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.