Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sens Internal Cap Remains, Just The Spin Changed… For A Few Hours

With General Manager Bryan Murray riding the high of a newly announced four-year contract (two as GM, two as an “advisor”) and the team on a sudden upswing in the standings, you can’t blame Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and Murray effectively ringing the dinner bell here in town, relaying the message to fans that the Senators are “open for business”.

After months of nothing but bad news, it was time for a few smiles.

Already enduring the perception (fairly or unfairly) of being the local Scrooge, Melnyk seemed to dance around the subject of increasing the team’s player budget. On the conference call to announce the Murray deal, both parties hinted that room could be made to bring in a player or two who can help them this year, leading most observers to think that the hard ceiling of the Senators internal budget may be softening. Some speculated that Murray may have even demanded more budget room if he was going to stay on, but that’s just conjecture at this point.

Regardless, the effect was a good one for the Senators on the public relations front. It gave the impression of a stable management team working for an owner still committed to winning, even if it meant doling out a few extra bones with those alligator arms that couldn’t quite reach the wallet during the Daniel Alfredsson negotiations this past summer.

They even talked about the Stanley Cup coming to town in the next two years. It was quite the show.

However, if you listened to Melnyk’s interview on TSN 1200 Monday afternoon with Ian Mendes and Lee Versage, a few hours after the initial feel-good announcement, a bit of the veneer had already washed away.

Melnyk bristled at one of Mendes’ questions about a possible raising of the internal budget and avoided a direct answer, instead going into his now familiar routine of “any idiot can go spend money” but he wasn’t going to be one of those fools.

Specifically he said “There are so many idiots out there that spend to the cap every year. Take a look where they are. It all comes down to cost per point. That’s the only stat I care about. Cost per point.

That’s a bit of a tonal shift from the Melnyk we heard in the Murray conference-call and doesn’t exactly give the average fan goosebumps of anticipation. Instead, it sounds like the philosophy has only hardened, not softened.

It seems that any deal is likely to be a money-in, money-out proposition or possibly a minor add-on cost that could be absorbed by cutting elsewhere. With the Canadian dollar trending down and a Stanley Cup out of reach this season (they aren’t even in a playoff spot right now), don’t expect a spending frenzy any time soon.

To put even more of a downer on the point, Melnyk actually mentioned the dreaded “relocation” scenario and brought up Rod Bryden’s bankruptcy.

It’s not a philanthropic thing... you have to go into a season and say, ‘You know what? We need to support this team.' Otherwise, you know what happens? Exactly. Everybody keeps forgetting what happened 11 years ago. The team goes bankrupt and it moves. Period. Full stop. And it was going to move until I came in. So unfortunately I take heat for it. I don’t mind taking the bullet…

It was a bit of deserved grandstanding on Melnyk’s part, reminding the city that he jumped in to save the franchise (which he undoubtedly did), but he also went on to make a very reasonable statement that maintaining the team’s financial viability was the top concern. Hard to argue with that. Nobody wants to see the franchise endangered because Melnyk decided that it was Stanley Cup or bust this season or next.

Yet, as always with Melnyk, it’s the sometimes crude, often awkward way he says these things (usually on Toronto radio) that makes the fans wince. Bryan Murray always finds a way to make bad news seem … not so bad. Melnyk has a way of making everyone panic, even when he thinks he’s delivering good news.

Fans don’t like to hear financial ultimatums. As smart as they are, fans also don’t want to accept financial reality when it comes to their passion. They can live with it, but they don’t like to be reminded every time their owner gets in front of a microphone that they can’t compete with “the big boys”. A little illusion goes a long way for fans, even when they know it’s a farce. They don’t want to be lied to, but they also don’t want to know the bald truth.

And all this was just supposed to be a short intro to what I initially wanted to write about - who the potential trade bait on this Senators team would be - but of course the lure of writing about Melnyk was too much once the coffee kicked in.

