“We’re That Good” ~ Eulogizing the 2013/14 Ottawa Senators

What a difference a year makes.

When the final buzzer sounded at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, effectually signalling the conclusion of the Senators’ 2012-13 season, nobody in Ottawa was dwelling on the fact that their beloved Senators had been thoroughly thumped in their five-game series.

Optimism was abounding in the nation’s capital. Not only had a young and an improving Senators team bucked the odds and reached the postseason, they did so by overcoming a rash of injuries to some of its best and most accomplished players. In turn, these injuries created opportunities for many of the Senators’ prospects and players like Patrick Wiercioch, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Jakob Silfverberg, Robin Lehner and Mika Zibanejad and to their credit, they took advantage of it.

Through their seamless transition into the lineup, the media and fans fawned over the organization’s player development and the coaching staff ranging from Binghamton’s Luke Richardson to the masterful job head coach Paul MacLean did handling this adversity and managing a roster that was devoid of its best players. MacLean rode this momentum into the NHL’s Award night where he scooped up the Jack Adams Award –an award that is presented to the head coach who is adjudged to have contributed the most to his team’s success.

With the right coach, an impressive collection of young players to build around and an offseason in which the team’s injured key players could rehabilitate and prepare for the upcoming season, optimism abounded and with it, so did the expectations for continued success.

Riding the Momentum…

Tabbed by many to be a dark horse candidate to make some noise in the playoffs, the Senators were even projected by the Hockey Abstract’s Rob Vollman to have the best odds of winning the President’s Trophy.

The Senators’ momentum continued when ESPN’s ‘Ultimate Team Rankings’ were revealed.

Through some fan surveying and a formula derived by a sports marketing centre in Seattle, our beloved Sens had the ninth highest ranking amongst North American sports franchises from the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL and boy, the Senators play up their ranking – issuing a press release entitled ‘Ottawa Senators Named No. 1 Professional Sports Team in Canada’.

So although there were some hiccups during the summer – that I will get to later on — there was also this vibe inside and outside the nation’s capital that the Senators were a better team.

From management to its players, there was a trickledown effect through the organization.

“I think he’s wrong, I’ll tell you that, that’s where we part ways — I disagree — ‘cause I think we’re a better team, but if he believes it and he’s committed to it, then it was his prerogative,” Melnyk continued. “All we could do is wish him all the best. We look forward to Detroit finishing right behind us and him having a good year.” ~ Eugene Melnyk addressing Daniel Alfredsson’s reasons for signing as a free agent with Detroit on August 9, 2013

“I had people calling me early on the morning of (July) 5th saying they were really upset and then calling me back early that afternoon saying, ‘Geez, this is great! This worked out fine.’ I don’t think we feel that way as an organization. We would have liked to have Daniel here, but I know there are fans out there who think that we’re in a pretty good spot.” ~ Cyril Leeder discussing the feedback from fans in the wake of Alfredsson’s departure, July 20, 2013

“I think possibly we have a chance to be a better team than we were last year. We look better on paper and we should be a better team, but now it’s our job to put it all together.” ~ Jason Spezza, September 9, 2013

The Senators did look better on paper and the pundits agreed. In professional sports however, championships and playoff spots are rarely won on paper (and if you ask Eugene Melnyk, they are not won by spending paper either).

Once the games started, the expectations were that the Senators would thrive and take the next step forward in their ascent up the Eastern Conference standings and these expectations that head coach Paul MacLean made mention of in an exclusive interview with the Ottawa Citizen’s James Gordon.

“The first thing that concerns me the most is that we forgot, we forget, how hard we had to work to have the limited success that we had. It’s success, but it’s limited success, and if we don’t continue to work at what we do and how we do things, we’re going to fall flat on our faces.

Our biggest enemy right now isn’t Toronto, Boston, Detroit or any other team in the game, it’s ourselves. We can be our own worst enemy, thinking that we get picked to be this team, picked to be that team, and now we start getting away from how we had to do things to be successful.”

“We Can Be Our Own Worst Enemy”

Thanks to a quirky schedule that gave the Senators a six-game road trip to start the season – including a difficult four game stretch through California and Phoenix – the Senators struggled out of the gate, allowing a whopping 252 shots on goal through this stretch of games.

Although they managed to scrape together a 2-2-2 record on this opening trip, their defensive issues set the tone for the rest of the season and created a rut that the Senators never could get out of.

With the schedule serving as an easily identifiable circumstance to blame, many did – using it to explain the team’s slow start in the standings and at the box office.

“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.” ~ Eugene Melnyk explaining the team’s struggles at the box office and in the standings, November 28, 2013

And…

“It was crazy starting off. I’ve never seen it before, where you start the first six games on the road. But we took it. We could have changed it a little bit if we wanted to, because there is room to discuss it. But hey, the hockey ops people said, ‘We’re fine with it. Get it out of the way and then we never have to deal with it.’ That’s a brutal trip. I don’t know if any of you guys went on that trip, but even the reporters that I talked to that came back, they’re just wasted. I was watching at home and I was dying. You go to bed at 2 o’clock in the morning and go to work at 7:30. You can only do so much, and I’m glad it’s over with.” ~ Eugene Melnyk, October 17, 2013

Like Melnyk said, if the organization foresaw the schedule being a problem, they could have talked to the league about like Cyril Leeder mentioned back in July.

