Thoughts in Bold: Eugene Melnyk’s Interview with Mark Borowiecki


Thoughts in Bold: Eugene Melnyk's Interview with Mark BorowieckiAs part of a coordinated effort to provide some clarity on the franchise’s plan moving forward, the Senators released a video late Monday night wherein defenceman Mark Borowiecki interviewed owner Eugene Melnyk who divulged the Senators’ plan.

Spoiler alert: it’s a rebuild.

Less than 10 months after their franchise altering decision to ignore the glaring shortcomings on the roster or the inherent risks involving the futures of their best players and the short-term nature of Matt Duchene’s contract and go all-in to bring in the centre, the Senators’ owner spent almost six minutes awkwardly explaining how the Senators are set to retool their roster as part of a rebuild designed to return the team to Stanley Cup contention.

After a summer of silence and reports of dwindling ticket sales, the Senators needed to articulate some kind of plan, but to do it a few days before the opening of training camp in a poorly executed video featuring the polarizing owner discussing personnel decisions with their third-pairing defenceman.

That the organization selected Borowiecki should not come as much of a surprise. Despite his very obvious limitations as a player, the local hockey product’s willingness to work hard and stick up for his teammates has endeared him to the organization and helped paved the way for him to be an NHL player.

Borowiecki’s candour has also made him popular with the local media and because of it, he’s become a go-to player for quotes on hockey analytics or as recently as a few weeks, Borowiecki addressed how the veterans need to pull together and change the culture within the Senators’ dressing room.

Rather than use a professional journalist to pose questions or even challenge Melnyk with more difficult follow-up questions, the Senators elected to put the unpopular Melnyk in a Senators jersey and use a company man to lob the owner some softballs.

To stream the interview, you can use the embedded video above, but the following is a complete transcript of what ensued.

As always, I’ve added my thoughts which can be read in bold.

MB: “The season is coming up quick. We’ve got the golf tournament on Wednesday, (players) report on Thursday, what’s the plan here?”

EM: “I think there’s a few things that we’re hoping to accomplish. I think what our fans are looking forward to and I’m looking forward to is a season that’s fresh and brand new – something that we can look forward to with young players coming in. And I think we can gel them into something that’s a very, very serious team, much bigger than a lot of people, I think, believe. Right now, we’re kind of in the dumpster. Everbody says, ‘Ah, (the Senators) aren’t going to do anything,’ and I don’t believe that. I think that with character in the dressing room and people working very, very hard, we can accomplish more than people believe. A lot of people said things in the last year. I think when I signed up as an owner, I really didn’t expect (to go) through something like we did last year. It was a tough, tough year for us everywhere – in the offices and on the ice. Now we’re starting off fresh. A lot of things have been changed and I think that this year is going to become one of those watershed years for us.”

Right now, we’re kind of in the dumpster,” may be the most honest and genuine bit of analysis that Melnyk has ever said.

It’s amazing how every time the Senators’ go into a funk or experience some kind of setback, the instinctual response is to talk about changing the culture or improving the leadership within the room.

Obviously the Senators plan on integrating a number of younger (and less expensive) players into the lineup, so insulating these players with veterans who can lead and be productive players is paramount. The last thing the Senators need is a situation where the young players are asked to shoulder a load that they are not ready for. Playing games and surviving at the NHL-level should never be the goal, this organization needs to cultivate and develop prospects who can be good contributors on the game’s biggest stage.

With that said, it’s not a surprise to see the organization throw around buzzwords like “culture” or “leadership” like these two things alone will change a lot of what’s ailing the Senators.

Shitty teams throw around these buzzwords because they believe they are tangible things that they have firm control over and can easily change. It’s easier for teams to discuss than admit that it needs to fix and improve the base-talent level of the team.

There is no question that the Senators faced some unexpected hardships last season that it could not prepare for. The Karlsson/Hoffman spousal situation and the Randy Lee second-degree harassment charges were appallingly detrimental to the organization, but these events should not allow the organization to gloss over how the actions and words of this organization’s decision-makers have painted the organization into a corner.

The inability to extend Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone are on ownership and the front office and despite the inherent risks of not being able to do so, management went out and acquired Matt Duchene with a year and a half remaining on his deal before unrestricted free agency. Without any kind of certainty that the team could retain its best players, the Senators sent a significant opportunity cost and went all-in, knowing that it would put them in a difficult spot and give all the leverage to the individual players in the next round of contract negotiations.

Eugene Melnyk has no one to blame but himself for the fan base’s shaken confidence in his ability to deliver a winner or their resentment of the threats he made at last December’s NHL 100 Classic.

For years this organization was lucky enough for the team’s performance to mask the inefficiencies and detrimental behavior that Melnyk is responsible for behind the scenes, but now that the team is languishing in the standings, the curtains have been pulled back and a light’s being shone on the damage being done.

MB: “I agree. I mean, we’re pretty excited, I think.”

EM: “How’s our dressing room?”

