Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Even The Political Junkies Are Coming Down On The Senators

You could look long and hard but you will not find a more frank or critical piece written on the Ottawa Senators and their recent history than the sledgehammer that Jeffrey Simpson brought down today in the Globe and Mail.

Perhaps it takes the perspective of the outsider which might be the reason that no local beat writer has taken on the task of penning such a thought out and all-encompassing take on the Senators precipitous drop of the last two seasons.

Jeffrey Simpson is not usually a hockey writer, in fact he's a "national affairs columnist", but you wouldn't know it by the depth of his knowledge on the Senators and their recent travails. Some might be tempted to tell Simpson to "stick to his knitting", but when a writer of his stature drops an atomic bomb on a team from out of nowhere, it’s something that should be taken notice of.

I agree with a lot of what Simpson says here and I have written about many of these issues in the past but I also think he went too far in some cases and I’ll point them out as we go.

There is so much to wade through here that I thought I’d go through some of the main points of the story, line by line. You might not have the patience for this sort of thing but during a slow week, I think that this type of story merits attention.


Jeffrey Simpson: “They have burned through two coaches — John Paddock and Bryan Murray — and are not responding for the third, Craig Hartsburg. He whips them like a mule, but a mule is a mule. It can speed up a little under the whipping, but it remains a mule.

The Senators won Saturday 4-1 against the New York Rangers, offering a spirited effort. They won the only way they can, given a limited amount of talent, playing a chip-and-chase game and outworking their opponents.

The days of a fast, skilled Senators team are over. Apart from the trio of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, they have nothing but pluggers up

Black Aces: I think Simpson might be exaggerating for effect when he says “a mule is a mule” in the case of the Senators, but in essence, he’s right. Hard work can take you far but you need skill to win in the NHL, especially when most teams play very similar systems. The Senators can probably scrape into the playoffs if they play extremely hard-nosed every night but that very fact makes them just one of many teams in the same position. The last team to win a Cup without an elite defenseman was Carolina but they made up for that with a team deep in forwards who could score.

Lumping Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette in with the “pluggers” is probably unfair but they have to take the criticism because they haven’t produced this season.

As for Simpson’s suggestion that the players aren’t responding to Hartsburg, I think he’s dead wrong. Not since Jacques Martin has this team played in such a structured way (in stretches, mind you). If anything, Bryan Murray just took off the reins when he came in and was able to win games on pure skill alone. John Paddock was a complete disaster in his short time as head coach and it would take someone more knowledgeable than me to figure out what kind of system he wanted to implement, other than to play the Big 3 to death.

Hartsburg’s challenge is much bigger than his predecessors and he deserves more time to mould this team in his image.

Simpson: “Senators fans are smart. They can see the team for what it is, a shadow of yesteryear's dynamic units, crippled by a long series of management errors under general managers John Muckler and Murray that have finally caught up to the franchise.

It's a team with only three bona fide scorers, two backup goalies, four sixth defencemen, no speed on the back end, little secondary scoring, not much size and, chillingly, little help on the farm.”

Black Aces: Senators fans are smart? If they were so smart, why are they so outraged at the play of the team thus far? Smart fans would recognize that losing Andrej Meszaros and Wade Redden without proper replacements would mean trouble. Instead, these fans cheered those moves and were dumbfounded when the team couldn’t move the puck efficiently through the neutral zone with solid passes that were once taken for granted. These are the same fans who want to trade Jason Spezza every time the team loses. They once wanted to trade Daniel Alfredsson too.

Smart fans? Please. (I’m mostly talking about the vocal minority of insane callers to the Over The Edge show on the Team 1200. I realize most real fans don’t bother writing blogs or calling radio programs.)

Simpson says that the team has “four sixth defenseman”. I’m not sure out of the three who he’s describing as a sixth defenseman – Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba or Anton Volchenkov but he’s wrong on any one of them. I would call them all third or fourth defenseman and that’s no disrespect. It’s just that they’re not elite offensive players although Kuba has surprised everyone with his point production.

Simpson: “The start-again strategy would require a new general manager. One intriguing choice would be Steve Yzerman, who played some hockey before turning professional in Ottawa and is popular in the city.”