“That’s just the way that it worked out. (The NHL) asked us, ‘When do you want to do these trips? Do you want to do them earlier? Later?’ I spoke to Bryan (Murray) about it before we talked to the scheduler and Bryan thought we’re going to have to go more, because it’s more of a balanced schedule. We’re going to play every team in the (Western Conference). This is the first year that we’re going to be doing that, so there’s going to be normally, with one or two long trips, there’s going to be at least three now, and in getting one out of the way early, we thought was a good idea. And really, (the six game road trip) is not as bad as it sounds.” ~ Cyril Leeder, July 20, 2013

As the team continued to struggle and the nation’s capital realized that the Senators’ play wasn’t a by-product of their schedule as much as it was a pervasive team issue, everyone circled back and revisited the Senators’ offseason – exploring how these events affected the culture and morale of this group.

It is not that the distracting offseason events were harbingers of doom, but fans had an easier time accepting or stomaching them knowing that the hockey season was right around the corner and that the team was “better on paper” and had an opportunity to be better than it was during the lockout shortened season.

Melnyk versus Alfie

Daniel Alfredsson survived difficult circumstances throughout his tenure in Ottawa.

Being with the organization during its formative years, he played through some stretches of bad hockey. He would later go on to play through some injury-plagued seasons, an outpouring of requests by fans for him be traded, the organization’s bankruptcy scares and eventually, the Senators’ “rebuild” in 2011.

By signing below market value contracts and electing to defer salary so that the team could afford to add a player at the deadline, he often put the organization ahead of his own best interests to ensure its competitiveness.

Alfie was portrayed as a company man through and through, but that all changed during the summer of 2013.

As he explained in his press conference from the Royal Ottawa Hospital, when Alfie signed his last contract with the Senators, he had no intention of fulfilling the final year of his deal that was worth $1 million because he had the intention of retiring at the conclusion of the 2011/12 season. To drive down Alfie’s cap hit, he and the organization tacked on that final year so that the organization could be afforded more financial flexibility under the salary cap.

However, when he elected to play out the last year of his contract, he and the organization came to an understanding that they would negotiate a new agreement during the 2012/13 season that would keep him in Ottawa for the foreseeable future.

In his view, when the Senators reneged on that promise, it created a situation in which Alfredsson believed he took a discount on the last year of his last contract and as such, he wanted an extension to compensate for his pay cut during the 2012/13 season.

Alfie’s market value was not the $7M for one season or the $12 million for two years that he was reportedly asking for, but Alfie’s 2012/13 salary be damned, the Senators played hardball – refusing to budge off their $4.5 million one-year offer and creating a situation in which they wanted Alfie and JP Barry to negotiate against themselves by coming off their original offer.

With everyone looking out for their own self-interests, greed and money drove Alfredsson away because of the organization’s desire to play hardball.

In forcing Alfie to go to the market, the organization took Alfie’s status as a legacy player for granted – wrongly assuming he would come back to them with the best contract offer that he could find on the open market.

They never anticipated that Alfie would never give them the right of last refusal. Instead, the only call he placed to Bryan Murray was the one informing of his decision to join the Red Wings.

The fallout was predictably ugly as each side (AlfieMurrayBarry and Melnyk) tried their best to get the last word in and sway public opinion in their favour.

Even as the situation evolved, it was difficult to ignore how many pundits began to lay the blame upon Eugene Melnyk.

“After I wrote that blog, I got a call from somebody and they said to me, ‘You’re on the right track, but there’s one thing you left out.’ And I said, ‘Okay, what’s that?’ And they said, ‘I don’t know if the relationship between Melnyk and Barry, who’s Alfredsson’s agent, ever got better after the whole Dany Heatley thing,’ and they thought that maybe that kind of played a role in what happened. Now I can’t speak to that for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me because I know Ottawa, especially Eugene, took the whole Heatley thing very personally. So, I think that may have started at the beginning and then when Alfredsson’s initial request was kind of taken to the side and Alfredsson got a little upset, I just think the ball started rolling down a hill and things got out of control.” ~Elliotte Friedman appearing on TGOR, July 24, 2013

Nick Kypreos eventually chimed in on the matter.

“I think he lost trust in Eugene Melnyk. He just lost trust in him. It wasn’t a Bryan Murray thing. It wasn’t a fans thing. It wasn’t anything else. I really believe in my heart that he just lost trust in Eugene Melnyk and he needed a change to finish out his career.” ~ Nick Kypreos, Fan 590 on December2, 2013

So while Eugene was busy pointing fingers, others – like Daniel Alfredsson’s close friend Tony Rhodes — were more than happy to point the blame back at the owner.

“He’s excited. He can’t wait. The guy wants to win. He’s going to Hockeytown, and they don’t call it Hockeytown for nothing,” Rhodes told the Citizen at the time. “The organization there might be one of the best organizations in all of North American professional sports. They were one goal away from beating Chicago and going to the Cup (final in June). They’re a contender. And they have a commitment from their owner to make it work, whereas I don’t know whether that is evident in Ottawa.” ~ Tony Rhodes in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen’s Wayne Scanlan, August 26, 2013

Rumours even abounded that Melnyk allegedly sent an email to Daniel Alfredsson informing the player that he would never get the kind of money he was looking for to remain an Ottawa Senator.

Maybe Tony Rhodes was right. Did the Senators have a commitment to win from their owner?

