Thoughts in Bold: Dorion and Ruszkowski on CBC Ottawa Morning

As the Senators always do at this time of year, Senators management conducted their annual preseason media tour that began with an appearance on CBC radio.

In an effort to promote their rebuilding plan, the Senators’ new COO Nicolas Ruszkowski and general manager Pierre Dorion both appeared in studio to share their thoughts. But, before getting into the full transcript of the events below, I just wanted to mention and give Robyn Bresnahan a ton credit for asking challenging questions and characterizing their respective performances as tone-deaf.

The interview made for an interesting 11-minute segment and if you want to listen to the entire thing, you can stream it at the bottom of this post.

The transcript of what was said can be read below and I have included my thoughts in bold.


On how it feels to trade the best player in franchise history…

PD: “Well, these decisions are never easy. Obviously with our plan of rebuilding, we felt that this was the right move for the organization. We thought about it for a long time, but when we saw the contract talks weren’t going at a pace that we thought we could get a contract done by the end of the summer or early in the year, we just felt that this was the right time to (make the trade).”

The Senators may have taken measured steps to arrive at their decision to rebuild, but for it to culminate two and a half months after the organization acknowledged all of the roster’s glaring shortcomings, inherent risks created by the contract situations that are playing out now and still concluded, “Fuck it, we’re going for it!”, it makes the organization look incredibly reckless.

And really, under Eugene Melnyk’s impulsive tenure and direction, this organization’s emphasis on short-term gain has hindered its ability to progress beyond an organization that simply is content to contend for a playoff spot.

The Senators were supposed to undergo a lengthy rebuild after it decided in the winter of 2011 to fold its tents, but those plans were shelved when the team enjoyed some unexpected success during the 2011-12 season.

This iteration of a “rebuild” should inevitably be longer.

Even in the self-described “gutting” of the roster in 2011 when the organization traded players like Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Alexei Kovalev, Chris Campoli and Jarkko Ruutu for futures, the Senators retained its most skilled and talented players like Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza and found inexpensive and younger alternatives who could replace what a number of this discarded niche players brought to the table.

Together with Craig Anderson’s performance, the Senators enjoyed some unexpected success the following season and put the team in a position where it felt it could compete more quickly. Rather than capitalize on the opportunity to trade its best assets at a time when they could maximize value, the Senators held onto their best assets until they depreciated and even compounded this roster mismanagement by investing a significant opportunity cost and money into Bobby Ryan.

This version of the Senators is different. Now that Erik Karlsson has exited stage left, it’s expected that Mark Stone and Matt Duchene will follow suit. Without them, the Senators will not have the high-end talent front-lining its roster, so there are going to be some significant growing pains moving forward.

I believe that a rebuild can be marketed and done correctly to help move the Senators into a window of contention, but under Melnyk, there’s a pattern of behavior where the majority of the Senators’ mistakes occur because the organization and its owner cannot stay the course when they encounter even the tiniest bit of success.

Because of that, there is always going to be this nagging suspicion that the Senators will change course as quickly as it did following the Duchene trade and perhaps most importantly, there is also the question of why fans should trust the owner and front office that put this organization in this position to begin with.

On having the rebuild plan in place since February and whether the decision to move Karlsson was made then…

PD: “No, the contrary. Because of our inconsistencies since the lockout, for us, we felt that for us to be the best organization for the next decade, we needed to go through a rebuild. We decided that in February, but when you do a rebuild, you do need core players. You do need core veteran leaders and players on your team and when we saw that we wouldn’t come to a contract agreement with Erik – and there was very little discussion – we just felt that it was time to move on. And that point in time, because we are in a rebuild, maybe focus our attention on other leaders that possibly would want to be part of a rebuild.”

It’s obvious that the Senators are selling the stalled contract negotiations with Karlsson as the reason behind their decision to move on, and that’s fine. It’s not like the organization will admit that Karlsson’s willingness to remain with the Senators hinged on the possibility that Melnyk would sell.

With that said, I actually like what Dorion is saying in the first part of his answer because it’s something that I’ve harped on for years.

This organization has consistently tried to ice competitive rosters since they flipped a number of the assets that I mentioned earlier towards the 2011 NHL trade deadline. In a league that incentivizes losing and rewards bad teams with higher odds of drafting elite talent, the Senators have been woefully afraid (or desperately needed the revenue streams) to take a few steps back before it could take the massive steps forward that fans have been craving for.