Training camp has not started yet, but this is being asked as a legitimate question to help dispel the idea that what is essentially the same group of players, sans Mike Hoffman,

Obviously trading Mike Hoffman’s baggage will help alleviate the awkwardness and anxiety within the room, but getting two cents on the dollar for the team’s most natural goal scorer and replacing him with an average third liner like Mikkel Boedker isn’t going to help the team’s true talent level or help the team win more games. With all the talk of a rebuild, it’s impossible to look at the return – Boedker, Julius Bergman and a 2020 sixth-round pick – and ignore the missed opportunity here.

MB: “You know what, I think that was kind of a question that I was going to ask you too. We’ve got some characters in there. It’s professional hockey, there’s a lot of unique personalities, unique people and strong personalities.  I think we need to find a way to gel, to kind of make some chemistry and to really be together or come together. We obviously need help with that. We want some outside influences and resources and what’s your…”

Hold onto that thought about making some chemistry, I’ll come back to that later.

EM: “But, we’re going give everything we’ve got. Some people were talking in town, ‘Hey, he may move the team!’ Let me tell you something, first thing’s first, I’m going to stick around here for a long, long time, okay? I’m not going anywhere and number two, the franchise is not going anywhere. That’s totally solid, so everybody can kind of focus and get rid of the noise. What you try to do is ensure that you’ve got some veterans in the room and that’s what everybody kind of counts on – guys like you – to take these young players under their wing. You remember what it was like when you got into the league and you were a rookie and you were kind of bumping into the wrong walls. You need the veterans, especially when you start getting real competitive and you start moving into the playoffs. They’re just happy as clams to be in the NHL and they made the team. Now all of a sudden, they’re asked to perform so they are going to need that direction. That actually bonds people together, I think the team as a whole.”

At least Borowiecki made an effort to publicly request help and the use of more external resources on from the owner, but he was cut off by Melnyk who deflected towards a totally unrelated topic.

It’s ironic to hear the owner mention how people in town are responsible for creating noise around the uncertainty of the team’s future in Ottawa when it was the owner at the NHL 100 Classic who fuelled the relocation conversation by answering a question that asked whether he would ever consider moving the team.

If it becomes a disaster, yes. If you start not seeing crowds showing up, yes,” he said. “But, for now, we are on the cusp of doing OK.”

For Melnyk to state to manipulate this relocation talk and spin it like he’s doing everyone a favour by circling back and downplaying the possibility of it ever happening makes for great unintentional comedy.

There’s no question that leadership and camaraderie are important when talking team dynamics, but it’s impossible to ignore how the Senators have made concerted efforts to bring in veterans who could help the team’s short-term competitiveness and leadership qualities.

Players like Derick Brassard, Dion Phaneuf and Alex Burrows were all lauded for their playing ability and intangibles at the time they were acquired. Ultimately however, each of these players played in fewer than 160 games or the equivalent of two full NHL seasons with Ottawa before being dumped when the team struggled to compete.

It’s not exactly a state secret that the NHL is a young man’s game and datasets clearly indicate a player’s prime often occurs between the ages of 22 to 27 years of age, but with the Senators, the organization has to recognize that their asset management has been terrible.

Even though the Senators are a small market team with limited resources, it is okay for them to trade draft picks and prospect capital to add players, but the team needs to do a better job recognizing how they should be using these finite assets.

The Kyle Turris trade was one of the best trades in recent memory and there’s a reason for it: he was 22 years old at the time of the deal and had projectable upside. Since the team’s 2007 Stanley Cup final appearance, the Senators have struggled to return to a contender’s status, but they have rarely targeted younger players with upside in trades. Instead their myopic short-term philosophy centred on making the playoffs and generating playoff revenue has taken precedence.

MB: “I think that’s a good point. I know in my first bit of time being called up and down, I wasn’t comfortable on the ice, but I wasn’t even comfortable in my own skin off the ice. Having older guys who were approachable, who wanted to talk to me, who wanted to spend time with me, it makes a huge difference. I think when we find that balance, it’s going to be huge for us.”

I’m going to touch upon this later.

EM: “Well, it’s going to be important for the team as a group to make sure that everyone gels together. You cry together, you laugh together and you celebrate together. That’s all part of being a team and not playing as an individual.”

Playing as an individual, I wonder if that was a crack at the skilled players like Hoffman or even Karlsson – you know, the guy who carried the entire franchise on his back while he skated on one-leg during the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs.

MB: “What’s going to be different about our rebuild?”

There it is, the first dropped nugget that acknowledges that the Senators will be undergoing a rebuild. I never expected it to come from Mark Borowiecki during an interview with Eugene Melnyk, but there it is.

EM: “I think at this point, I think we’ve got the base. That’s what’s critical. You’ve got… I think with the team that we now have, just now, without all the additions, is a team that… or leadership… that really believes in the total team. It’s just not about individuals anymore because you’re not going to win. One player, two players, three players in the dressing room are not going to do it. It needs a leadership and then you build under that. We’re going to build that with young prospects that are now coming through. The picks, we’re loaded up now with draft picks for the next four, five or six years. But right now, I think it would be very exciting. You’ve seen some of them already.”