As often is the case in professional sports, disputes involving players, agents, ownership and managers come down to money and thanks to Eugene Melnyk’s candid comments and politicking for a casino to be built adjacent to the Canadian Tire Centre, it was clear that money was Melnyk’s biggest concern.

Finances and the Senators’ “Internal Budget”

The season had not even started yet before Eugene Melnyk uttered the words, “We’re already are over budget, I just found out yesterday, but as I said we’ll do whatever it takes.”

Of course, doing “whatever it takes” rings hollow when it comes after the organization let a legacy player slip through its fingers over money.

Eventually Melnyk conceded that the organization would have given in to Alfie’s demands by handing him a “blank cheque”, but it would have come at a cost.

“To come up with the kind of money they were talking about and being fiscally responsible and ensuring the ongoing success of the organization, we knew we needed to add a Bobby Ryan-type player. And at the end, when I said blank cheque, that would have meant we would not have gotten the (Bobby Ryan-type player). Couldn’t afford it. Just couldn’t do it.” ~ Eugene Melnyk, August 9th, 2013

As he so often does, General Manager Bryan Murray immediately came to Melnyk’s defence and tried to put out the fires by stating that the organization could have been creative with their roster.

“We do have an in-house budget that we’re trying to stay very close to, so I think [Melnyk] was just a little harder on himself in that regard in terms of what we could do and couldn’t do. I’m not saying if Alfie stayed that we would have absolutely gone ahead and made the Bobby Ryan trade, but we had certainly talked about that scenario happening as well.” ~ Bryan Murray, August 14, 2013

While completely plausible that Murray could have fit Ryan and Alfie in under the budget, his comments also underscored the reality that the Senators are hamstrung by their internal budget.

The problem therein is that this organization has repeatedly reassured its fans that ownership has the financial wherewithal to ensure that it can keep its best players and then add a piece and make this team more competitive.

“I think we’re in the process of being fairly successful at this point with young people, but I do think there’s going to be a time where Eugene will say, ‘We’re where we should be, let’s get above that now and here’s how we do it,’” Murray said. “Then there might be an opportunity to trade for a higher-profile guy or a more-expensive guy, whatever the case may be.” ~ Bryan Murray, August 14, 2013

As an organization that keeps dangling that proverbial carrot in front of its fans, the Senators have not added that significant piece to the budget yet. They only ask that fans cling to that hope because some day it may happen!

It’s exhausting and as the Senators repeatedly deliver conflicting statements and rationale to explain their decisions, it’s impossible to reconcile what the organization is saying without coming to the conclusion that the fans are being misled.

Besides towing the internal budget line while maintaining that they could add if the player was worth it (or you know, if the Oilers would conveniently pick up half the guy’s salary), Eugene Melnyk is incapable of getting his story straight when it comes to explaining the strong correlation between spending and winning.

When explaining why the Senators need a casino to improve the team’s revenue streams and put them in the top half of league spenders.

“As far as the organization is concerned, again, the idea of moving the team is not a reality. It’s not going to happen, but what is going to happen is if the salary cap is going to increase — I know it, it’s just going to happen, the revenues of the league are going very, very well, they’ve fixed all the problem franchises and now people are spending to the cap. We spent to the cap two years in a row and didn’t make the playoffs so I’m not a big fan of spending because you’ve just got to spend, but we need cooperation and help, it’s as simple as that, because we’re being outspent by everyone else and to be competitive you have to be at least in the top half of spenders. That’s a stat, it’s not just something I’ve made up, you have to be in the top half — we are — if you’re not you don’t have much of a chance, it’s just not going to happen.” Eugene Melnyk, September 27, 2013

One month later…

“Well you know what, there are a lot of numbers get thrown around and you’re, we’re not really 26th. I know that Capgeek and all these guys, they all do these estimates and stuff like that, but that doesn’t really show the whole picture because the difference between being in the third quartile or the second quartile is so miniscule. The high guys… I’ve done it. Look, we’ve done it. Been there, done that. We spent to the cap three straight years and you know what, what did we get done? We spent money for nothing. We didn’t get into the playoffs one year. We got one round in another year and that’s not the way to win. You’re not going to do it. It’s a whole new ballgame. It’s all development, coaching, staying young and staying healthy. But the patching up would be, the wonderful thing that… the big commodity that we have is cap space. If we have an injury and we need to fill a void and that’s going to be the difference between going an extra round or deeper, then I’m prepared to do it.” ~ Eugene Melnyk, October 17, 2013

Months later…

“Well, we spend our money very wisely and I think that’s the mantra that we have throughout the entire organization. If there’s a person or a player who we think could make a big difference, then we would, absolutely. But it’s very early in the season. You know, we’re at the quarter pole. And if this was a horse race, I bet you couldn’t tell me who was at the quarter pole in the Kentucky Derby this year, but a lot of horse players who could tell you who would win. So, we’ve got some time. We want to build our team. We’re developing our team and we’re going to continue doing that and I think we were going to do a great job doing it.” Eugene Melnyk speaking with James Duthie, December 1, 2013

One month later…

“Well, well, hold on a second. No, no, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that because (spending money) is a fool’s game and I keep telling people that. Everyone keeps thinking that ‘Hey, go spend money. Go spend money. Don’t be cheap. Go do this, go do that.’ You know what? Any idiot can go spend money. There are so many idiots out there that spend to the cap every year – take a look at where they are. It all comes down to cost per point. That’s the only stat I care about – cost per point. So, I’d rather spend my money on the development staff, on the scouting staff and develop young players into what they are; as opposed to bringing in people and going way, way over your head in spending because I’ve done that already and it just doesn’t work.” ~ Eugene Melnyk, January 14, 2014

Through statements like the ones above, it’s tough to take Melnyk seriously when he changes his story to fit the narrative.

