Speaking to Postmedia’s Bruce Garrioch as part of the 30th anniversary of the Senators’ modern return to the National Hockey League, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk addressed his team’s future outlook while reflecting on the path that led the organization to this point.
Over the last few years, Melnyk has taken a noticeable step back from the limelight. This recent self-restraint could be a consequence of the backlash that he faced after his tirade at the 2017 Heritage Classic, but it could also be a function of his hockey team finishing near the bottom of the NHL standings for a third consecutive season.
Although much of the information in this interview with Garrioch was not necessarily new, there were some interesting talking points raised that are guaranteed to raise some eyebrows.
Without further ado, let us get into Melnyk’s reflections.
“We have turned the corner. We just now need to execute on what we have,” Melnyk told Garrioch from his home in Toronto. “This is the team, with what we have right now, I believe can win a Stanley Cup already, and that’s without adding some veterans, which we plan to do.”
Melnyk’s enthusiasm for the future is shared by the fan base. To say that the anticipation for the Ottawa Senators’ 2020 offseason was huge would be to understate things.
The last time excitement was this high around these parts, it was matched only by Guy Boucher greedily rubbing his hands together awaiting to be reunited with the likes of Tom Pyatt, Nate Thompson and Chris DiDomenico.
Aesthetically, things were already on the upswing after the organization unveiled the reintroduction of its original logo and jerseys.
The organization spent better part of the last two years dismantling a roster that peaked with an appearance in the 2017 Eastern Conference Final. The culmination of that work created a monumental opportunity for the organization to reap its rewards.
Armed with cap space and 13 selections on the day of the 2020 NHL Draft, the Senators had the flexibility to go in a number of different directions.
Pierre Dorion had a blank canvas and every advantage to work with.
Now that the picks are in, all of the pressure lies on management and ownership to cultivate a winner.
The idea that pressure now falls on the organization isn’t lost on Melnyk.
“The pressure on management who live in the city is dramatic.”
Melnyk would extend that feeling of pressure to the coaching staff as well, but sadly, there was no self-reflection from the owner within Garrioch’s article indicating that he felt complicit or accepted any responsibility for his team’s shortcomings.
He certainly had no difficulty taking credit for the team’s rebuild.
“Nobody’s done what I did. I don’t care what anybody says,” Melnyk said. “Nobody has gone and gutted a team the way I did. We made a list … the top six guys gone. Show me a team, in any sport, where the top six guys are gone. This was specifically designed. You had to be a certain age to be part of it.”
It is kind of amazing that Melnyk is bragging about the uniqueness of Ottawa’s rebuild when: 1) other organizations in the NHL have endured rebuilds before; and 2) the Senators’ rebuild hasn’t accomplished any kind of sustained measurable success.
Make no mistake, better days are assuredly ahead.
Core pieces like Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot are already playing well at the NHL level. Prospects like Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Logan Brown, Alex Formenton and Erik Brannstrom have already enjoyed individual and team success at the professional level. Many of these prospects are expected to graduate and play with the Senators in the 2020-21 season.
When the Senators have finished 30th, 31st and 30th in the league over the last three years, inevitably there is place for the organization to go but up. The organic growth and development of the prospects that the Senators have stockpiled will continue to make this team better. Supplementing this depth with higher-upside players like Tim Stützle and Jake Sanderson is only going to help, but it still feels like the organization needs help.
Championship teams seemingly have elite, two-way centres and an abundance of high-end offensive talent interspersed with possession-driving talents who are incredibly difficult to play against.
The unfortunate reality is not every prospect that the Senators have is going to fulfill their projected ceiling. Similarly, not every prospect within the system is going to wind up playing for the Ottawa Senators.
Perhaps the Senators already have some of the pieces that sustainable Stanley Cup contenders have, but chances are, the organization will have to support and augment this group further.
Gutting a roster and netting future assets in exchange is one of the easiest things a general manager can do. With the shift to improving the team’s competitiveness, the pressure is going to be on Pierre Dorion to operate diligently.
Historically, Dorion’s worst and most short-sighted transactions have been the ones that attempted to improve the team’s short-term competitiveness. Melnyk even touched upon it when off-handedly referring to the Matt Duchene deal.
“Could we upgrade? On a scale of one to 10, we were about an eight when we lost to Pittsburgh. I think we could have won a Stanley Cup if we’d gotten by Pittsburgh. The bottom line was the team itself had to be upgraded, and the only way I felt we could do this … and we took a shot. From there, we methodically started going through the lineup.”
The Senators “took a shot” when they should never have done so.
No one needed revisionist history to recognize that the Duchene deal was a risky one. At the time of the deal, the Senators had a record of 6-3-5 (.607). They had one of the league’s 10-best point percentages in the league, but any analysis of their underlying numbers would have underscored just how flattering that record was.
The 2017-18 Ottawa Senators struggled to suppress shots (CF%) and essentially survived through the first 14 games of the regular season because of their on-ice shooting percentage at five-on-five (9.66, 10th-best in the NHL) and power play success rate (18.2%, 11th-best in the NHL).
Under normal circumstances, the Duchene deal was the kind of deal that gets a general manager fired. Under Eugene Melnyk’s ownership, it was simply the latest instance of the team trying to make another Bobby Ryan-like splash and chasing a name player who would struggle to move the needle.