Black Aces: Wow. That name, Steve Yzerman, just sort of jumps out at you and until Simpson said it, I haven’t heard his name linked to Ottawa in even the wildest of rumours. Obviously it’s just speculation on Simpson’s part, but if ever Melnyk decided to change GM’s, wouldn’t Yzerman be a perfect fit in this town?

To be clear, I don’t think that Bryan Murray deserves to be fired and one of the positives is that he’s managed to lock up the core of the team to long contracts. Some might see that as a negative but it will probably pay off down the road, especially when Alfredsson departs in four years. Spezza and Heatley are still young and will be playing in their prime for the Senators for years to come. That alone will give them a chance to win every year.

Simpson: “Muckler had inherited a brilliant team and proceeded to erode its foundations. Sami Salo, still a top-four defenceman for Vancouver, was traded for Peter Schaefer, who is no longer in the league. He blew the draft after the lockout, in which the Senators got a huge break by picking ninth. He selected Brian Lee, who remains in the minor leagues, while passing on other players such as Marc Staal and Anze Kopitar, now young stars. …

Chara, Redden, Havlat, Corvo, Eaves. For these players, the Senators have nothing to show today. No team so mismanaged can remain competitive. Coming up empty for these five, coupled with indifferent draft picks, plus those end-of-season Muckler trades, meant that past mistakes suddenly caught up with the Senators.”

Black Aces: It’s easy for Simpson to look back at the Salo trade now and say it was a bad move but Schaefer was a good pickup who was effective for a number of years in a defensive role and occasionally on offense. Salo was injury prone when he was traded and the Senators didn’t suffer on the backend as they had the likes of Chara and Redden in the mix with a young Volchenkov and Meszaros soon on the way. If no one had ever heard of a salary cap, then yes, the trade looks bad now. But they got good mileage out of Schaefer and they still have Shean Donovan so it hasn’t been a complete wash like the brutal Havlat deal or the Chara free-agency loss.

I do agree with Simpson on Muckler though. The seeds of the fall were planted in that brief era when he let Chara go for nothing. If Muckler had kept Chara, maybe Bryan Murray, his successor, would have been forced to play hardball with Mike Fisher or even trade him to stay under the cap, but this team would be in much better shape regardless.

Simpson: “So did the demise of Ray Emery, the goalie who showed promise of evolving perhaps into a solid No. 1, only to play himself out of the league through what are euphemistically called "off-ice" distractions. He is now playing in Russia.”

Black Aces: Simpson only devotes one line to Ray Emery. And that’s probably about all it deserved. Emery might have been the biggest scapegoat in recent NHL memory and the overblown fuss about his “antics” last year were mind-boggling. Emery didn’t help himself but the local media went out of their way to destroy this guy. Now it’s on to Spezza I guess.

Simpson: “Gerber had played for Anaheim when Murray ran that organization. Apparently, he liked Gerber and argued for signing him to the albatross contract.”

Black Aces: I’m not sure if Simpson has some insider information on this one but it seems strange to blame Murray for Muckler’s mistake just because Gerber and Murray once worked together. Murray has enough on his plate and can’t be blamed for this contract. He also brought in Alex Auld who is playing great right now so it sort of makes the Gerber problem moot at this point.

Simpson: “The team will not make the playoffs with the current mess, so existing or new management either has to make short-term trades to try for rapid, if ephemeral, improvement; or clean house, fall further to the bottom, and try to put together in three-to-five years the kind of team that not so long ago was the envy of the league.”

Black Aces: “Cleaning house” doesn’t seem to be a logical option at this point. The Senators have a trio of forwards in Spezza, Heatley and Alfredsson that are at an elite level. You could never get full value in a trade for either of those players. The way forward is to build around them.

The Senators are still a valid team to make the playoffs in their current form if they scratch and bite for the rest of the season and keep to Hartsburg’s defensive game plan. But they need a few vital upgrades to turn into a challenger. You’d be surprised the difference a real puck-mover would make on the back end for this team - on the power-play and in 5 on 5 situations.

If Auld can keep playing well, they could do some damage in a playoff series. In a way, the Senators are a bit like the Toronto teams who used to knock them off in the earlier part of the decade – a couple of high end skill guys surrounded by a lunch-pail crew with tons of character and a few irritating pests for good measure.

