Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sens Will Survive The Latest Defection … This Time Tim Murray

As of this writing, the departure of Assistant General Manager Tim Murray from Ottawa to become the new Buffalo Sabres GM hasn’t been officially confirmed, but when Bob McKenzie says it’s going to happen, you can probably go ahead and turn out the lights.

The first thing I saw stirring in fans was anxiety at the pending announcement, and that’s understandable. Tim Murray has recently been acclaimed as the “genius behind the curtain”, the ideal successor to his Uncle Bryan, and the man who invented hockey scouting.

Yet here’s why Tim Murray’s departure will initially hurt, but ultimately prove to be a survivable change for the Senators organization.

Firstly, it was never a sure thing that Tim was the heir apparent to Bryan Murray in Ottawa. That decision would have ultimately come down to Eugene Melnyk, although I’m sure Bryan would have highly recommended his nephew. Tim’s hockey acumen would make him appear to be the candidate, but that’s not always the only qualification to be a manager in this league.

It is for a scout, maybe a director of hockey operations, but not for a job that requires you to step in front of a microphone and calmly explain why your group of players just tanked for a month straight but fans should still rush out to buy tickets for a Sunday afternoon game against the Florida Panthers.

Tim Murray, although noticeably improved in recent years, is not exactly a crowd pleaser. Luckily, the Buffalo Sabres don’t need their GM to be one right now. They’re just understandably desperate for a hockey guy to come in there and fix their system, not be the public face of their franchise. The svelte Pat Lafontaine is doing a good enough job of that right now. Instead, the Sabres are going back to the meat and potatoes. They resurrected Ted Nolan and now look like they’re trading in the suave dinner-and-a-handshake style of Darcy Regier for the melt-your-face-off stare of Tim Murray.

Tim is gruff to the point of satire. When he announces picks at the NHL Entry Draft, it’s like he’s in the midst of an audit from Revenue Canada. A public smile is rare. He smoked well into his time with the Ottawa Senators, although that may be a habit he’s already quit. This guy can’t spell “polished”. This is not to disparage Tim Murray as a person. I quite like his no-nonsense style and I’m sure he’s a little gentler away from the hockey rink, but his public persona doesn’t seem to be a put-on.

Of course, being the grandfatherly, friendly face of the franchise was a job that fell to his Uncle Bryan, so Tim had no need to plaster on a fake grin and reassure fluttering hearts across the city. He just had to get hockey decisions right. And with the help of a great hockey operations department around him, especially with Pierre Dorion as Director of Player Personnel, Tim Murray helped build this Senators team to the point where they can trade a first-round pick and say with a straight face that they don’t mind because it’s a poor draft year in 2014. That’s a luxury most teams don’t have.

In short, he’s a great fit in Buffalo, because of their different needs, but not necessarily a smooth successor in Ottawa where some finesse is needed on the public relations front.

Pierre Dorion, almost ten years younger than Tim, also comes from a scouting background, had a huge hand in the building of this team, and has a public style much more similar to Bryan Murray. For one, he’s actually smiling in his media guide photo. Tim’s photo comes across like a mugshot from the Apalachin Conference in 1957. Secondly, Dorion regularly makes appearances on local sports radio and comes across as both smart and a guy you’d like to have a beer with.

You might be sitting there thinking I’m making too big of a deal over appearances, and you’re probably right. But there’s no disputing Dorion’s track record in this organization, and the fact that he’s media friendly (and young) is an extra layer to a guy now likely destined to be second in-command in Ottawa.

The Vancouver Canucks have a GM, Mike Gillis, who’s very similar to Tim Murray in style, and probably less personable if that’s possible. It’s worked out well so far, but the two-headed negativity they now have with John Tortorella joining him may prove to be a little sickening after a while.

Compare Gillis to Bryan Murray for a moment. When Gillis talks, you feel strangely depressed, like he’s being forced to impart the minimum of information just to keep from being fined. When Bryan talks you always know exactly where his head his, where the team is going, what the positives and negatives are. You walk away feeling that this is still just a game, and not everything is life and death. There’s perspective there. Bryan doesn’t BS anybody, but he also knows when to say the right thing to keep this already nervous city away from the bridges and cliffs. There’s an art to it all, something that has nothing to do with knowing the 100 best under-18 players in US College hockey.

The eventual switchover to Tim from Bryan in Ottawa may not have been as clear a path as some imagined. Say what you want about the intelligence of local hockey fans, but they also need their news sugar coated from time to time, and I’m not sure Tim is capable of such a thing. At least he’s shown no signs of being that kind of communicator.

Yet I can definitely see Dorion stepping into that role and maintaining the same narrative that Murray has preached since he took over in the summer of 2007. Bryan Murray has survived in his job because he was able to communicate a hopeful message, both to the fans and his owner, during a stretch where he fired 3 coaches in what felt like two months. A lot of general managers would have been cut loose for presiding over such chaos, but Bryan made it through and has never been stronger in his role.

Dorion seems to be more like Bryan than Tim is, despite not being related. I think that’s a positive.

The Senators are going to lose a hell of a hockey mind in Tim Murray, but the organization has enough smart people behind him to survive and prosper. From Dorion, to Randy Lee to Vaclav Burda over in Europe.

And what makes you think Bryan is going anywhere soon?

What would he do with himself anyways if he wasn’t sitting in his box swearing under his breath and trying not to twitch uncontrollably every time a goal goes in against his team?

If Keith Richards can get up onstage in 2014 and play Jumping Jack Flash as good as he could in 1969, there’s no reason Murray can’t stick around to see the guys he drafted with Tim bring this team on a long playoff run.

You can’t get these kinds of guys to quit anyways. I’m sure Tim was aware of that too and maybe opened his eyes to leaving.

Good luck to Tim in Buffalo. He deserves the opportunity.


Anonymous said...

Good points all. Another simple, but not always reliable test, is the punch in the face test.

It goes like this. You put two people in a room for 15 minutes. When they come out, based on their public personalities, are they more likely to hug, or are they more likely to punch each other in the face.

Now imagine that scenario if the two personalities are Eugene Melnyk and Tim Murray.

BigSlice said...

I have to think that BM the GM isn't retiring next year, like many of us assumed he would. Otherwise, I'm SURE he would have told Tim to stick around, and the job would be his.

Either that, or he IS retiring, and someone let it slip that Dorion was the next GM, and not Tim... although I only think that would be the case if BM got fired.

Either way, like you said, all the best to Tim in Buffalo.


Tim Murray said...

You're dead meat.