Granted, there was probably pressure to try and build off that 2017 Eastern Conference Final run, but following that appearance, the roster definitely needed an upgrade or three that offseason. After losing forward depth in Clarke MacArthur, Tommy Wingels, Viktor Stalberg, Chris Neil and Chris Kelly while losing a top-four defenceman in Marc Methot through the expansion draft, the organization replaced these players with Johnny Oduya and Nate Thompson.
Adding Matt Duchene could have been fine, provided that the organization took measured steps to address the other glaring holes on the roster.
They never did.
This organization has made such a habit of making ill-advised signings and trades at inopportune times that I want to learn about how they have remedied this problem. How has this organization recognized its mistakes and what have they done to guard against them moving forward? Is the analytics department or its professional scouting staff larger? If not, why not?
In the formative days when the organization decided to publicly tout their rebuilding efforts, one of the major talking points was Melnyk’s promise to spend.
At a corporate event for sponsors in February of 2019, Melnyk committed the Senators to be “all-in” for a “five-year run of unparalleled success” which would involve the team spending close to the NHL’s salary cap ceiling every year from 2021 to 2025.
In Garrioch’s article, it sounded like Melnyk was walking off his commitment to spend to the upper reaches of the cap ceiling.
“We’ll be a team that’s active at the trade deadline and not as sellers, but as buyers, just like we used to be. If you look at my track record on spending on players, we were always up there. We were never at the top, but we were always right there or around the centre. Now, we’re going to stay somewhere in the centre, depending on where it’s at. Our budgets are always somewhere around $70 million, which is in the centre.”
It sounds like Melnyk is moving the goalposts now that we are on the brink of the timeline that he referenced when promised to spend in the future. In fairness however, it is possible that he was simply referring to how much he is willing to spend on player payroll for the 2020-21 season. Melnyk is cognizant of the correlation between success and salary expenditure.
From an event on the Elgin Street Mile in 2013, Melnyk shared his philosophy on spending.
“We spent to the cap two years in a row and didn’t make the playoffs so I’m not a big fan of spending because you’ve just got to spend, but we need cooperation and help, it’s as simple as that, because we’re being outspent by everyone else and to be competitive you have to be at least in the top half of spenders. That’s a stat, it’s not just something I’ve made up, you have to be in the top half — we are — if you’re not you don’t have much of a chance, it’s just not going to happen.”
According to CapFriendly.com, the Senators will currently spend an estimated $55 million in actual salary expenditure (note: their projected cap hit nears $68 million) for the 2020-21 season. If the Senators’ budget for player salaries is actually $70 million like Melnyk says, why haven’t the Senators leveraged that to make the team more competitive now?
Everyone understands the economic wrinkles created by the Covid-19 pandemic, but Melnyk is making these spending proclamations now. If the budget is $70 million, why not take advantage of it and use some of that surplus money to improve the team’s competitiveness now? If the team can afford to take on some short-term deals (ie. Deadweight contracts that teams pressed up against the cap ceiling are desperate to shed or for players that could help this team and could be flipped at the deadline) that can be used to acquire future assets, why not take advantage of it?
What is worrisome is the possibility that Melnyk’s hoping people won’t realize that when he says the budget is $70 million, people will only acknowledge the cap hit when he’s only spending $55 million in real dollars.
Unfortunately, an obvious challenge with Melnyk’s answers is that there is a lot of doublespeak and quotes that conflict with things that the owner has said previously. Meaningful follow-up questions would have afforded the owner the opportunity to elaborate and add further context (and if fairness, maybe they were asked by Garrioch and simply were cut out). Instead, everything is open to interpretation and that is going to frustrate a lot of fans who crave clarity and transparency.
The problem herein is that this is a situation where the owner is only comfortable talking to those who provide favourable coverage.
Insecurity, vanity and a refusal to take ownership of previous mistakes have plagued Melnyk’s reign in Ottawa. Like any other fan base, there will always be a sect of fans who will love this team unconditionally and irrespective of what happens off the ice. That is totally fine, but if you look at the attendance figures – even when the organization was competitive in recent years – it is impossible to ignore the waning attendance and season ticket base figures.
The Senators have to do a much better job of reaching out to the fans who they have lost along the way. Out of town radio hits and Postmedia exclusives have become a running gag and it needs to stop. Senators fans deserve better.
After Garrioch’s interview, his article contained a brief blurb detailing some Senators stats under Eugene Melnyk.
- The club has made nine playoff appearances and won 44 post-season games;
- In that stretch, it has also seven playoff series
- Northeast Division leaders 2005-06; advanced to Stanley Cup final in 2007
- Advanced to Eastern Conference playoff final in 2017
- Ottawa had the best combined record of any Canadian NHL franchise from 2003 to 2017 before commencing a rebuild midway through 2018-19.
For the sake of a broader picture, here are a few other highlights:
- Using NHL.com’s database, the Senators have accumulated a regular record of 458-419-126 since their appearance in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. Only the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights have compiled fewer points in the standings than Melnyk’s Senators. And in fairness to Vegas, that organization only began playing NHL games in 2017.
- The Senators have advanced past the Eastern Conference Semi-finals once in the past 13 years.
- The Senators have had nine head coaches since appearing in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final.
- From 2003 to now, the Senators and Canucks have the same number of playoff wins. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound as cool unless you cherry pick and ignore the last three years of data. It negates the Senators’ recent sample size from the data, but conveniently doesn’t recognize the context for why other Canadian teams have fared poorly during the same time period (2003-2017).