On the verge of making their first playoff appearance since 2010, to say that the Ottawa Senators have exceeded expectations is akin to saying that Bobby Butler has struggled through his sophomore season.1 Sometimes you can never emphasize things enough. Or at least that’s the way things seemed. Thanks to the lack of expectations and the fact that pundits were so quick to write this team off, the notion that this season would be an Edmonton Oilers-esque tank job became engrained in the fan base. Provided that this young team demonstrated a hardworking and entertaining on-ice style, we could tolerate and endure the losses, assuming that the light at the end of the tunnel – a highly valued lottery pick – was well worth the short-term pain.
For many, the playoffs were an afterthought. Much like HBO’s Luck, we anticipated Ottawa’s 2011/12 season being cut short because the Senators just didn’t have the horses. As Brian Burke would be more than happy to point out, with a plan that was already two years behind Toronto’s own rebuild, so long as the Senators’ brass augmented the collection of impressive young prospects that they had deftly assembled over the past few seasons, that’s all that fans could realistically hope for.
Yet slowly over the course of the campaign, the Senators have metamorphosed from a rebuilding team into a Cinderella-like story. It feels like yesteryear when we debated whether it was prudent in giving Nikita Filatov every opportunity to succeed before admonishing him as some talented fringe prospect who lacked the urgency in his game to ever succeed at the NHL level. Now his NHL career is at a crossroads; resembling what is left of his Formspring account.
Thanks to improbable injury free campaigns by many of the team’s veterans – Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, Filip Kuba, Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar – combined with the emergence of Erik Karlsson as one of the game’s best defencemen and the acquisition of a young second line center who plays against the opposition’s best lines, the Senators have gradually made the ascent up the Eastern Conference standings.
Despite this seemingly improbable turn of events and the Euge’s proclamations that the organization is sticking to its “three year plan”, Bryan Murray has never been the kind of general manager to avoid chasing name talents. In Anaheim, he couldn’t resist adding Sergei Fedorov to the mix. In Ottawa there has been Sergei Gonchar. Even after Dany Heatley infamously requested to be moved, Murray kicked the tires on unrestricted free agents like Martin Havlat and Mike Cammalleri before settling on Plan B, Alexei Kovalev.2
Where most people would agree that Murray has erred as Senators general manager would be in his vain attempts to give the core of the roster from the 2007 Stanley Cup finals every opportunity to return to contention. Whether it was some mandate from ownership based loosely off of this perpetuated myth that Sens fans would not support a winner, management ignored the signs that this was a team on the decline.3
It’s no secret that the best moves Bryan Murray has made during his time here have involved acquiring draft picks, prospects or young players who are entering the primes of their careers. To him and his staff’s credit, they have done an admirable job of identifying amateur talent and stockpiling a young nucleus of players of whom he should: a) be able to build around; or b) parlay for better quality talent.
That is principally why this offseason will be an intriguing to monitor. It will mark a new chapter in Murray’s legacy here in Ottawa. Regardless of the success that the Senators have in the postseason (assuming that they make it), expectations for this hockey team will inevitably rise in the nation’s capital next season. And with it, the emphasis will slowly begin to shift from player development, efficient drafting and stockpiling assets to moves that can help propel the team towards Stanley Cup contention.
Will Bryan Murray be able to avoid the player personnel mistakes that plagued his teams for the first few years of his GM duty? Will he adhere to Melnyk’s infamous “three year plan” and stick to the development from within approach? Will the Euge savor a taste of the postseason and the revenue it generates from the gates? Will these perks entice him to accelerate their plans?
As Murray enters the second year of what is expected to be his final contract as a National Hockey League general manager, it would hardly be surprising to see him make an aggressive play this summer. He has certainly created an environment that would appear to be more attractive to prospective free agents of the young and talented kind; whether he'll have any more success targeting and landing them remains to be seen.
1 As much as I'm looking forward to the 2012/13 season, one of the things I won't be looking forward to are the constant reminders from the local scribes that he will be earning $50k more than Daniel Alfredsson.
2 Have been hearing rumbles about the Senators' interest in Zach Parise as an UFA this summer. With a weak free agent pool this summer, I may throw up in my mouth a bit if the Murrays fail to land him and pursue a lesser calibre player who they're familiar with, like Dustin Penner. Cue the snark; just keep in mind that Kovalev was brought in following a season in which he was sent home by Bob Gainey two-thirds of the way through.
3 Note to aspiring armchair GMs out there, giving every player a 100-percent raise without any residual increase in production is generally a recipe for disaster.