Nobody should accuse the Senators being cheap.

Even though Eugene Melnyk routinely ditches suits for tracksuits, nobody should be complaining about how thrifty the Senators have become.

When this organization willfully and inexplicably pisses away more than $5 million on redundant and expendable players like Chris Phillips and Colin Greening when it’s admittedly on a finite budget and could be using it to fill one of the many holes on its roster, it’s not being cheap.

Dumb?

Absolutely.

Cheap?

Hells no.

Would a cheap organization make a concerted effort to land David Clarkson in unrestricted free agency?

As much as I want to believe that this Clarkson thing was nothing more than a dog and pony show to demonstrate to fans that they were serious about being players in free agency, Wayne Scanlan reported that “(Murray) wanted Clarkson badly, once joking that he lost out because Clarkson’s old man had a Maple Leafs licence plate. Clarkson grew up in Toronto and was a Leafs fan himself as a boy.”

Sens fans didn’t know it at the time, but losing out on David Clarkson would turn out to be best thing that happened to the franchise this season. Your 2013/14 Ottawa Senators everybody!

Melnyk likes to refer to the Senators as a mid-cap team – meaning that the Senators are spending between the $44 million cap floor and the $64.3 million cap ceiling.

Although the Senators are right in the middle when it comes to spending money on their internal budget, relative to the other NHL teams, the Senators have one of the five lowest payrolls in the league – a place normally reserved for teams that are in the rebuilding phase of their franchise cycle.

The problem Ottawa has right now is that ownership is quick to equate spending money with spending money flippantly. No one should be demanding that this team impulsively spend for the sake of satiating the masses and soothing our insecurities that this organization is cheap. Besides, it’s not like the Senators can simply flick the switch and immediately add better or more expensive players to their roster simply for the sake of doing so.

Spending smartly should be commended and to their credit, the roster that Bryan Murray and his staff have assembled is cost efficient and competitive – with a few obvious exceptions.

Eventually however, there will come a time when this organization will have to put its money where its mouth is and put a better hockey product on the ice.

Should the organization continue to communicate the message that money will be there in time, especially next season when their boosted revenue streams through the NHL’s Canadian national broadcast rights agreement and their regional broadcast agreement with Bell Media come into effect, eventually the fans will grow weary of the message.

Results Matter

Amidst the off-ice distractions, the Senators never got on track on the ice.

For a lineup that featured four key components returning from major injury in Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek and Jared Cowen, much of their success was predicated on their health, production and how well coach Paul MacLean could seamlessly integrate them back into the mix and ensure that there was no letdown from the other players who played prominent role last season but who may naturally expect their teammates to come back in and carry the ball, so to speak.

Of course it does not help when ownership fans the flames and increases the expectations

“We’re all excited about the team we’ve got coming this year. We’ve got Bobby Ryan coming in – he’s all pumped (up). Turris. You’ve got Spez coming in. Michalek. Your top defenceman, your top goalie. If we stay healthy or marginally healthy, we’re going to go deep.” ~ Eugene Melnyk, September 11, 2013

(Sigh)

Sadly, according to ManGamesLost.com’s numbers, the Senators were the healthiest team in the NHL this season with only 82 man-games lost due to injury. To put this in perspective, the Penguins led the league with 512 man-games lost.

In theory, a healthier Senators team should have been better, but not surprisingly, given the severity of their injuries suffered by the likes of Karlsson, Spezza, Cowen and Michalek, these players struggled in the early phases of the season.

After putting up some unsustainable numbers through the team’s first ten games, Spezza’s even strength production languished and his commitment and ability to play Paul MacLean’s 200’ system was even worse. Making matters worse, Spezza never did develop chemistry with Bobby Ryan, the team’s marquee offseason addition.

Although Ryan would become a staple on a line with Kyle Turris and Clarke MacArthur, fans who anticipated Spezza’s elite playmaking skills being able take Ryan to another level offensively were disappointed. Moreover, a complication of this lineup shuffling was the organization’s inability to find a capable winger for Spezza. It took the organization until the March 5th deadline to find an appropriate winger in Ales Hemsky to flank him.

Like Spezza, it took Milan Michalek until February to start resembling the player that he used to be. From February 1st through to the end of the season, no one scored more goals on the Senators than Michalek’s ten.

Playing top four minutes with Patrick Wiercioch to start the season, Jared Cowen looked overmatched and overwhelmed and unlike the other three returning players, his struggles never stopped. Making matters worse, Cowen’s struggles were mental not physical. Whether that was the effect of rust remains to be seen, but Cowen’s hockey IQ and attention to detail abandoned him.

If there were silver linings for this disappointing season, the two most obvious ones would be the two-way play of the Kyle Turris and Clark MacArthur duo and Erik Karlsson resembling the player that he was before Matt Cooke severed 70-percent of his left Achilles tendon.

