The Trouble in Marketing the Ottawa Senators

In what I can only assume is the last story filed to Postmedia by Wayne Scanlan, the best sportswriter that this city has seen had the opportunity to sit down with Nicolas Ruszkowski (chief operating officer) and Aimee Deziel (chief marketing officer) to better understand how the Ottawa Senators plan on re-invigorating this hockey market.

To write that in itself at this time of year is bizarre.

With the annual rookie tournament kicking off in Laval Friday and the parent club’s training camp just around the corner, excitement for NHL hockey after a long summer should be palpable.

In Ottawa, it’s like we’re caught in a paralytic state because we’re still waiting for the shoe to drop.

Erik Karlsson’s uncertain future continues to loom over the organization like the weight of a dozen Bobby Ryan contract extensions.

The futures of the team’s most talented forwards, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, are also in doubt meaning there’s a chance that the Senators could find a way to move all three of these players before next year’s trade deadline.

It has not helped that the Senators have essentially gone silent since the organization conducted a series of town hall events with season seat holders at the conclusion of last season, essentially leaving the fan base to guess what the plan is for the upcoming season is.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a plan in place or that the organization is obligated to divulge its details or tips its hand to its competitors, but with a group that largely struggled last season and pundits linking the future of the team’s best players to their confidence (or lack thereof) in management and ownership to deliver a winner, it’s hard to grasp how the higher-ups are going to handle the coming season.

This guesswork makes marketing this team more of a challenge.

Will the Senators hold onto their best players through a significant chunk of the season, hoping that their presence will elevate the team in the standings and help it contend for a playoff spot?

It would not be surprising given the team’s recent history which has placed competitiveness ahead of the risks that their actions may work against the team’s best long-term interests.

Obviously holding onto all of the players throughout the course of the season will inevitably boost ticket sales and increase the team’s competitiveness on the ice, but it’s hard to get around the suspicion that these players simply aren’t comfortable signing long-term extensions under current regime.

Many are left holding onto the hope that a prospective ownership change will help facilitate some contract extensions and the return of the iconic Daniel Alfredsson, but after Melnyk refinanced his debt load, there’s no guarantee that a sale is imminent either.

It’s an uncomfortable situation for many fans who are caught between their love for the Senators and their disdain for Eugene Melnyk.

Nobody ultimately wants to see players like Karlsson, Stone or Duchene leave, but the Josh Donaldson situation with the Blue Jays served as a lesson: if a player has to leave given the circumstances, you better get the best damn return that you can.

The Bringer of Rain’s departure illustrated what can happen when you bank on your best players delivering great, injury-free seasons in their walk year.

If Melnyk is not going anywhere, then how long can the organization hold onto their best players if they’re not willing to stick around for the foreseeable future? Does Pierre Dorion hold firm and continue to wait out the best deal or does he risk the chance that fewer games or an injury could marginalize the returns of prospective deals?

It’s also hard to ignore the fact that the Colorado Avalanche possess the Senators’ 2019 first round pick. Ian Mendes has already touched upon how the organization may elect to hold onto its best players because of optics – believing that the Senators may retain their best assets in hopes of diminishing the Avalanche’s draft lottery odds.

It doesn’t matter that their 2019 first rounder is a sunk cost. It’s totally conceivable that the team could compound their situation by marginalizing future trades to make this last year’s deal look better.

Perhaps most importantly, if Melnyk continues to push his preference for short-term results, will the Senators continue to make deals that target immediate NHL-dividends returns rather than ones that may take longer but possess higher upside?

Under normal circumstances, Senators fans could easily get behind the idea of a full-rebuild where they guy everything and start anew supplementing a farm system that already ranks in the top half of the league.

Unfortunately, there is is such a disconnect between the decision-makers and the fans that even if a rebuild was fully embraced, there’s an instilled belief within this fan base that without any change to the organization’s hierarchy, the cycle of seeing the organization’s best players leave will continue to repeat.

This is the unenviable situation that Ruszkowski and Deziel have willingly walked into.

Lip Service

Unfortunately, the two kept hitting the same buzzwords and talking points that have been discussed in the past.

Fixing the “moribund atmosphere at the rink“, creating “fan relief at the parking lot“, being “transparent and accountable” and selling a “younger, faster, stronger” product have all been done before.

It’s redundant.

I applaud the two for wanting to foster a more inclusive fan base by reaching out to Francophones and new Canadians, but the idea to reach out to marginalized segments of the population wouldn’t ring so hollow when the team’s presence at the recent Ottawa Capital Pride event was scant.

Contrast that with the Senators’ delegation that was headlined by Spartacat and representatives from the Sens Foundation.

Even if you don’t care about the organization’s representation at the event, there are a ton of people in this city who do.

At a time when the organization is struggling to do anything right in the front office, showing up for this event and lending support should be a no-brainer.

Don’t get me wrong, the organization’s efforts with Roger’s House and other local charities are commendable and yes, the Senators did kick off their Hometown Tour the following day, however, this is just an instance where the the organization repeatedly does the bare minimum. It is another lost opportunity to support and make inroads with a group that fits within the organization’s inclusive umbrella.

Last season was just a terrible blip…

Speaking of not using our heads, Ruszkowski told Scanlan he “wants the harshest critics in the fan base to consider the big picture — mostly winning seasons in the past 15 years.”

It is intellectual dishonesty.

Most people can recognize that the roster that Melnyk inherited when he bought the team in 2003 was a Stanley Cup contender and he rode that wave through the team’s appearance in the Cup Final in 2007.

Since that appearance, the team has reached the postseason six times and missed the playoffs five times. Before last year’s unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Final, the team had just one playoff series win over their previous nine seasons.

Under Melnyk the Senators are seemingly always in that playoff bubble mix.

The past few seasons, they’ve been a poor puck-possession whose success or failure has hinged on their percentages. When the goaltending and shooting percentages were there, the team went on its run, but when both went into the tank last season, the Senators plunged in the standings.

If there is any blip, it lies in that disconnect between the organization and its fans.