Sunday, January 13, 2013

Melnyk Claims Underdog Role Again, But 2nd Round Is Minimum Goal

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk sat in front of a room full of reporters during his first press conference of the season on Sunday and, smiling almost mischievously, said "We are a quiet, quiet favourite. We're still positioned as the underdog."

Was it real modesty or a conscious effort to damper expectations for an already lockout weary fanbase? If you put yourself in Melnyk's place, or President Cyril Leeder's seat, you might be able to understand why they would want expectations to be low going into an abbreviated season.

One, the underdog role worked miracles last season.  Two, season tickets are understandably down in numbers (although Leeder said they sold 100 this week) and the last thing the Senators need is a fanbase expecting a long playoff run only to get a mediocre 48 games. If you piled up all the free or discounted hot dogs the Senators are giving away this season, that still wouldn't cushion the blow of a disappointed, already fickle ticket buying public here in Ottawa.

No... the way to go was safe. Stick to the talking points from last season and hope the dominoes fall in the same pattern. Melnyk, in front of the entire Senators training camp roster who stood en masse at the back in workout shorts and t-shirts, even positioned his team as a lower-payroll club, saying "we can't keep up with the Goliaths", yet in a roundabout way, confirmed the money would be there at the trade deadline if GM Bryan Murray wanted to add some players.

It was a public relations exercise, like all these season opening conferences are, but it's not too hard to see through the fog.

Publicly, the Senators remain humble. Internally, and this is my best educated guess, the Senators feel they jumped a year in their "3-year rebuilding plan" and will be very disappointed if they don't reach the second round of the playoffs.

How could they not be?

They have a Norris Trophy defenseman in Erik Karlsson. A Jack Adams finalist for the coach of the year in Paul Maclean. They have goaltending depth the rest of Eastern Conference would envy. They are strong down the middle with Jason Spezza and Kyle Turris, overloaded on the wings and their best prospects are either fighting their way onto the team or leading their AHL affiliate to a possible championship season in Binghamton.

Sure, the defense is depleted on the bottom pairing but they have plenty of cap space or tradeable prospects to address that as soon as they need to.

So why are we throwing around the word "underdog" as frequently as Valley boys say "eh"?

Check that. It's probably just Melnyk. I think if you polled most Senators fans, they'd say a second round appearance is the bottom line this season.

Now, if the Senators fail to get there, it doesn't mean that the bottom drops out of this thing. In just 48 games, a lot can go wrong. One key injury can destroy a team because there's no time to claw back after a bad couple of weeks. And you can bank on a lot of injuries this season due to so many back-to-back games.

If they fail to make the playoffs, Paul Maclean is still safe. Bryan Murray probably has his job until he decides he doesn't want it anymore. The core of this team is signed and committed to the organization for bad or worse. But I don't buy the "underdog" bit anymore.

Clearly, this Senators team is ready for the next step. This might be their last with Daniel Alfredsson in the fold (although I think he'll play next year) and all this extra rest should pay off in a playoff run that will start after about 50 games instead of the usual 80.

Melnyk may tell us he's being patient, but that little grin and glint in his eyes tells me he thinks he's got a winner here.

The poker game continues....


Anonymous said...

I hope you're right, though I don't know if in polling Sens fans you'd find the expectation is a 2nd round playoff appearance. Reading the blogs, listening to the podcasts, and talking to people, I hear a lot of hopeful people who would still not be surprised or disappointed to find the team on the outside looking in. There are quite a few things that went right last year for Ottawa to barely hold on to the eighth seed: Karlsson's dominant season, Michalek shooting almost 20% for 2/3rds of the year, no injuries to speak of, depth players like Greening and Smith outperforming their contracts, facing a ton of back-ups, a number of improbable 'cardiac kids' last minute comebacks, and more. This year, with even a mild regression, the team finishes a couple of spots lower. Anyway...I hope I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

Going to agree with anon.

I have no expectations now or for the foreseeable future and that's because...

"If they fail to make the playoffs, Paul Maclean is still safe. Bryan Murray probably has his job until he decides he doesn't want it anymore."

As long as Murray is here, there is no pressure and there are no expectations. Being average is fine, being mediocre earns plaudits for prospects. Not winning and not expecting to win is the new President's Trophy in Ottawa.

I'm just going to go to games and not expect too much. If they win a playoff round (their first since 2007...) then fantastic. If they don't, then Murray and Melnyk don't really care either way. As Jeremy said, Murray doesn't need to win to keep his job (he's a good guy, a character guy, a real good character guy!) and MacLean can tell enough stories about lobster fishing to keep the media yokels in a daze.

Really miss the old days when expectations were high...