Thomas Chabot is a fantastic talent and the hope is that a player like Brady Tkachuk will become one as well, but in order to rise to contention, the Senators will need an infusion of elite talent and without their 2019 first round selection, it may take years for the Senators to get the kind of elite talent it needs to take that big step forward.

Unlike in 2011, if the Senators are serious about going down this route, they are going to have to stick to the plan.

Unfortunately, the path to contention isn’t simply a matter of which team accrues the most talent at the top of the draft. Organizations like Buffalo and Edmonton are illustrative of the problems that can be created by poor asset management. Teams can’t simply rely on early first round picks, there needs to be an emphasis on analytics, scouting, recognizing the signs of when it’s time to sell high on players (or walk away) and cap management. Being bad is just one piece of the puzzle and based on the Senators’ recent history, getting the most out of their limited player personnel budget is paramount, so as a result, the team should be pumping funds into their analytics and scouting departments.

On when he knew that Erik Karlsson would not want to be part of a rebuild…

PD: “Uh, not to long after July 1st when there was very little discussion on a contract from their side. We just felt that it was time to move on.”

The Senators knew well before July 1st that Erik Karlsson had no interest in signing here under the current circumstances. It wasn’t an exercise of good faith, the contract offer (and promise of a guaranteed contract offer at the spring town hall sessions) was an optics-driven event designed to prove to the fans that the organization did the bare minimum.

There was no effort to sign a “What will it take?” offer.

There was only a one-time offer that resulted in inaction from both sides. Any portrayal of the events as putting the ball exclusively Karlsson’s court is just silly.

On why the organization left it until the last minute to make the announcement that the team was rebuilding…

PD: “Well, you never want to show your hand to your opposition. I think our rebuild has been intact and it started last February when we traded players like (Dion) Phaneuf and (Derick) Brassard and got a blue chip prospect in a Filip Gustavsson – who will be our goaltender of the future. But at the same time, you never want to show your hand to your opposition. In saying that, we felt that we owed it to our fans to tell them what our plan was before the season started. At that same time, we didn’t want to get nothing in return for Erik Karlsson if he was going to walk away from this team at the end of the year because our plan was to rebuild. In that rebuild, if Erik wasn’t going to sign here, we knew that we needed to get those assets to have a successful a rebuild as possible.”

If the intent is to intentionally suck while improving your prospect base and hopefully future outlook, why should it be a state secret? Wouldn’t you want your competition to know, so that it inflates demand by expanding the number of teams who would kick tires on any or all of your marketable assets?

A cynical part of me wonders whether the intent to not revealing the rebuild until after season ticket holders committed to their ticket packages.

On how he would describe the trust level between fans and management…

PD: “Well I think when you start a rebuild, the trust level is still good, but it’s something new for our fans. They’ve seen that we’ve tried to compete year-after-year. They saw that we tried to make a really big trade after we went to the Conference Final last year when we acquired Matt Duchene and we saw that it wasn’t working, so we needed to make a drastic decision. Sometimes these decisions aren’t the most popular decisions, but we know in our hockey operations groups that this decision to rebuild is definitely the right one to do.”

The level of trust that fans have for management and ownership is damaged. I think many fans can firmly get behind the idea of a rebuild. Judging by the fan attendance at development camp or the excitement over the performance of the team’s best prospects at training camp, it’s clear that the organization can sell hope for the future, but as I mentioned earlier, accumulating young prospects is just one piece of the puzzle.

Inept management can ruin a rebuild faster than it starts, and thanks to the CBA, it’s harder for teams to acquire elite talent at the top of the draft simply because there is no guarantee that the ping pong balls will bounce in a team’s favour.

As we’ve seen through the Maple Leafs’ offseason, young and skilled players are getting paid more money out of their ELCs than ever before, so it puts a lot of pressure on management to formulate a plan that simply relies on early draft picks. Supplementing a roster, not getting locked into bad, long-term deals and identifying which players to build around is paramount, so it’s important for ownership to pour money and resources into the front office to help facilitate the growth of information. The more knowledge a team has, the more informed decisions it can make.

On why the Senators could not make the decision to rebuild around Erik Karlsson…

PD: “Because the contract negotiations weren’t going along at the pace that we wanted to.”

And did the Senators try to spur discussions or did they help allow them to deteriorate?

On how much it was going to cost to keep Erik Karlsson…

NR: “That’s not my purview. I’m not going to comment on that. I’m not involved in the hockey operations. I do apologize for that. I’m much more focused on the fan experience, the community side and the business side of the operation, not the hockey side of the operation.”

