Luke and Varada talk about a few Sens and Sens-adjacent issues, like Phaneuf’s recent buy-out, Chris Wideman’s eternal regret, and Erik Karlsson’s potential return, before talking about the Raptors and basketball for a much longer amount of time.
Luke and Varada talk about a few Sens and Sens-adjacent issues, like Phaneuf’s recent buy-out, Chris Wideman’s eternal regret, and Erik Karlsson’s potential return, before talking about the Raptors and basketball for a much longer amount of time.
It’s the first night of the NHL playoffs, and the day after the draft lottery. It’s time for us to check in with our feelings and decide, once and for all, if Brady Tkachuk is our Supervisor. (He is.) We also talk about the New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, Brian Gibbons and Alex Ovechkin, who are roughly as good as one another, Logan Brown’s dad, and tailgating at a Lions game.
I’m going to try something on for size, here: optimism. I won’t go over all of the ways in which this is not an intuitive or realistic stance to take. You know them. But as I shift from Actually Watching Games to the hockey equivalent of playing Settlers of Catan, I can’t help but feel like there’s some hope that we can successfully bargain for some wheat. Not enough hope to buy a hockey ticket, of course. But reason to keep talking about the Ottawa Senators online.
Here’s what I’ve got. Do with it what you will:
The Moment Karlsson Was Gone, a Rebuild Was the Right Call
Ottawa was uniquely dependent on Erik Karlsson to drive their entire system. He played in all situations, he played half the game, he made every player on the team better, and outside of Mark Stone was the only player on the team who could hold his own against the best competition in the league. Ottawa without Erik Karlsson simply wasn’t Ottawa. They were barely an NHL team.
Ottawa wasn’t very good in Karlsson’s last season with the team, finishing second last. One could reasonably argue that the moment he was gone – ignoring how much of a cluster-fuck it is to let a player like that go under any circumstances – the team had to rebuild. A team so dependent on Erik Karlsson, even with Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, Thomas Chabot, and Mike Hoffman, wasn’t going anywhere without him.
Yes, having Mark Stone to build around is also a good option. I’m just saying that if you squint and look sideways, in a way Dorion is giving the We Should Have Gone Full Rebuild in 2011 crowd what they’ve always wanted.
Ottawa Started Their Rebuild With a Respectable Base of Prospects
Before the great sell-off began with Karlsson, Ottawa had an intriguing mix of players: long-shots with high ceilings, tools-y players that projected as depth, and a ton of wild cards. But for a team that hadn’t drafted anywhere near the top five since taking Mika Zibanejad sixth overall in 2011, Ottawa could do much worse than Thomas Chabot, Colin White, Drake Batherson, Logan Brown, Alex Formenton, Filip Chlapik, Christian Wolanin and Filip Gustavsson, to say nothing of stealth players on the farm like Maxime Lajoie.
In what’s become a bit of a habit, Ottawa made the most out of late round picks and their trade of Brassard to form a decent baseline of prospects. They added Brady Tkachuk to that baseline last year. That’s not one of the better prospect pipelines in the league – there’s a conspicuous lack of blue-chippers outside of Chabot and Tkachuk – but being in the middle-third of prospect systems without very high picks is not so bad given the circumstances.
They added to that baseline with the trades to come. While the only blue-chip prospect Ottawa got back in the trades of Karlsson, Stone, Duchene, Dzingel, and Hoffman was Erik Brannstrom, they also added to their intriguing mix: Rudolph Balcers, Josh Norris, Vitaly Abramov, and Johan Davidsson.
Three blue-chippers and a whole lot of upside isn’t a bad place to start one’s build.
The Only Thing Ottawa is Good at is Drafting, and They Have a Ton of Picks
I mostly agree with the notion that the only way to get true needle-movers, meaning players that significantly improve your chances of competing for a Cup, is to capitalize on other team’s mistakes or dire circumstances (as Vegas just did with us and Mark Stone) or to draft them. In the absence of very high draft picks, teams, especially teams whose strength is drafting, should get as many chances at drafting super-secret future needle-movers as possible.
As Dellow wrote about over on The Athletic, Ottawa has a near-historic number of picks over the next three years:
Ottawa’s currently sitting on 15 picks in the first three rounds over the next three years, with a possibility of getting up to 17 as things stand. The final draft of the Original 21 era took place in 1990. There have been 757 potential three-year windows for teams since then. Only one team – the 2000-02 Devils – went to the podium more than 17 times in the first three rounds in a three year period since the demise of the Original 21.