There are worse places to be.

Like Tampa.

At least the Senators don't have their nickname on the front of their...errr.. nevermind.


closet said...

Thanks for this thorough assessment .. While Simpson makes some valid points, I think that trading Eaves was not a mistake.. He is often injured . Winchester and Foligno are both better .. As for Corvo .. I think BM underestimated how difficult it was going to be to land a 1/2 decent puck mover for roughly the same cap hit. And the media booed corvo out of town too . I think an expensive contract for Fisher is a mistake especially with the NTC. I believe both Vermette and Kelly will come around. So not a bad team but they do need structure and motivation. They are waiting for a trade and I think the team should not wait. They should learn to win with what they have ..

Anonymous said...

I think that you're too kind to Murray. I would like to say that the Sens' problems are mostly Muckler's doing, but my rational side tells me that it's just not true. Muckler was at the helm when we made it to the Finals. Over the course of his tenure, there was lots of pressure on him to dump Alfie or blow up the team. He made the right moves to get us to the Finals. Sure, we lost Chara, but we made it to the Finals without him. Sure, we lost Havlat, but we made it to the Finals without him.

Contrast that with Murray, and you see fans and media calling for the heads of Emery and Redden. Murray dumps them both. Media jumps on Corvo, Corvo starts feeling some self-doubt, Murray dumps him. It would be nice to have a GM that stands up for his players and defends them when the media gets on their case.

Some key talent left the scouting department under Muckler, this is true. But Murray has blown up the scouting department and brought in completely different people. There are now no leftovers from the highly successful scouting department that built the core of the team.

Brian Lee over Staal was clearly a mistake. Staal was pegged to go as high as #2 that year. Muckler messed that one up for sure. But all in all, when he was dismissed, I thought that the franchise was still in good shape.

The rapid decline is Bryan Murray's to wear. It is his decision making, and his management style. It is the players he has brought in, and the players he has shipped out. He does not let his elite players be who they are. He wants them to dump and chase. That is the game for mediocre players, not top level talent.

If Stevie Y ever comes to town with Detroit's "Skill First" mentality, we're set.

mickey said...

With the exception of detroit and San Jose (and give it time, they will run into the same problems every other team has, im pretty sure they have to sign hossa AND franzen next year).To pin this all on Bryan Murray is just rediculous. While he may have made some errors in judgement, for the most part he was basically set up for failure. As for Corvo- Im pretty sure he wanted out of town and he did say some pretty nasty things about ottawa. Is murray to blame for that? When teams go to the finals expectations are raised, when they go up so do salaries. You see this in all sports.There are plenty of examples of successful teams which simply couldnt keep hoarding talent after having great success of some kind: Anaheim, Edmonton, Buffalo and now Ottawa. The list goes on. Do they all have horrible general managers? And between some thing about making skilled players dump the puck in (not sure what you are getting at here, he isnt the coach and when he was it worked for them in the finals.) He looks like a pretty decent choice. Ok, fire murray, what now? I suppose we will just replace him with another elite general manager who can solve all our problems. Any takers? If rebuilding is indeed the answer murray's record speaks for itself. I take issue with Jason Smiths signing, and thats about it. Basically, what really ruined this team was the losses of Preissing and Corvo, Both of which were really out of his hands. Some may point to the trading of Redden, and I'm not a stereotypical redden hater at all, but they werent going to win a cup with Redden as the number 1 option, as evident with his play on the rangers. What has this guy done to deserve all this? Seriously... The sens slumping really bring out the worst in people (including me)

Anonymous said...

Wings actually have to sign zetterberg as well. I do agree with a lot he said in the article. I firmly believe that muckler brought the sens to the finals once, but cleaned out the pipeline while doing it. Doesn't anyone realize this team doesn't need 1 fast skilled defencemen, they need 3. This team has no chance of winning the cup, and trading talent for nothing is getting further from the cup, even if we stay semi-competitive for now. This team needs some good picks. Karlsson was a start. Fisher's contract is an albatross, let's face it. Great blog, btw

Oman said...

What has really bothered me over the past few years is the amount of free agents leaving with no return: Chara, Redden, Comrie, Stillman, Commodor, etc. All that talent just walked away, eroding the skill level of the team.