In time, we learned through Karlsson’s interview with Aftonbladet that he was also dealing with more adversity – a divorce and the absence of some of his closest teammates like Jakob Silfverberg, Peter Regin and Daniel Alfredsson. As an organization that made every effort to espouse the leadership and mentoring ability of Chris Phillips and its effects on the development of Cody Ceci, it’s pretty rich that the Senators would roll over and re-sign the veteran under the pretext that the veteran played a mentoring role for this team when as recently as this summer, the organization played hard ball with Daniel Alfredsson – the team’s captain who not only played a prominent role, but also actually filled a void on this roster. Perhaps more importantly, he is also the very good friend of Erik Karlsson. I mean no disrespect to Ceci, who will be a very good player for this organization and probably requires some kind mentor figure, but he’s not the franchise player who also just happened to go through divorce proceedings in 2013. Insulating Karlsson by keeping a figure like Alfredsson around was a no-brainer.

To Karlsson’s credit however, the difficult circumstances in 2013/14 forced him to endure and grow as a professional. On the ice, his defensive game did not approach his 2011/12 Norris winning form, but Karlsson would go on to set a franchise record in goals by a defenceman and earning himself the team’s nomination for the NHL’s Masterton Trophy.

Ottawa’s offseason prize, Bobby Ryan, put up some decent numbers (23 goals and 48 points in 70 games), but as ESPN foreshadowed by omitting him from their list of the “Top 100 Forwards”, for him it turned out to be a forgettable season.

A sports hernia injury that he sustained in November hampered his production and ability. It cost him an opportunity to represent the United States at the Olympics. This decision was made worse by ESPN’s Scott Burnside very candid behind-the-scenes look at USA Hockey’s selection process that included criticisms from Brian Burke that questioned his “intensity”.

It’s not the fault of the player because of his circumstances, but Ryan’s inability to crack the 30 goal mark for the first time while playing the bulk of a full 82-game schedule was disappointing. But, maybe those expectations for his production were raised too high because of how playes like Spezza and Alfredsson helped turn Dany Heatley into a 50 goal scorer.

To the Senators’ credit however, the offence was not a problem. They had the league’s highest scoring defenceman in Karlsson and the team wound up being the 11th highest scoring team. Unfortunately for them, their defensive issues were glaring.

For the third consecutive season under Paul MacLean, the Senators played high event hockey and gave up a disproportionate number of shots. This year, they averaged the second highest volume of shots per game (34.7) in the NHL.

Unlike the previous two seasons, Senators goaltenders failed to perform at the elite levels that they had played at.

Throughout his tenure in Ottawa, I have been waiting for Craig Anderson’s numbers to normalize to reflect numbers closer to his career norms, but until this year, it just did not happen.

And when the quality of the team’s goaltending suffered, everyone was left to wonder whether the Senators’ goaltending simply masked their defensive problems.

To some extent they did, but the lowered expectations created by this façade that the team was still aggressively within its rebuild phase.

Whatever the case, deserved attention now focuses on the struggles of the blue line and their turnovers and inability to move the puck well, but as a five-man unit, this group lacked cohesion. Their coverage within the defensive zone was heinously poor and as a group, the forwards did not support the defencemen enough. Their commitment to structure and working hard and smartly away from the puck was not an acceptable standard.

Maybe some of the blame there should be cast on the coaching staff for not getting enough out of its players or poor player usage. Certainly the latter point has been a huge sticking point for those analytic-types who have looked at some of this team’s underlying numbers and picked out a few instances where better personnel decisions could have helped.

One of those decisions involved keeping Mika Zibanejad at the conclusion of training camp instead of rewarding Stephane Da Costa for his “strong” camp and the work that he had put into his conditioning during the summer. Conversely, the organization believed that returning Zibanejad to the Binghamton Senators would send him a message and inspire him to work harder and play a more desperate style.

Sending messages to players is fine, but there has to be some consistency there. When other players are struggle with their game, there has not been that same level of accountability. Despite his poor play, Jared Cowen often played at the expense of Patrick Wiercioch. Chris Phillips struggled, but he led the team in hand gestures per 60 minutes of ice time and never came out of the lineup. Worse, the Senators even re-signed Phillips before the 2014 trade deadline to a two-year extension worth $5 million likely as direct result of Jason Spezza’s uncertain future and because of how the organization bungled the Alfredsson negotiations.

Players who had a penchant for taking dumb penalties were rarely reprimanded either. In fact, the Senators had the league’s worst differential of time spent on the power play to time spent on the penalty kill at -79:13. Of course, this kind of differential will happen when you also lead the league in the number of minor penalties taken (379).

Despite MacLean frequently dropping the “the best players will play” line, his overreliance on the Colin Greening – Zack Smith – Chris Neil line and Jared Cowen proved otherwise.

MacLean didn’t have a great season by any means, but unlike the team’s captain, he received a vote of confidence from the organization at the end of season availability and will most definitely return next season.

Saving Grace…

Not everything was bleak during the Senators’ 2013/14 season.

Besides Erik Karlsson’s return to health, the play of the MacArthur/Turris tandem, the organization also unveiled new threads based off of Jacob Barrette’s heritage jersey design and wore these new jerseys in the 2014 Heritage Classic versus Vancouver.

Even if that Heritage Classic game demonstrated that too many stripes worn by both teams can wreak havoc on the eyes, the off-white design was a gorgeous addition to the team’s merchandise catalogue and if common sense prevails, the Senators will ditch their hideous and bland home and away primaries that they’ve been wearing since 2007.

The rest of the season may not have gone their way from a points perspective, but in picking up points in ten of their final 12 games, the Senators ended the season on a winning note that did not go unnoticed by ownership.