I find him a fascinating character, one who steps in it every chance he gets, but who also has the qualities of a true fan in him somewhere. I can’t think of another NHL owner, other than Ted Leonsis in Washington, who can wear a team sweater in public and not look totally uncomfortable. Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider seem like smiling vipers, while other owners are just corporate figureheads, made mysterious by their public absence.

Melnyk is like a throwback to the old pre-Bettman days, when everyone knew who the owner of a team was. Some of them got thrown in jail, but most of them had very public personalities. Melnyk isn’t exactly Conn Smythe or Jack Kent Cooke, but he’s still a presence. There’s something wonderfully unpolished about him, but that always looks better on an owner with a lot of money to spend, not on a guy trying to keep costs modest.

You can’t raise expectations and talk about the Stanley Cup without putting real money behind it. That’s the reality, not the illusion.

I’m not sure what Melnyk’s legacy will be in this town when it’s all over, but it will be a hell of a story regardless.


Anonymous said...

It is reassuring to know that Eugene is preoccupied with how we rank in the cost-per-point standings, as opposed to how high we climb the playoff tree.

Efficiency is great and all, but effectiveness is the end game.

Anonymous said...

Personally .. I am not sure if I will be "threatened" into supporting a team. People attend because it is fun being in the arena, the atmosphere, the skill of the players, etc .

Anonymous said...

Nice post. A lot of the post press conference analysis focussed on the notion that the Sens might be ready to loosen the purse strings. But, the quotes that you posted point to the fact that maybe it's just spin. Only time will tell.

Cost per point is fair. The guy's got to make money. The Stanley Cup talk is vintage Melnyk. He's just pumping his product. He always does.

The part that's a bit rich is "...The team goes bankrupt and it moves. Period. Full stop....."

Whaaaat? (like that new McDonald's commercial)

If the Phoenix situation taught us anything, it's that the owner can't just move a team. The NHL decides when a team moves.

If the Sens go bankrupt, they'll likely be sold to someone else who wants to keep the franchise in Ottawa. If the NHL can sell a franchise from Phoenix to a hockey fan from Ottawa, surely they could find someone to buy the franchise and keep it in Ottawa.

Another part that's a little rich is the saviour part. What's the fine line between being a saviour and been a smart business person capitalizing on a great opportunity to make some money.

If the housing market crashes, and you decide to buy in, are you helping to save the market? Or are you being smart by buying real low because you know you can make some real dough down the line.

He had another interview on McCown's show later that day. It had some good nuggets. He talked about his new study on the inverse correlation between number of Olympians and post Olympic performance. At last check, Toews, Kane, Keith and Seabrook won medals and the Cup in the same year. So did Shanahan, Yzerman, Chelios, and Hull. But, whatever.

All in all, he's an entertaining guy to listen to.

Anonymous said...

As usual EM is talking out of both sides of his mouth.

Not to say Bryan Murray didn't deserve this extension, he surely did, but a part of this extension and ra-ra is payback for how Murray covered up Melnyks colossal screw up of the Alfredson contract and tenure. Everyone know that Bryan covered EM's a$$ on this one.

Anonymous said...

If he wants to talk about cost per point, he should look at who beat Ottawa in that area. The teams with better cost/point ratios in the regular season last year were Pittsburgh, San Jose, Boston, Chicago, Montreal, St Louis, Anaheim, and Colorado. What do they all have in common? They each had at least 100 points. With the exception of the Avs, they were all within $1.5 million of the cap. Three of the four highest spenders and six of the top 13 have better cost/point ratios than Ottawa. When you factor in the playoffs, which last I checked was another source of income for teams, Minnesota, LA, and the Rangers join the list. That makes eight of the top 13. Meanwhile, three of the four worst teams in this category were Buffalo, Edmonton, and Florida who are all also at the bottom of the list in terms of payroll. The moral of the story is if all he cares about is cost per point, he'd be better off spending the money and putting a quality team on the ice.