Monday, March 17, 2014
5 Options Bryan Murray Has To Fix The Senators
NOTE: I’ve already had some people completely misinterpret this article as a list of things I’d wish to see happen. Not even close. If you read the intro, it should be clear that these are all just options facing Bryan Murray this summer, not some kind of misanthropic manifesto calling for Spezza and Ryan to be traded away. I thought I made great pains to convey that but clearly some people just read what they want to read. Never had to do this for an article before, but anyways....
Nobody wants to revisit the horrors of Saturday night and the historic collapse against the Canadiens. Who wants to waste words on the lousy Sunday matinee against the Avalanche? Everybody knows this season is over for the Ottawa Senators (it was over in Alberta a few weeks back) and we all just want to know what GM Bryan Murray does now.
The slow march to April 13 is on for the current roster, but Murray has work to do that will last months. The choices he has to make are among the hardest for any GM. Do you hope this year was an aberration in the rebuild or do you make drastic, risky changes to get this thing back on track?
Here are five options (among many) that face Bryan Murray this summer and every single one of them could work like a magic trick or backfire like a dirty Plymouth rolling down Carp Road. I’m not saying I advocate any of these moves (in fact I disagree with many of them), but they are possibilities when a team has played as badly as Ottawa has.
So let’s get on with it:
1. Trade Bobby Ryan at the draft or this summer: A lot of Sens fans would be aghast at this scenario but it could definitely happen. The remaining two years on Ryan’s contract that the Senators inherited was seen as a rehearsal for both sides before committing marriage on a long-term deal. Ryan, who left a better situation in Anaheim where he was unhappy, holds most of the cards because he can choose where he wants to go as a UFA in the summer of 2015. If I was a betting man, I’d wager Ryan hasn’t found happiness in Ottawa just yet.
He told reporters he was excited to get a chance to play with Jason Spezza but coach Paul MacLean barely gave that combo a chance. Ryan found success with Kyle Turris early on but has faded badly since being snubbed for Team USA. He has two goals since the beginning of February and just one since the Olympic break, which happened to coincide with the most important games the Senators played all year. His linemates and ice-time have fluctuated and has never seemed like a go-to player for MacLean. Ryan is on pace for the worst full-season goal totals of his career. That won’t make for a happy player or a happy GM. And on the basis of that, the two sides must come to a contract agreement in a short-time frame. This may be headed for a separation.
If Murray doesn’t believe or knows he can’t get Ryan to sign long-term in Ottawa, he may have to move him as early as this summer. I don’t think Ryan’s value has diminished that much, but if Murray waits until his back is against the wall next season, other GM’s will know he’s desperate to get an asset back. If this isn’t going to work out – and my suspicion is that it won’t and Ryan already knows this in the back of his head – it would make sense for both sides to move on right away. Murray can get a lot for Ryan, even after a bad season. Murray can't lose Ryan for nothing considering what he gave up to get him.
If I’m wrong, and Ryan decides he likes his situation here, all the better. Guys who can score like Ryan don’t come around very often, especially to Ottawa. But if it’s not working, both sides will agree to quickly move on. To me, this is the biggest story heading into the off-season.
2. Trade Jason Spezza: This is a less likely scenario than a trade of Ryan, but it’s still a possibility. Again, it’s an expiring contract in the summer of 2015 that will force Murray’s hand one way or the other, but the value that Spezza would bring back could be tempting.
The problems with dealing Spezza are two-fold. One, he’s your captain and has been here a long-time. The fallout from losing the last player in that situation was hardly a win for the organization. Two, Turris and Mika Zibanejad don’t score enough to justify dealing your number one centre. There may be a time when Turris and Zibanejad can be a 1-2 punch down the middle but do the Senators really want to gamble a much needed-playoff berth next season on an unknown like that? No way. Getting a number one centre in return for Spezza is very unlikely. Murray, even if he is unhappy with Spezza’s first year as captain, will have to sit down and make a long-term deal with his number-one centre or pull off a magical trade that somehow doesn’t weaken this team down the middle. Good luck with that.