In his end of the year conference call with the media, Eugene Melnyk used this small sample size to emphasize how this stretch was representative of the Senators team that he had been waiting for.

While they were unquestionably better in the standings, were they actually playing better hockey?

Statistic

First 70 Games

Last 12 Games

Goals/Game

2.80

2.75

Goals Allowed/Game

3.30

2.25

Shots/Game

32.6

34.4

Shots Allowed/Game

34.5

36.1

PIM/Game

13:05

14:50

Shooting Percentage

8.6%

8.0%

Save Percentage

.904

.938

PP %:

18.4%

18.9%

PK %:

80.2%

85.7%

EV CF%:

51.8%

53.4%

EV FF%:

50.5%

51.2%

EV SF%

49.6%

48.6%

EV Sh%

7.4%

6.7%

EV SV%

.916

.946

Close 5v5 CF%

51.9%

53.6%

Close 5v5 FF%

50.7%

50.9%

Close 5v5 SF%

49.4%

47.6%

Close 5v5 Sh%

7.2%

6.9%

Close 5v5 Sv%

.924

.961

As the numbers show, with the exception of the Senators’ goals allowed per game rate and the team’s save percentages and modest improvement in the team’s possession numbers, most of the team’s numbers did not change significantly for the better, so it’s tough to accept Melnyk’s portrayal of this winning stretch of hockey as anything other than better luck and unsustainable goaltending percentages.

Uncertain Offseason and a Look to the Future

The organization can market itself in one of two ways: they can sell a winner or they can sell hope.

Having missed the playoffs, the Senators certainly can’t pass themselves off as a winner, so they are going to sell hope – emphasizing how awesome their pipeline of prospects is and how things will only get better.

With the way that the season went sideways on the Senators, things can only get better, but better is a relative term. The only thing that matters is how much things will improve.

As an organization that prides itself on cultivating prospects and graduating them to the NHL level, the Senators need more from the Cowens, Wierciochs, Zibanejads and Lehners so that when these players take the next step in their development, the organization can as well.

The Senators will also need more production out of players like Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Curtis Lazar or any other prospective prospects who are on the cusp of graduating from the Binghamton Senators.

It’s a necessity for a mid-cap team that simply cannot afford to spend to the upper reaches of the salary cap ceiling and has designs of success for the 2014/15 season.

The prospect depth that the Senators have accumulated since the John Muckler days should never be downplayed, but attrition and unfulfilled potential occurs in every NHL organization. Not every one of their prospects will wind up playing for the Ottawa Senators.

Delving into Ottawa’s system further, it’s worth mentioning that with the exception of Lazar, the vast majority of its prospects project as high-floor/low-ceiling types – the types that fill out the bottom six forward slots or play on the team’s bottom defence pairing.

Although these prospects represent cost-effective options to replace expendable veterans who may price themselves out of the market, if the Senators will rarely be aggressive players in the free agent and trade markets, they either need more blue chip prospects or they will need their prospects to exceed projections.

After scoring 30 goals in Binghamton, Matt Puempel is one intriguing name who could break that mould, but it’s difficult to ignore his negative plus/minus number or the fact that he scored half of his goals on the power play. Goal scoring prowess aside, the knock on Puempel is his play away from the puck. If he can improve that facet of his game, the Senators may have something here.

The drawback to Ottawa’s situation is that with an owner who is reluctant to add salary to improve this team in the short-term, they need to operate and manage their team shrewdly and they need their best prospects to pan out.

Unfortunately for the Senators, the growth of its best young players may not make up for the fact that its veteran players are either in decline or may simply leave the organization altogether. As the rumours continue to swirl about Jason Spezza being made available in trade discussions (the Jason Spezza Rally be damned), it’s quite realistic to assume that the team’s most productive offensive line of the last quarter of the season — Ales Hemsky (impending UFA), Milan Michalek (impending UFA) and Spezza (the organization’s fall guy for the leadership void created by the organization dicking Daniel Alfredsson around in contract negotiations, eventually leading to his departure) – will all leave this offseason. But hey, at least we’ll always be able to look back fondly on that 20 game stretch of hockey that lasted a month!

Throw in the unknown future of the four players – Marc Methot, Craig Anderson, Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur — in addition to Spezza who become UFAs at the conclusion of the 2014/15 season and important decisions need to be made on how the organization wants to shape its future.

The problem with the Senators is that these veterans were essentially inked to relatively cap friendly deals, but being a budget team, each of these players should be looking for long-term deals with sizable raises in the average annual value of their respective contracts.

In Bobby Ryan’s case, I fully expect the Senators to give him a blank cheque. Even though his offensive numbers and underlying numbers were assumedly hampered by the sports hernia injury that plagued him since November, having moved a young player in Jakob Silfverberg, a prospect in Stefan Noesen and first round pick that wound up being the tenth overall selection in the 2014 Draft, the Senators have essentially given Bobby Ryan all the leverage in any contract extension negotiations.

That might not be the best thing for the Senators either.

I certainly would never want to dismiss the importance in having a player who can fill the net 30 or more times in a season, but Bobby Ryan has never exactly looked like an exceptional player judging by his underlying numbers and puck possession metrics.

Now 27 years old and no longer an option to play with the organization’s best playmaker in Jason Spezza, expecting significantly more offensive production out of him than he has shown in the past is foolish. Moreover, as a player whose goal scoring talents are the direct result of a favorable shooting percentage and not shot volume, I cannot help but wonder when the Senators can begin to expect diminishing returns on his production.