Could Murray be simply a great starter, giving the team 6-7 quality innings but if the Sens want to win it all, they'll need to bring in a stud closer? I don't know who that GM is but maybe once the team has established a strong core of NHL regulars an abundant crop of prospects, a new GM with better trading acumen comes in to get them over the hump? Like Brian Burke did in Anaheim. The Leafs are in the trouble they find themselves because Burke is a closer, a shrewd trader but piss poor at building a team from scratch. Paul Holmgren seems to be a master at trading players but there is no way he is coming to Ottawa. Is there any other GM out there that you think would fit the bill when the time is right to add the missing pieces to the puzzle?
Murrays biggest problem is being able to cut ties with his players. Instead of flipping aging and/or replaceable players for picks and prospects, he gets too attached to them and overlooks their replaceability/declining play. Every successful sports team allows a rotation in players and is in a semi-perpetual rebuild.
Thinking back to September - who would have thought they'd be in a playoff spot while having zero contribution from Filatov, Da Costa, Regin, and Rundblad.
We're going all the way!!!
I agree with this. Sadly I see Murray hanging around here forever and us being caught in some weird statsis where we make the playoffs. maybe win a few games or a round and then are just unable to take that next step...and old players get renewed because they're nice guys. Leeder and Melnyk should be looking externally for the next guy in the near future. That next guy should not be afraid of breaking some eggs if it means the team wins a championship.
@TrevorKluke Much is made about how expansion has diluted the player talent pool. The same probably holds true of management and the scouting staffs.
@S_Church After the Filatov trade I was pleasantly surprised that perhaps Murray was taking a new direction as GM but the Auld signing proved that he still had some old tricks. I think one of his lines after the signing was "we know him and he knows us so it works well".
@S_Church He should treat everyone like they were drafted by Muckler. Hey-o.
@S_Church I completely agree. It sounds cold to criticize a guy for having too big of a heart, but it has caused problems in the past. He likely won't have to make too many more of those decisions.
@MelnyksHangovers That's an excellent point. What would you put the odds of the organization extending Regin a qualifying offer?
@Fox Mulder @S_Church The context at the time of that signing was different than it is now. With a team that was expected to miss the playoffs, the team inked a guy with back up experience who they knew wouldn't make a fuss over playing time. He was only supposed to be a one-year stopgap measure until Lehner was ready.
Perhaps the organization could have gone out and inked a better talent in the offseason, but then they may not have felt compelled to acquire Bishop.
Although it's only a small sample size of games for Bishop at the NHL level to analyze, I don't mind the way the goaltending situation worked itself out.
@Nichols6thSens I really hope they do because I like his game a lot, but from what I've heard he's not in the plans. The problem is they would have to qualify him at $1.1m, which is a lot for a guy who may or may not get back to what he was. The other thing is that they have Zibby and Silfverberg coming next year, and Stone, Noesen, etc coming the year or two after that, so there isn't much room for a guy whose game is primarily offensive. If it was up to me I'd give him one more shot, but I wouldn't bet on that happening.
I do agree that in retrospect it wasn't a terrible situation; Aulds play was ultimately the catalyst for bringing in Bishop and solidifying our goaltending depth.
What I was replying to was how I agree with the idea that Murray has a history of making emotional decisions with regard to player trades and signings. I don't like Philips contract and perhaps there was more available for Fisher.
In any event, he has been great at drafting prospects and has a willingness to really listen and trust his scouts (trading up for Karlsson at 5'10, 155lbs) proving that he can be a shrewd general manager. What I'm interested in is perhaps the emotional decisions are because we are a small market club that needs to keep a respected reputation in order to have any chance for attracting free agents.
@silversevensens @MelnyksHangovers I'd be concerned if that line wasn't getting chances. So long as his line is getting scoring opps, the puck will eventually start going in. Alfie going 10+ games without a goal isn't going to help matters either.
In yesterday's blog post, I highlighted the forward group's scoring woes and I believe outside of Michalek and Greening, no forward has more goals in their last 10 GP than Turris. (IIRC Spezza may have two too.) At the risk of sounding like a Turris fan boy, I feel like it's easy to forget that he's the team's youngest forward and that he's often been playing against the opposition's top lines while improving his puck possession metrics. Obviously at some point the results have to improve, but I don't think he's been that bad lately.
@Nichols6thSens True. I hope you're right. I don't see much risk in signing him for one year, seeing how he and the other forwards play, and either trading him or letting him walk after next season.