More emphasis on individuals, which isn’t that surprising because if the Senators are to trade their best skilled players, the organization has to try and spin it like it’s a beneficial thing. In a perfect world, the owner and general manager could re-sign and build around its best players, but it’s clear that the hesitation of the team’s best players to commit long-term is an indictment of their relationship with the owner.

If Stone, Karlsson and Duchene do not have the confidence in Melnyk to develop a winner, why should any of the fans?

MB: “Yeah, I’ve had a chance to interact with them myself and before they really went off to the rookie tournament. We skated with them. They are some good kids – really high-end talent, but they’re great guys off the ice. I think we’re in for something special when a lot of these guys are ready to play.”

I have absolutely no issue with the Senators selling the premise of a rebuild. It’s something that I’ve wanted to see the Senators stick with since the 2010-11 season, but what I struggle with is that this rebuild that Melnyk is trumpeting is happening 10 months after the Duchene trade and is being orchestrated by the same individuals who put the organization in their current predicament.

There is also the question of why the timing of the rebuild coincides with the rumours of Melnyk’s financial wherewithal and ability to hold onto the hockey team for the foreseeable future. If reports of interested buyers are true, it’s possible that the owner is cutting things to the bone in hopes of holding onto the team until the LeBreton Flats development is built – either allowing him to maximize the franchise’s value in a sale or generate the kind of revenue streams he needs to be able to hold onto the club in perpetuity.

EM: “That’s what our rebuild is going to be. It is kind of a cliché term, but we take it seriously. I think this coming year, we’re going to have 10 out of the 22 players are going to be new – meaning they’re either rookies or they’ve played maybe under 10 games last year. And then the following year, it’s going to go up to 15 of the 22 or maybe 16 (players), so that’s a total turnover – which is exactly should be in a rebuild.”

So getting back to the point about leadership, how can the Senators emphasize the importance in leadership when they are already talking about the fact that 75-percent of the roster will be in upheaval within two years?

With so much turnover and the expected departures of the team’s best players like Stone, Karlsson and Duchene, what veterans on the roster can be expected to assume the leadership roles and help move the best prospects forward when they likely are nothing more than placeholders?

To have any kind of success at the professional level, you need your best players to exude the intangibles that the hockeyocracy holds dear and Ottawa’s best players are essentially indicating that they have serious, serious, serious reservations about committing to this organization for the long haul.

If you are a fan, how does that not impact your decision-making when it comes to supporting the team through ticket sales?

MB: “For sure and those fresh faces, I mean, they bring energy. For a guy like me, who in the hockey world, is a little bit older, it gives me so much energy. I’m excited to come to the rink.”

Hockey teams can sell hope or they can sell a winner. The Senators obviously cannot sell the latter, but judging by the attendance at the development scrimmage or the social media chatter during last week’s rookie tournament in Laval, fans are still emotionally invested in the future of this franchise. Everyone in Ottawa wants to see better days ahead, but under the current regime, fan confidence is shaken and rightfully so.

Who is to say that the moment this team has some modicum of success, the patient rebuild plans are scrapped and go out the window like they did following the team’s 2010-11 season?

Moreover, what confidence should fans have that the moment this next generational wave of prospects has the opportunity to leave, they will take it?    

EM: “You’re excited because they’re excited!”

Boro’s excited because he’s trying to be a good company man.

MB: “100-percent. I’m excited to be with them, hang out with them and play with them. I think it goes a long way for everyone.”

Every training camp is a time for optimism, so it’s no surprise to see Borowiecki tow this line.

EM: “So you get excited because they’re excited, which gets me excited and gets all of our fans excited and our sponsors. So it’s going to work out and I think we’re looking forward to a great, great coming year. I really think that the fans are going to be supportive. We’ve got some great fans. These are great, great hockey fans, great sponsors and we’ve just got to give them the hope that they know that we know what we’re doing and that translates into the team knowing what they’re doing and putting some wins together. Shooting for the Stanley Cup!”

As much as I like the departure from talking about making the playoffs as some kind of success story, it’s hard to rally around Menyk or the team’s new rebuild.

From this interview itself, it’s obvious that marketing department either has absolutely no idea what it’s doing or everyone within the organization is powerless to stop Melnyk from doing what he wants.

His presence in this video speaks volumes. Irrespective of how you feel about former figures like Tom Anselmi or Cyril Leeder, the organization lacks a central figure who can navigate difficult waters and put their best foot forward to help garner the organization the respect it needs at this difficult time.

Putting Melnyk on this stage with Mark Borowiecki was a poor decision and it never should have happened. If there was anyone to elaborate on the direction of the franchise and the team’s personnel, it was Pierre Dorion, but he’s been missing in action for most of the summer. Even in the instances where there has been big news – like the Mark Stone contract extension – his presence and general media presence has been lacking.

I would assume that is by design, but after Dorion spoke of the organization’s need to do better with the media following the team’s series of town hall discussions with season seat holders, the consequences have not exactly been on display this summer.

Whether it’s an extended and down to earth interview or an Erik Karlsson trade, fans have been left waiting.

 When and how many shoes are going to drop?

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