There’s potential for the Senators to add to their haul, too, by trading Cody Ceci and Mikkel Boedker at the draft. And then there are reliable depth players like Chris Tierney and J-G Pageau. None of these players will produce a high pick, but they might give Ottawa more shots at the carnival game.
While many of the teams with that number or near that number of picks were only able to produce a few NHLers, many of those years took place pre-salary cap, when there wasn’t as much emphasis on drafting and development as a key to success, and when analytics weren’t nearly as accessible to scouts and GMs. The teams that did have that many draft picks more recently produced a larger cohort of NHL players.
Some of those picks might turn out to be pretty good, too. Obviously, Ottawa’s own picks will be pretty high, so there’s potential to add another blue-chipper or two to Ottawa’s emerging core. If Columbus re-signs Duchene and Panarin and Bobrovsky walk in the off-season, they could be on the outside looking in playing in the Metropolitan. If the Sharks re-sign Karlsson, Ottawa receives their 2021 2nd rounder, and if they make the Cup Final this year that turns into a 1st. A lot would have to go right and then suddenly wrong for the Sharks, but they have one of the older lineups in the league and play in the ultra-competitive Pacific, with much younger teams. In addition to Ottawa’s 1sts, there’s a scenario where the Jackets’ and Sharks’ 1st end up being pretty high value.
I mean, let that sink in:
We’re Probably Still Boned
I know the obvious response to all of this is: “So what if we have potentially good players? If Melnyk owns this team and we don’t have a new arena, there’s no money to re-sign them.”
I don’t have a rebuttal to that.
Have a good day.
In Episode 14 of Fifth Liners: The Podcast Whose Name or Hosts are Never the Same, Luke and James do a lot of swears, talk about various trades, compare Matt Duchene to an unlucky talisman, get acquainted with a few of the newest Senators prospects, bid a
fond medium farewell to Guy Boucher, and try their hand at numerology by breaking down the Belleville Senators jersey numbers.
I learned something on Twitter the other day. Once the shock of having engaged in a meaningful interaction on that social media platform wore off, the substance of what I’d learned began to sink in: the Green Bay Packers are a publicly-owned nonprofit corporation.
This was of immediate interest to me. Anybody unfortunate enough to have followed me on this site and on Twitter (@thisthreetime: come join the pointlessness) will know that my particular bugaboo is the NHL’s reliance on whacky billionaires to own and manage their franchises. While it’s true that most of these billionaires are just fine, and that the NHL is hardly unique in this reliance, the business model does have a tendency to occasionally blow up in the league’s face. Tying a team’s fortunes to an individual’s wealth is how you get Charles Wang meddling in hockey operations, Oren Koules running the Lightning into the ground after the real estate market collapsed, and Eugene Melnyk challenging old-school whack-a-doos like Harold Ballard and Bill Wirtz to rule their Mr. Monopoly fiefdom with the most iron-y of fists.
My uneducated speculation in this area has led me to valorize the idea of the consortia of local business interests, like those that exist in Winnipeg and Nashville. In these arrangements, the risk is spread out among more investors so if, say, your pharmaceutical magnate runs into liquidity trouble as a result of a worldwide contraction in the pharmaceutical market, it doesn’t affect your nice little hockey club.
But then a nice person on Twitter told me about the Green Bay Packers. Here, from the esteemed Wikipedia.org:
The Packers are the only publicly owned franchise in the NFL. Rather than being the property of an individual, partnership, or corporate entity, they are held as of 2016 by 360,760 stockholders. No one is allowed to hold more than 200,000 shares, which represents approximately four percent of the 5,011,558 shares currently outstanding. It is this broad-based community support and non-profit structure which has kept the team in Green Bay for nearly a century in spite of being the smallest market in all of North American professional sports.
Green Bay is the only team with this public form of ownership structure in the NFL, grandfathered when the NFL’s current ownership policy stipulating a maximum of 32 owners per team, with one holding a minimum 30% stake, was established in the 1980s. As a publicly-held nonprofit, the Packers are also the only American major-league sports franchise to release its financial balance sheet every year.
What obviously interests me about this structure is that it takes the idea of making risk more diffuse among a few local interests and turns it up to eleven. The risk would be spread out between everyone and anyone who owns shares, with the consolidation of shares limited by the shareholder agreement. Locals would be incentivized to support the team by buying tickets because they, or people they know, would feel a literal degree of ownership of the team. If the team runs into liquidity problems, it could also issue more shares and spread the risk out even further.