There’s no question that when he was acquired, the motivations for the trade were public relations driven and to help fill the void created by Daniel Alfredsson’s departure.

As a playoff bubble team, whether it ever made sense to acquire a one-dimensional goal scoring winger at the expense of some of the team’s better future assets when diligent foresight would have taken into account Jason Spezza’s uncertain future. Did it ever make hockey sense to acquire Ryan when the organization would eventually have to bite the bullet and jettison Spezza for futures shortly thereafter? (As an aside and keeping foresight in mind, assuming Matt Puempel, another goal scoring winger who struggles away from the puck coming through the system reaches the NHL in the near future, can the organization be successful with two of these wingers playing significant minutes?)

If the organization is set on moving Spezza this summer, it’s essentially admitting to its fan base that the team is further away from contention than has been portrayed. With that in mind and in consideration of Ryan’s age and style of play, perhaps it would be in Ottawa’s best future interests if they shopped Ryan as well, since the productive seasons that he has remaining may not necessarily align with the Senators’ window of contention. Although the Senators may have no choice to move him should the contract extension talks do not go as well as planned.

Losing a first round pick, and the cost-controlled years of Silfverberg’s and Noesen’s careers was never really ideal for a small market team, but getting a very good player while increasing your team’s odds of winning the Cup was defensible. In trading Spezza however, that window may be further away than the organization would like to acknowledge.

Even if the Senators ultimately decide to re-sign Ryan to maintain the team’s semi-competitiveness, the Senators could probably expect to get their money’s worth for the next three to four seasons on an extension, but if the Senators aren’t in a position to contend within that timeframe, discussions about whether Ryan offers more value over the course of his next contract or offers more value in a potential trade should take place.

The problem that I have with the Ottawa Senators is that it often feels like the team’s hockey ops department makes reactive moves more often than they do taking proactive gambles on high-upside moves.

For every Kyle Turris trade, there’s the inexplicable Chris Phillips or Colin Greening extension, the Bobby Ryan trade after Alfie left, an Alex Kovalev signing after Dany Heatley was dealt, or a Matt Kassian trade after David Dziurzynski had his face caved in.

Even other proactive moves like trading Brian Elliott for Craig Anderson or moving draft picks for a longer window to evaluate and re-sign Ales Hemsky sort of backfired. In rebuilding years, both moves cost the team better draft selection or just draft picks. Anderson played the team out of the Gabriel Landeskog sweepstakes and in giving up a third and fourth rounder for Hemsky, the Senators have not been able to dissuade Hemsky from testing UFA.

Hell, even these Jason Spezza rumours feel reactive. Even though there were and continue to be very rational hockey-related reasons for believing that a Spezza trade would be best for the Ottawa Senators, all that’s really being focused on is this leadership angle in which Spezza will be the fall guy for the organization’s inability to keep Daniel Alfredsson in the fold. Instead, the organization that has readily admitted that it needs more leadership and accountability is going to remedy this issue by trading its captain.

I’ll let that marinate for a second.

In panning its leadership, it’s almost as if the organization is buttering up its fans to ensure that they can come to terms with a trade involving Spezza before it happens – that because Spezza is the captain and because the team has leadership and accountability problems, he has to bear the brunt of the criticism.

I certainly don’t think Bryan Murray is a dumb general manager, but looking at his body of work since usurping John Muckler following the team’s 2007 Stanley Cup Finals appearance, I cannot help but wonder how much pressure and influence Eugene Melnyk exerts on his staff to ensure that the Senators maintain this semi-competiveness.

Now amidst the reports that the Senators are actively shopping Spezza, it’s curious to hear or read NHL Insiders like Bob McKenzie tweet that in his exit interview with the Senators, Spezza mentioned to management that he’d respond favorably to a trade.

Who else but the organization stands to gain anything from this kind of information being leaked?

It essentially allows the Senators to look better in the public light and I can already envision them saying down the road that “we really wanted Jason back, but he made it clear that he was looking for a change. So we did what’s best for the player and gave him that opportunity.

As often is the case with the Ottawa Senators, insecurities over how they’re perceived by the general public and ticket buying fans rules the day.

Even when the organization underwent its infamous “rebuild” in 2011, the Senators never gutted their roster or rid themselves of their best veteran players like Spezza, Alfredsson or Phillips. Instead, the organization maximized the value at the trade deadline on second tier guys like Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly and Chris Campoli who filled specific niches for Cup contending teams.

As a franchise whose glory days were built on patience, strong amateur scouting and player development, the decision to “rebuild” forego semi-competitiveness to build a Stanley Cup contender resonated with a fan base that had grown tired of the organization’s patchwork attempts to keep the team relevant.

We’re about to enter the fourth season of the rebuild and it feels like the Senators are still spinning their tires.

Three of their most productive offensive players are all unlikely to return and there are no viable internal candidates in place who can replace that kind of offensive production.

The Senators simply have to hope that whatever improvements they make will be on the defensive side on the puck and Paul MacLean is banking on it.

In his end of season media availability, MacLean ambitiously talked about the team’s goal to reduce the number of goals allowed by 50. MacLean can point to penalty killing and reducing the number of penalties as a means to this end, but without wholesale personnel changes, improvement in the forwards’ puck support and two-way play, significant gains in the play of the defencemen and the goaltenders to return to Jennings quality standards of play, this target could prove to be a difficult to reach.