Yeah, this wasn’t a fair question to ask Ruszkowski, but with Drew Doughty setting the bar earlier in the offseason, the Senators never offered Karlsson a comparable offer or at least one that would have made Karlsson think twice about moving on. Discussions never got serious because the organization knew that the current circumstances would never allow the best player in franchise history to stay.

On how he would describe the trust between management and the fans…

“So that’s a very interesting question because as you may know, since the town halls that Eugene Melnyk launched last spring, we’ve been in a very large-scale listening exercise within the context of our relationship with the fans. Part of that listening exercise was the largest poll we’ve ever conducted in the history of the organization. We know that the very large majority of the fans are enthusiastic about the team, they’re passionate about the team and they trust management.”

I’m going to seek clarity on this, but I believe the only fans that the Senators listened to in this exercise were those who had already signed up to renew their season tickets.

On how he knows that…

“Because we asked them. Because we asked them and the overwhelming majority said that that was the case. There is a very vocal minority that does have concerns and they have no difficulty expressing their feelings, but the overwhelming majority – roughly 75-percent – are in a place where they are confident with the direction of the team.”

As the great Stefan Wolejszo put it, “survey results based on a non-random sample of respondents is not representative (of the entire fan base). Ever.”

He’s right. It’s incredibly reductive to assume that this poll has its finger on the pulse of this fan base.

Dismissing those who are angry or disappointed with the way their favourite franchise has operated will only serve to reinforce the belief that this sect of the fan base’s concerns aren’t being recognized or weighed by the organization.

Instead of thinking of ways to engage this group of fans, Ruszkowski’s comments only serve to alienate them and reinforce the idea that the front office is comprised of like-minded individuals who serve their boss for better or worse. (Mostly worse.)

On being dismissal of the “vocal minority” and not acknowledging that many fans are angry…

“I disagree with that completely. We’ve been extremely attentive to the concerns of that vocal minority. I’ll give you two examples. One is the investment that we’re making on the parking front – that is one of the biggest complaints that we’ve received from the fan base. As a result, we’ve reduced our parking prices by 40-percent in over 50-percent of the parking lots at the stadium. And then the second initiative is our investment in creative services and creative direction for the in-game experience because we also know that fans who come to the games are not as satisfied as we’d like them to be with the in-game experience. So we are making a number of investments in that area because we are listening to fans.”

It’s great that the organization is figuring out ways to address the complaints of fans, but the complaints on the direction and the modus operandi of the organization for the past number of years is what’s really troubling to fans.

There needs to be an understanding that the reason why there’s a level of distrust isn’t the change in direction.

Fans can and will get on-board with a rebuild, but it’s hard to trust the people to make sound decisions now when they are the same people who willfully and ignorantly painted themselves into this corner to begin with. And frankly, after Melnyk’s comments at the NHL 100 Classic, it’s easy to imagine that the decision to rebuild is simply a disguise to cut costs to the bone.  

On a refusal to address the fact that if you keep trading marketable talents, there is less incentive to attend games…

“So again, I think what we’ve been discussing here is the fact that we still do have a core of players that are very exciting among our veteran leaders. I think of (Mark) Stone, I think of (Matt) Duchene, but what I’m excited about as a fan from that perspective is that we have, probably, is the largest pipeline of talent amongst young players that I’ve witnessed since the team came to Ottawa in 1992. So I think that’s part of the reason we had a fantastic turnout at Fan Fest yesterday is because people are starting to realize that there’s an opportunity to see a young core of players with whom they can evolve and grow with over the next few years.”

The Senators’ pipeline of prospects recently ranked towards the middle of the NHL (13th according to Corey Pronman), but the 2011 era should serve as a reminder for how quickly prospect attrition can catch up to an organization.

Growing up as a Senators fan during the 90’s, I wouldn’t put any of the Senators’ players on the same level as the guys that the Senators drafted in the first rounds during that era. The Senators simply don’t have a contingent of prospects to compete with names like Redden, Phillips, Yashin, Hossa, Havlat, Volchenkov and sure, maybe even Daigle. The Senators’ prospects aren’t at that level, but maybe in a few years, they may be.

I don’t blame management for selling hope, but it’s easy to get caught up in prospect porn.