What would this look like, in practice? Would we have hundreds of thousands of people debating the merits of trading for Gary Roberts? Not really.
Again, from Wikipedia:
Even though it is referred to as “common stock” in corporate offering documents, a share of Packers stock does not share the same rights traditionally associated with common or preferred stock. It does not include an equity interest, does not pay dividends, cannot be traded, and has no protection under securities law. It also confers no season-ticket purchasing privileges. Shareholders receive nothing more than voting rights, an invitation to the corporation’s annual meeting, and an opportunity to purchase exclusive shareholder-only merchandise.
Shares cannot be resold, except back to the team for a fraction of the original price. While new shares can be given as gifts, transfers are technically allowed only between immediate family members once ownership has been established.
In other words, being a shareholder first and foremost empowers one to contribute to the sustainability of one’s team and mitigates risk. It essentially takes the concept of season ticket holders and makes it more affordable and guarantees some voice. There’s nothing requiring Melnyk to hold season ticket town hall meetings. Shareholders are entitled to certain rights, however.
This goes to the immediate benefit of such an arrangement: it immediately makes possible a level of transparency and accountability that currently does not exist among the more dictatorial ownership groups. The fact that the team most not only release a balance sheet every year but that shareholders can attend an annual general meeting at which general governance is voted upon reduces the likelihood of, say, the general manager announcing one day that he’ll make a decision on the coach at the end of the season and then firing the coach the next day. It’s not that he’ll need to bring that sort of decision to a vote, but if he acts in that manner he must answer to the shareholders during the AGM as opposed to only answering to his whacky billionaire boss (who may or may not have ordered the firing in the first place). Shareholders would not be involved in the day-to-day of the draft, trades, or getting a hockey team on the road, but could ask for justification of strategy and, should there be enough votes, vote to approve broad changes in management.
Secondly, this structure would act to reinvest the profits into the community. While shareholders would not receive dividends (which could incentivize shareholders to reduce costs as much as possible to maximize returns), as a nonprofit the corporation must carry a limited surplus. Any excess profits could be reinvested in the teams’ infrastructure or in the community via the corporation’s foundation after, say, adhering to an agreement to spend within a certain percentage of the cap or privileging re-signing one’s drafted players.
Finally, the idea of a publicly-held entity may incentivize government to help with the construction of an arena. As opposed to the ephemeral notion of economic growth as the spillover result of arena construction (something that’s been pretty thoroughly debunked at this point), the city, province or feds may be more amenable to contributing revenue knowing that the economic benefits of team ownership will not be conferred first to a whacky billionaire who winters (and probably does his taxes in) the Bahamas but instead to constituents. I don’t know if the math works out, and it’s probably always a safer bet to invest in public transportation, schools, and housing, but at least the ephemeral promise of growth is guaranteed to confer more directly than it would if it traveled first through the bank account of a pharmaceutical magnate.
How likely would any of this be? Oh lord, not at all:
Any new purchase of an NHL team must be approved by the league’s Board of Governors, which is comprised of some of the more established owners in the league. The board not only establishes the rules of membership in the NHL ownership fraternity, but decides what, if any, help the league may offer franchisees in negotiating arena leases or other related legal matters. Balsillie’s bid to buy the Phoenix Coyotes out of bankruptcy in 2007 was essentially sunk when members of the board, such as Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, painted Balsillie as deceitful and uncooperative.
The NHL’s current ownership rules exist to make possible the long-term economic benefit of an elite group of whacky billionaires. It seems unlikely that the same group would vote to allow an innovative ownership structure that cuts them out of the equation rather than, say, simply identifying another whacky billionaire to invite to their club. The only reason Green Bay’s arrangement exists is that it was grandfathered in from a time when unions and collective ownership were considered essential components of our economy as opposed to the tools of despicable socialists.
But in Melnyk, we’re seeing the tragic trade-offs of the league’s current reliance on cartoon villains with formerly deep pockets. We may romanticize whoever comes along and saves Ottawa from this endless cycle of misery – as we once did with Melnyk – but by then the damage will have been done to the brand, to the community, and to the sustainability of hockey in Ottawa. I can’t imagine anybody at NHL head office is arguing that what’s happening at the moment is ideal.
