Monday, July 8, 2013

Karlsson Now The Undisputed Young Face Of The Franchise

With Daniel Alfredsson having walked away from the Senators (or “bungled away” by the team itself, depending on how you interpret the saga), there’s suddenly a large void in leadership and marketing iconography, and... well, to put it bluntly, kids were crying. Grown men were getting drunk and wiping away tears of shame. Some were even writing weepy country songs and sending them to the Team 1200. It’s not pretty right now, folks.

Some people handled it well, like my wife, who when I tried to explain the magnitude of the situation, just said “Who gives a shit. Go clean the kitty litter.” It was a sobering experience, as going face-to-face with human-sized cat turds can often be.

Yet, in the wake of every Senators fan’s nightmare scenario, there was lots of positivity. Jason Spezza was the instantaneous, consensus choice to get the captain’s “C”, which is the right pick, but also a little surprising considering his past relationship with some fans in this city. There’s been more lauding of Spezza’s character in the last 48 hours than he’s ever received in his Ottawa career. The old fan punching bag suddenly doesn’t look so bad, especially when this Senators team couldn’t score a power-play goal to save their lives in his absence last year.

And of course, there’s Bobby Ryan, parachuted into town at the essential last moment of the day by one of the smartest GM’s in the league. If Bryan Murray didn’t pull off that late-afternoon move, there’s no telling how much worse the fan reaction would have been. There would have been a lot more country songs, that’s for sure.

Thankfully, Ryan is exactly what this team needs – a goal-scorer in his prime with size and star-power. There’s a bit of baggage there, with Ryan’s previous trade demands and unhappiness in Anaheim (uncomfortably similar to Dany Heatley), but he’s going to have a nice honeymoon in the capital for at least two seasons. And if he plays with Spezza as expected and the duo light it up, you’ve got Ottawa’s answer to Toews and Kane, or Getzlaf and Perry.

But it won’t be Spezza or Ryan who sell the tickets in this town, or be heroes to 10-year old girls and 50-year old men alike. It will be Erik Karlsson, the new, better looking Daniel Alfredsson.

Karlsson has everything this team needs in a marketing tool. He’s young, funny, hip, he posts pictures of himself on Twitter wearing “jorts”, he speaks near perfect English, he’s the best defenseman in the league (sorry PK) and he’s probably the most exciting player to watch in Ottawa since the days of Martin Havlat. And don’t forget he’s just 23 and signed for the next six seasons, all of which will be prime years.

The Senators couldn’t have invented a better replacement for Alfredsson than the skinny kid they drafted 15th overall in 2008. And expectations were low for both Alfie and Karlsson when they broke into the league. Alfie seemed to come out of nowhere and overachieve instantly, while Karlsson just looked too small to make a difference right away. Now we’re likely talking about two future Hall Of Famer’s.

For all the crap luck this franchise has had over the years, financially and player-wise, they’ve managed to hit the jackpot twice.

The Senators have a real tough choice ahead of them with the captaincy. Spezza is the right fit right now, but what about in two years when his deal is up? If Eugene Melnyk still owns this team by then, there’s no way to tell if he can afford to keep Spezza in the fold. It’s going to take a big contract to get it done and Melnyk already balked with the Alfie deal, which should have been the easiest decision in the history of the Senators.

There’s no such worries with Karlsson for the next six years. You could give him the “C” and not have to worry about it for a long time. Yet that could alienate Spezza in the same stroke. Not an easy decision.

My guess is they go with Spezza for now, and it sounds like his teammates would be entirely behind that decision, with Karlsson getting an “A” along with Chris Phillips and Chris Neil, Ottawa’s last two “legacy” players on the roster.

Regardless of who gets it, we all know the Senators are Karlsson’s team now. If they win a Stanley Cup, it will be because of him. If they sell out every night, it will be because of him. If a Senator ever makes the cover of GQ, it will be him. When little kids come to the games, they’ll be asking their parents to buy them Karlsson jerseys. He’s the perfect fit at the perfect time for this team and probably the only character capable of rallying the community around this franchise again after the Alfie fiasco.

The Senators are turning a page, and on that next page is a grinning Karlsson in a turquoise shirt and jorts with a flow of locks that would make Ron Duguay weep.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Murray Sends Jolt Through Ottawa With Huge Bobby Ryan Trade

On a day that Ottawa GM Bryan Murray called "devastating", one which saw face of the franchise Daniel Alfredsson walk away to the Detroit Red Wings, Senators fans were emotionally rag-dolled around like Bryan McCabe at the hands of Zdeno Chara.

Murray swung a blockbuster trade late in the afternoon, bringing in winger Bobby Ryan from Anaheim in exchange for Jakob Silfverberg, prospect Stefan Noesen and a first rounder in 2014.

It went from "everything is terrible" to "what the f**k" in about six long hours where nobody from Senators management tried to explain the failure to sign Alfredsson, causing a day-long furor locally where fingers were pointed in all directions, most noticeably at owner Eugene Melnyk and Murray himself.