Mika Zibanejad turned into a fine pro, but first rounders like Stefan Noesen and Matt Puempel never became key components to that Senators rebuild. Robin Lehner never materialized into the franchise goaltender and Shane Prince is now playing in Europe. David Rundblad proved to be a bust after the Senators shipped him in a deal to acquire Kyle Turris.

On the sentiment that some fans don’t believe the team can contend until the organization gets new ownership…

PD: “Well, all I can tell you is that in all my years that I’ve been with the Ottawa Senators, Mr. Melnyk has been very supportive and we can just look at last year. When we went ahead and made the Matt Duchene trade, I said, ‘It’s going to be x-amount of dollars more,’ and he said, ‘Just go ahead and do it. Do what’s best for the hockey team if it allows us to win.’ At the same time, we made the decision as a hockey operations group that the best way for this organization to succeed was to have a proper rebuild done in a proper way. Sometimes it’s a bit painful at the start, but we know for the long-term success of this hockey team and this organization, this is definitely the right route to take.”

I would love to hear Dorion speak more on the need to augment his staff or pour more money into player development, scouting and analytics, but he wasn’t pressed on the matter here.

On this rebuild and whether there are any other changes coming…

PD: “When you’re in a rebuild, on a daily basis you evaluate everyone. We’re going to implement some younger bodies into our lineup as the rebuild continues, but those younger prospects won’t be just put into the lineup to be put in the lineup. They will be put into the lineup when they are ready to contribute to our team’s success.”

I just don’t understand why in a lost a season, the Senators didn’t extend more opportunities to the players in Belleville when the team elected to keep giving opportunities to ineffective veterans who had experience playing under Guy Boucher. Rather than watch guys like Gabriel Dumont eat minutes, I would have preferred to see projectable bottom-six guys like Nick Paul be given an extended opportunity to prove he can be an NHL player.

On whether anyone on the roster is off limits in a deal…

PD: “In a rebuild, everyone is looked upon as far as performing to the best of their ability.”

Translation: unrestricted free agents like Ryan Dzingel, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene could be the next to go.  

On whether the organization sounds tone-deaf and their actions and words have fostered anger…

“I’ll disagree a bit with that because yesterday I walked the concourse at Fan Fest and not one person was mad with me. I shook every hand. A few people said, ‘We’re a bit disappointed Karlsson’s gone,’ but one person even said, ‘We have faith in what you guys are doing.’”

After players in the dressing room hugged and high-fived Dorion following the team’s trade for Alex Burrows, bragging about receiving positive reinforcement from others might not be a great barometer for measuring how people feel.

On hearing those comments at a Fan Fest where the most disgruntled fans might not be there…’

“No, but I think some fans that you heard from at Fan Fest were all polite and they understand the disappointment of trading Karlsson, but when you look at the return pieces in the future as part of the rebuild, we feel very comfortable with making this trade – especially that Erik Karlsson would have walked away without gathering anything for the organization at the end of the year. So we’re comfortable with this trade and the direction we’re going. We know there might be a few bumps in the road in the next year or two, but in the long-term success of this organization, we feel comfortable doing this.”

Six assets. One of whom projects as a bottom-pairing defenceman who was an unrestricted free agent a short two-months ago. Chris Tierney may be a competent third liner who can play up in the lineup, and assuredly there’s a need for another pro centre following Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s Achilles injury, but he’s just a warm body that likely won’t be a long-term fixture for the Senators. So what the Senators are really banking on is the development of a Rudolfs Balcers or a Josh Norris, as well as the combination of draft picks that the Senators received, will be enough to lessen the blow of losing a generational talent.

Balcers is a 21-year old, Latvian left winger who led the San Jose Barracuda in scoring last season. Although he boasts some offensive skill and upside, concerns regarding his speed could lessen his offensive impact at the NHL level. With Norris, scouts appear to be divided over whether he projects as a second or third line player.

With Karlsson in tow, the likelihood of San Jose’s draft picks being high are remote, which means that there is a good chance that none of the assets the Senators received has safely projectable high upside. To move a player of Karlsson’s calibre without procuring that kind of asset is hard to stomach, but here’s hoping that some of these assets can be put to good use.

On there being no problems…

PD: “I don’t know. You know what, sometimes when you’re put in positions like the head of organizations. I think I’m the COO of the hockey department as the general manager, you have to make tough decisions and sometimes it’s not always the most popular decisions, but you know and we know at the end of the day that this is the right course for this organization.”

It could very well be the right course, but the question is, are guys like Dorion and Melnyk going to be the one to see things through?

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