives at the time.)

But instead of recognizing and exploring an opportunity to sell high on two players who had trouble staying in the lineup, the organization preferred to hold onto them. Now we’re left with a situation in which Michalek has no trade value and will probably leave as an UFA and who knows what the organization will do with its captain.

Melnyk and management can pride themselves on a cost-efficient roster that is competitive while maintaining a ton of cap space. But cap space means sweet fuck all when you impose a strict internal cap and do not have the means or willingness to go beyond it. Similarly, Melnyk has talked about the importance of investing money from payroll into scouting and developing players, and that’s great. But the ability to cultivate and develop such players is only one part of the equation. Successfully taking a small-market team also requires shrewd asset management.

For the past three seasons, the Ottawa Senators have shown no improvement in the standings despite the growth and development of its best young players and frankly, the 2013-14 version of this team should be dead in the water. The advantage that the Senators, or any playoff bubble teams have for that matter, is that the Eastern Conference is so abhorrently bad that the team has an opportunity to overcome its dawdling start.

Although these players can and should continue to improve, their growth and improvement can easily be offset by the fact this organization has painted itself into a corner because they stand to lose Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, Daniel Alfredsson, Clarke MacArthur, Bobby Ryan, Stefan Noesen, Jakob Silfverberg and a 2014 first round pick over a two-year period without having anything to show for it.

Don’t get me wrong, the Murrays have done some good things for this organization. But, if we’re truly being honest with ourselves, if wasn’t for Dorion and his amateur staff that netted the Senators Erik Karlsson, the Murrays probably would have been gone years ago. 

Other news & Notes…

According to TSN’s Bob McKenzie, P.K. Subban’s camp is looking for upwards of $8 to $9 million dollars per season on a new extension. At first blush, it’s a lot of money, but after considering Quebec’s income tax rate, asking for that kind of money makes sense from the player’s perspective. From an Ottawa and divisional rival perspective, it’s hilarious. Not only would such a deal eat up a lot of cap space, it would make Erik Karlsson’s current deal look like a bargain.

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