I think Muckler and Murray could have worked harder to avoid these situations with some long term thinking (rather than just trying to win the cup every year). A team like Detroit continues to build over time, protecting their picks, nurturing their prospects and locking up their young stars at good prices before they reach their elite potential. As a GM in the cap era, you have to stay ahead of the curve.

I guess it's hard to sign every free agent when you're trying to lock up the core, but at least trade them for something, even a draft pick before they're gone. And stop picking up these "rental" players that will be free agents in the spring.

Apparently we're looking at picking up J-Bo from Florida for Vermette and and prospect and maybe even a pick... and he's a free agent in the spring. Stupid move if he's not locked up. If he walks in the spring, that's more talent just flushed away.

And enough already with the no trade clauses that let guys like Redden walk without any return. The fact that Redden refused to waive his no trade clause, when it was clear he was leaving anyway, shows that his own interests were clearly more important to him than any loyalty to the fans or the city. If given the choice, most players will do the same (eg. Sundin). I'm sure Fisher will gladly do the same when his time comes.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on the ntc's. All they do is let the player walk for nothing, the team does not benefit in any way. I will be very disappointed if murray trades wermy/1st round pick/prospect for J-Bo. If J-Bo doesn't sign, that should cost bm his job. I can forgive the corvo/eaves debacle, but if he does it again, sorry. This team needs major changes, not a quick fix. They are a very long way from being a contender. No one gives a damn about making the playoffs if the team isn't competitive. This isn't toronto.

Anonymous said...

Previously I really valued your opinion, but I respectfully disagree with most of your points here. The I found MOST of the article to be accurate and insightful.


Yes destroyed.

One last thing - you're dead wrong on the salo trade: If you randomly call 50 sens fans and ask them what the worst trade was in the history of the senators I’m confident they would say the salo trade. (redden and chara were not trades) If you disagree - put your money where your mouth is and run a poll tomorrow on your blog.

A big thumbs up for Jeff Simpson for calling it EXACTLY like it is. Maybe Melnyk should get his head out of his a$$, or Bert's bar, and fix this problem before it gets any worse. No wonder Biovail is such a POS.

Anonymous said...

The artricle made some good points that any sens fan knows. Puck moving d, secondary scoring, blah, blah, blah. Knocking the sens for their season ticket sales is another thing. He didn't mention that the sens had the third highest attendance in the league last year. Higher than the leafs. Guess only season tickets count. He's obviously a hack appealing to leafs fans who's biggest hopes for the team is that one day they make the playoffs.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 3:45 -

You are a complete fool. The Salo trade???????? Get a clue.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, sorry, the Salo trade???? Come on dude.

Anonymous said...

Salo trade the worst???? My vote would go for the Havlat trade.

How Muckler did not get a starting goaltender for Havlat is unbelievable.

Andrew said...

Oman-bullshit on Redden being selfish for wanting to stay in Ottawa instead of volunteering to go to a contender so the sens could get something in return. All that shows is his dedication to the team. But he wasn't loyal eh?

Anonymous said...

Reds knew he was leaving, he should have waived so ottawa could get something in return. Maybe they just shouldn't give ntc's in the final year of contracts.

Anonymous said...

If a player negotiates a NTC, he has every right to exercise it. How can you blame the player? No player should feel an obligation to waive a NTC.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, the Havlat trade sucked, but not as much as the Schaefer trade. Every single year Sami Salo is exactly what this team needs.

Ottawa got Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing + Hennessy in return for Havlat.

Preisssing (a defenceman) had 7 points and was a +3 during our Stanley Cup run vs Schaefer who had 6 points and was a +1 - AS A FORWARD! Volchenkov, Mez, Kelly all had more points. Not to mention Preissing's HUGE game winnig goal in game 3 vs the NJD's - it was a turning point in the series!

Schaefer isn't even playing in the NHL anymore - this isn't even worth debating. I'm afraid buddy's right - the salo/schaefer trade was horrible - more horrible that is, in terms of the Havlat trade, as that one also stunk.

Anonymous said...

All of a sudden, the Sens are getting smarter.

First, the Big Three get reunited.

Now, just today, Luke Richardson gets waived.

Now let's hope they let the skilled guys play their game.