3. Move out second-tier, soft, underachieving forwards: To me, a huge problem with this team is that aside from the 3rd line of Chris Neil, Zack Smith and (when he feels like it) Colin Greening, this team is way too easy to play against. Spezza and Turris aren’t going to turn into Ryan Getzlaf or Mike Richards over the summer, but there are second-tier guys that Murray can possibly switch out for more competitive, gritty players. At this point, Greening is never going to be the guy that Murray or MacLean wanted him to become. He just doesn’t have a mean-streak in him despite having all the physical tools to dominate down low. He’s a serviceable third liner, but when your top offensive guys are of the more gentle nature, it doesn’t make sense to surround them with equally gentle giants. You need a mix of both types, and Greening doesn’t add anything unique to this team with the way he plays most of the time. If Murray could swap out Greening for someone with size and grit, this team would be better served.
The same goes for Milan Michalek. You have to love his speed and competitiveness but he’s not scoring anymore and doesn’t create much physical room out there for skill guys like Spezza and Ales Hemsky. He’s UFA this summer (like Hemsky) and is unlikely to be back anyways, so the Senators would love to have a big, physical winger in his spot next season. Easier said than done, but Murray will try to get bigger up front this summer.
Erik Condra is a little trickier because he’s a good penalty-killer, but the PK has been terrible all year, weakening his status on the team. Again, with a lot of smaller players ending up on the 4th line this year, like Condra, J.G. Pageau and Stephane Da Costa, it doesn’t seem to make sense in a league that rewards size. I like Condra, but I wonder if he'll be a casualty of change. I wouldn’t say this team is getting pushed around the way they were before they had to acquire the behemoth Matt Kassian, but they are getting outmuscled and outcompeted in both the defensive and offensive zones which comes down to compete level. This has to change but without sacrificing this team’s offensive wealth. Not easy to do.
4. Change the defense core: Of all the options I’ve gone over, I think this would be the most difficult to do. The Sens set themselves up nicely with their top-4 thanks to the draft and trading Nick Foligno for Marc Methot a few years ago, but this year has been a disaster defensively.
Jared Cowen has taken most of the heat but giving up on a guy like that would be a poor decision after just one lousy season. You can see the faith this team has in Cowen to eventually turn it around and they have to stick to that plan now or watch him develop into a shut-down defender with another team. Cody Ceci has come in and shown he can provide secondary offense to Erik Karlsson. Methot has had a tough season but he’s still the most reliable defender they have, along with the retained Chris Phillips. On paper, this is a defense core that can grow together for the next five seasons and become elite. On the ice right now, they can’t pull their heads out of their asses for five minutes at a time.
It’s frustrating but I can’t see Murray moving any of the core players back there. There’s just too much potential in them as a group. Rather, look for Patrick Wiercioch to be moved because Ceci has stolen his spot, and for Mark Borowiecki to challenge Eric Gryba as this team’s most physical defenseman. Gryba gets a lot of rope from the coaching staff because they don’t have much meanness or size back there, but Borowiecki will be gunning for his spot next October. I would be surprised to see a major move back there but you never know.
Which brings us to the nuclear option:
5. Change the coaching staff: Don’t believe for a second that MacLean is going anywhere. He just signed a new deal, has a Jack Adams from a year ago and works for a GM that had to fire 3 coaches in a span of a few years. MacLean’s job is safe, no matter how you think he performed this season (and there are some very harsh opinions on that as you all know).
The more likely change could come in the assistant’s chairs. Against Colorado on Sunday, some astute observers noted that Dave Cameron was now working with the defensemen and Mark Reeds was working with the forwards. I don’t remember seeing that mid-season before, but when MacLean was asked after the game about the role switching, he muttered a terse “No comment.”
Now rumours are going to start about the safety of both Reeds and Cameron. It might be a positive change to shakeup the staff and would avoid the organizational trauma of changing the head man. The players would have a fresh voice in their ears and that might be all that’s needed. There’s lots of great coaches out there without a gig (how about former Sens assistants Perry Pearn or Craig Ramsey?) and a guy in Binghamton, Luke Richardson, who already has the respect of a lot of young players and old alike on this team. Some might call this move “tinkering” but assistants have a lot more responsibility and say than they did even 10 years ago. The effect they have can’t be trivialized just because they work without much scrutiny by the media and fans.
NOTE: To correct the record, it was revealed today that assistant coach Mark Reeds will be undergoing a medical procedure in the coming days. Clearly, the shuffling of coaching roles was related to this health issue. Our thoughts are with Mark Reeds and his family as he gets through this ordeal. ***
We could probably find 10 more big options Murray has this summer but I’ve already committed too many words to this team that can hardly find the commitment to play 60 hard minutes a night.