The Senators of course could elect to bring in some better (and probably more expensive) players through free agency or trade, but with Eugene Melnyk touting the benefits of a thrifty spending, the likelihood of the Senators going in this direction seems remote.

We can applaud the Senators for being fiscally responsible and management for putting together a cost-efficient semi-competitive team, but if the whole point of being shrewd with money is to ensure that you can successfully add to your core or ensure that when your best players are eligible for free agency, you can afford to sign them.

The Senators may come off as thrifty, but there’s a possibility they have no choice in the matter. As Forbes indicated in their 2013 valuations, the Senators debt/value ratio has spiked. If the Senators’ debt agreement carries high interest rates, the strict conditions of these agreements technically could put strict limits on the amount that Ottawa spends on its payroll because the debt lenders need to protect their own self interests. In other words, unless the Senators refinance on better terms or pay off their debt, they may not be allowed to spend much more money, even if Eugene Melnyk wants to.

Whether that’s the case remains to be seen, but with the Senators maximizing their revenue streams through avenues like their new television broadcast agreements and their arena naming rights and sponsorship agreement with Canadian Tire, patience will wear thin in the nation’s capital should the Senators continue to dangle that proverbial carrot in front of fans – downplaying the correlation between spending money on player payroll and winning, while at the same time, teasing fans that they will be able to absorb salary and make a move should the right opportunity present itself.

Sens fans aren’t stupid, but you’d never know it from the way the organization has led them on.

“A number of our players would easily make NHL teams right now — we just have too much talent on the Senators. We have excellent, second to none, management in hockey operations, namely Bryan Murray, Randy Lee and his development and training staff, Pierre Dorion — arguably the best scouting head and his team an award winning head coach in Paul MacLean and his assistants. Not to mention an excellent young, team on the ice now!!!” ~ Eugene Melnyk, January 30th, 2014

Ownership can talk up its ballyhooed farm system that is so deep and enriched with NHL-ready talent because the parent club – a club that failed to reach the postseason – has “too much talent”. It can play up the efforts of a managerial staff whose trade record has its share of hits and missed and lost one of its best men to the Buffalo Sabres in Tim Murray. It can promote the hell out of the various third party reports that reflect favorably upon the organization and it can even manipulate their financial figures to fit their needs and sway public sentiment in their favour on things like the casino issue.

The truth is, the only numbers, points or rankings that matter to the fans are the standings.

No one in Ottawa is looking forward to the day when the Senators raise their Cost Per Point Championship banner to the Canadian Tire Centre rafters. They only want a winner that can contend for a Stanley Cup and as a result, they invest heavily into the process that goes about making that happen.

As more and more years pass, it’s difficult to ignore the change in public sentiment regarding Senators ownership. Melnyk simply continues to lose whatever goodwill he built up in this fan base by saving this team from bankruptcy, especially when in the minds of many, the sale prevented the Senators from ever leaving Ottawa.

Long gone are the days when he was willing or able to spend to the cap ceiling. Instead, he removes all context for why that money was spent and worse, he now uses those days as an excuse for why he should not spend money now; preferring to espouse the benefits of exhausting the team’s resources in player development and scouting and ignoring.

Suspicions only grow when Melnyk alludes to the organization investing heavily in departments like player development and scouting. While those departments have improved significantly since the John Muckler era, it’s not like there’s a Capgeek-like online resource that can verify how much money the Senators invest in these areas. Without transparency, the decision to take their word for it is left to the individual, but when others are showing that the Senators have one of the smallest front offices in hockey, it makes it that much harder to take the organization at its word.

Sens lost T. Murray. Have smallest hockey Ops in the NHL. Should add. Hire some qualified alumni. BM needs some help. Maquire would work!

— Shawn Simpson (@TSNSimmer) April 14, 2014


As much faith as I have in the Senators’ amateur scouting and player development areas, that’s only part of the puzzle. The greatest concern is that as a mid-cap team, the Senators are already at a competitive disadvantage relative to the other teams and with teams like the Chicago Blackhawks readily admitting their reliance upon hockey analytics, it feels safe to assume that the Senators are getting lapped by the competition in other areas as well. Hell, there’s not even a guarantee that the Senators will continue to be a mid-cap team thanks to the NHL’s escalating salary cap.

As someone whose parents had season tickets and who grew up watching this team draft, develop and build towards being a Stanley Cup contender, I would love nothing more than to see the Senators adopt a Tampa Bay Rays’ ‘Extra Two Percent’-like philosophy and not only try to be semi-competitive but proactively make shrewd decisions in trades and free agency to put the team in the best position to be the best team in the league.

I want to love this organization unconditionally, but thanks to the presence of Eugene Melnyk, I don’t know if I’m capable of doing that.

I used to laugh off his interview soundbites and his affinity for being in front of microphone and cameras when the team was winning and he demonstrated a real willingness to pump money into this franchise – thinking that one day, Melnyk would mature and turn into hockey’s version of Mark Cuban. Instead, the gravy train has ended, but the embarrassing soundbites, off-ice distractions, rumours of his influence and pressures on the hockey ops staff continue to persist. More and more, it’s becoming obvious that he’s more of a Jerry Jones or Al Davis type figure and because of it, I don’t have any confidence in him or his ability to successfully own and operate a hockey club that can win a Stanley Cup.

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