You can imagine Murray was absolutely hell-bent on completing the Ryan trade before having to face the media and trying to explain how Alfie escaped his grasp. The move for Ryan was impeccably timed and absolutely necessary from both a hockey and PR standpoint. Combined with a very smart signing of left-winger Clarke MacArthur, those two moves potentially add about 50 goals to the Senators lineup this season.

That's after you subtract Alfredsson and Silfverberg's expected totals, but anyway you look at it, this is an upgrade statistically in the short term. Sure, if Alfredsson goes on to win a Stanley Cup and Silfverberg eventually scores 40 goals, Sens fans will be retching in unison. But for now, Murray absolutely pulled this day out of the fire.

The big winner of the day is Jason Spezza who is a strong candidate to be named the new captain, and now has a real goal scoring winger in Ryan with a possibly healthy Milan Michalek as well. If his back holds up, Spezza should be right back in contention for the Art Ross Trophy next season.

In MacArthur, Murray gets a winger with 20 goal potential to play with Kyle Turris, allowing players like Cory Conacher, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Mika Zibanejad to develop at their own pace instead of being thrust into a top-six role they likely aren't prepared for just yet.

In light of the Alfredsson fiasco, it was a very solid move by an experienced general manager who knew he had to make a splash, if only to prevent fans from flipping cars on Elgin Street tonight.

Murray then went on to face the press at around 5:00 eastern and the Alfredsson story became a little more clear.

As said before, Murray used the word "devastating" multiple times talking about the phone call he received from Alfie Thursday night, informing him of the bad news. In Alfredsson's prior media availability, he made it clear that the decision was "a selfish" one,  and was made solely to "win the Stanley Cup" but the details on the confusing negotiations with Ottawa were not really addressed.

Murray's version of events were a little different than the way he presented it the day before. This time he admitted to exchanging numbers with Alfredsson's agent J.P. Barry but both sides rejected the terms. There was an initial offer by Barry which Murray rejected and a counter by Murray which was rejected as well. This is significant for a number of reasons.

We were led to believe that, essentially, a "blank cheque" was offered to Alfredsson to return. Now we know that Murray, at least once, suggested a dollar amount that was rejected by the captain's side. Did this unsatisfactory offer start Alfredsson on a path to looking at other options? I'd say that's a safe bet. Obviously the Senators didn't come out aggressive and it looks like it cost them big time, depending on what you believe.

As I talked about in my previous post, something happened recently to turn Alfredsson from "Mr. Ottawa" into a guy seriously listening to offers from Detroit and Boston. It might have been this talked about rejected offer, it could have been older discussions with Murray about how much money the Senators had to spend on other players, or it could have been just what Alfredsson indicated, that he wants to win the Stanley Cup and Detroit offered a better chance than Ottawa.

One thing is clear to me after hearing both sides speak - Murray didn't want Alfredsson to leave. We can debate the negotiating style, and why Murray didn't come on strong with an early offer that Alfredsson couldn't refuse, but I think Murray was sincere in his comments and understands the ramifications in the fan-base at the loss of the captain.

The hockey obsessives can digest the loss of Alfredsson by pointing out the goal scoring added to the team and turning stats around to make this look like a clear win for Ottawa, but the ham-and-eggers, the fans who don't sit on Twitter all-day, the ones who just watch the games, will have a much harder time with this.

Alfredsson was their guy. He WAS the Ottawa Senators. He's been around so long that teens who cheered for him in the 90's now have kids of their own who cheer for #11. The Senators have built their marketing around him for years and in the process created a local legend. It's tough to explain to fans that the captain who already said he wanted to stay an Ottawa Senator is now playing for another team.

At the end of the day, the Bobby Ryan trade really turned things around for Ottawa and set this team up for the future. It's a huge move and provides goal-scoring this team hasn't seen since the days of Dany Heatley.

Yet there's still a bit of a stench to the loss of Alfredsson and it's still hard to imagine this team without him.

The fallout will continue over the next few days, but with Bobby Ryan in a Senators uniform, it will be a lot easier for fans to get over the blunt force trauma of seeing the once unthinkable happen.

Senators Somehow Bungle Alfredsson Contract... Dark Day For Organization

How the Ottawa Senators managed to screw this up is a question that will be asked for a long time.

Daniel Alfredsson playing in a Detroit Red Wings jersey is (allegedly) about to become a reality and the Senators are left to face a PR fiasco that will be as long and harsh as an Ottawa winter.

Writing this before both GM Bryan Murray and Alfredsson himself have had a chance to speak to the media, I’ll take an educated guess as to why this went down the way it did.

Money and respect. That’s always what it comes down to with star players.

And I’m not talking about money that should or shouldn’t go into Alfredsson’s pocket, but money that the Ottawa Senators weren’t willing or able to invest in making this team better, which would have made Alfredsson want to stay here for his last chance to win a Stanley Cup.

And don’t be surprised if this also had a little to do with the Senators taking their first true legacy player for granted.

For years, Alfredsson has been the face of the team and played for peanuts last season on a team-friendly cap-circumventing contract. Naturally, Alfredsson would expect the team to show gratitude and respect in return.

Instead, according to Bryan Murray himself, the team never offered Alfredsson a salary number to negotiate from. They asked Alfredsson to provide the number himself. That’s a little strange but not necessarily a bad thing. Most players would love to be provided a blank cheque from a team.

But put yourself in Alfie’s place for a moment. While Ottawa waits for you to negotiate your own contract, taking a strangely passive approach (this is all surmised from Murray’s own words in his July 4th press conference and not from rumour), other teams come breaking down your door saying they need you on their team to win a Stanley Cup. That has to be impressive and tempting. But Alfie is an Ottawa guy.

Yet when you look at Ottawa’s situation, with reports of an internal cap of 50m, rumours of an owner having financial issues and a blueline that just got weaker with the departure of the much maligned but underrated Sergei Gonchar, you can see why Alfredsson has possibly grown tired of playing for a team that wants to win the Cup but just doesn’t have the resources to compete with high-spending teams.

When you watched that Stanley Cup final between Chicago and Boston, it wasn’t hard to look at Ottawa and realize a team full of prospects and a few injured stars wasn’t even close to the kind of competition on display. And with a tight budget that already cost the team a playoff veteran in Gonchar, you can see how Alfie thought his best chances to win next year lay elsewhere.

Now, you’ll come back at me with “Detroit doesn’t have a shot either”. That's debatable but when’s the last time Alfredsson truly had linemates that were on the same level as he was? Not since the days of Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. I’m guessing he’s looking forward to playing with the likes of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. No knock on Kyle Turris but he’s just not on the same level.

You could also see that Murray was perturbed in that same July 4th press conference by the fact that Alfredsson playing one more year was broken by Swedish media and not the organization. That might have been a clue that there was some kind of friction between the two parties. Murray was also combatitive about the team being perceived as "cheap". There was something rumbling there below the surface that may have been an indicator in retrospect.

There’s a lot of blame to go around but the truth is likely that the Senators didn’t make enough of an effort to make this guy happy. That's a generalization and no doubt we'll be deluged with PR from the Senators that they did all they could, but it will be hard to take seriously.

When a guy who has bled for you for 17 years is suddenly pissed off, there should be no surprise that this thing went south.

The fact is that Alfredsson doesn’t want to play for the Ottawa Senators anymore. There should be a lot of searching for answers as to how this suddenly came about from a guy who was the de-facto Mayor of this town.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Backhander: Notes From A Squeamish Summer In Ottawa

Lots of nail-biting today about the spectre of Daniel Alfredsson leaving town as a free agent, possibly to the big bad Boston Bruins. Fuelled by talk of Eugene Melnyk being broke (I’d love to be that kind of “broke” by the way) and the fact that the contract wasn’t signed within two minutes of Bryan Murray and Alfie meeting face to face, nervous fans are reaching for the tranquilizers just to keep it together in their workplaces while they desperately troll Twitter in search of any news.

I do know that Bryan Murray doesn’t want to be known as the man who let Alfredsson leave town.

After all, Murray plans on living in the area after he retires. How fun would it be to walk into a grocery store and have children hissing at you and check-out ladies refusing to bag your frozen pizzas and back-bacon? Right. It would be intolerable.

So expect Murray to get this deal done before Friday. If it comes down to not being able to fit a 5-6 million contract under budget, start throwing other players overboard. Hell, put coach Dave Cameron back on a bus to Mississauga with a bag of chips and some beef jerky if it means saving a few bucks. Just get it done.

And it will get done.


Ken Warren of the Ottawa Citizen reported recently  that the Senators are “operating on a self-imposed $50 million salary cap” which fed into recent speculation that Eugene Melnyk and the Senators are having financial issues. I’m not prepared or even really interested in sorting through that quagmire of rumours right now, but a $50 million cap on salaries for this season is not exactly a slash-and-burn scenario.

According to Cap Geek, the Senators spent roughly $53 million last season in salaries, $52 million in the 2012 season and $56 million in 2011. As you can see, the Senators plan to spend just a little less than they have in the recent past and if this team can manage to be a contender heading into the playoffs, it hasn’t been ruled out that they could add some salary. Until Melnyk meets the press and answers a few questions before the start of next season, we won’t really know the implications.

If this is a budget meant to keep the team from tipping over into financial hell, then obviously there’s a big issue here. Every fan bought into Melnyk’s vow to spend whatever he could to help this team win a championship not long ago. If somehow there’s not even enough money to keep this promising team intact (ie. Alfie, Sergei Gonchar), then all hell will break loose in due time. But for now, a $50 million budget isn’t a total doom scenario.

And just remember, no matter what kind of shit hits the fan, Erik Karlsson is signed for the next 6 years. How bad can it really be?

(Cue Kiss burning down the Canadian Tire Centre with pyro later this month....)