Something I have been pondering over the last few days is the idea of identity. Is identity something you are, or something you do? Is identity wrapped up in inherent signifiers and commonalities, or is it based around an quality that can be attained or lost? If I call myself a writer, does that mean I have to sit in coffee shops, wear a jacket, and go on retreats to the mountains with a typewriter, or is it enough to simply write something, anything? Is it more important to be in a state of being or a state of doing?
I ask myself these questions, because if identity is a state of doing, derived from action, I’m not sure the Ottawa Senators are a hockey team any more.
The external signifiers are still there, little things they share with other professional hockey teams. There is a coach, and there are players, and they play games sanctioned by a league, and they have scouts prospects, and they play in a rink. Sometimes fans are there.
But insofar as being a hockey team requires active participation, insofar as being a professional hockey team means attracting or retaining top talent in an effort to win games both now and in the future, that is not something the Ottawa Senators can do at this point. We are all aware of this change. Comrade Varada pointed it out earlier this week: this is different.
Sens brass has been selling the last hellish 7 months as a rebuild, and there are certainly some rebuild-like elements of the past few days. When Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel were traded for draft picks, we (or at least I) accepted these events with relative equanimity. Duchene’s days in a Senators uniform were always numbered after the team drove itself off a cliff last December. Ryan Dzingel, while a fine goal scorer and a surprise talent from the 7th round of the draft, is the sort of player who you want to be your 6th best forward and was somewhat useless on the current iteration of the Senators as he put up 20 goal seasons that were mostly empty calories. (Dzingel is also notable for being a rare case of the Senators selling high on an asset.) The returns on both players were good picks and prospects. These types of trades have been done a hundred times before, and will be done a hundred times again until some Harvard Business School graduate invents a way to deviate from the traditional boom and bust cycle every sports team eventually goes through in a hard salary cap league. Mark Stone should have been treated differently because Mark Stone is a different type of player.
Back in December, I outlined my belief that Mark Stone was a player whose abilities to tilt the ice were unprecedented in team history. My feelings on this have only become stronger with time. Mark Stone is in a class of truly elite players with Patrice Bergeron and Sidney Crosby in terms of his two-way ability. In terms of wingers, he probably stands alone in this regard. There is no stat available that does not bear this out. This season alone, Stone has put up 62 points in 59 games on the back of 19.4% shooting, which is only slightly up from his career average of 16.2%. He has scored 17 of his points on the powerplay, and is a remarkable +13 on a Senators team that has a goal differential of -41. He draws a remarkable number of penalties, while rarely taking them, and trails only Connor McDavid in number of takeaways over the past 3 seasons. There is no phase of the game in which Mark Stone does not excel. Additionally, at the age of 26, he is in the prime of his career and is likely to maintain this elite level for at least the next four seasons, if not longer. Furthermore, Stone assumed the mantle of leadership from Erik Karlsson with aplomb, even going so far as to have rookie Brady Tkachuk move in with him this season leading Brady’s father Keith to describe him as “instrumental to Brady’s development“. Stone has never found himself on the outs with the coaching staff for any reason. He has, by all accounts, an unimpeachable drive and work ethic, and if culture was hypothetically a thing that was suddenly very important to you for some reason, Mark Stone would be an invaluable contributor to a positive one.
In summary (and I’m going to put this next part in all-caps just to get the point across):
Even if you’re doing a rebuild, you don’t trade Mark Stone because the chances you ever find another player as good as Mark Stone are incredibly remote1. I think deep down inside, Pierre Dorion and the rest of the Sens brass know this. It’s why they desperately tried to convince Stone to stay. However, the (alleged) precarious state of Eugene Melnyk’s finances reared its hideous head once more and the owner’s refusal or inability to burnish Stone’s next contract with the signing bonuses that have become de rigueur among superstar contracts proved insurmountable.
Maybe I’m being overdramatic, and there are other teams that would also refuse to cut a Top 15 player in the league a multi-million dollar cheque each July 1st for the next 8 years. I doubt it. Certainly the Vegas Golden Knights are having no problem with it. Indeed, they seemed rather eager to merely be given the opportunity to do so. Distributing a large portion of a player’s salary at the beginning of July is now the cost of doing business in the NHL; it’s something NHL teams do, and if you can’t or won’t do it, can you really call yourself an NHL team? I think at that point you’re just a conglomeration of personnel attached to a brand which is slowly accruing value on some vaguely defined notion of a market, rather than a team, which would be an organization that’s making a good faith effort to win a championship in a well-defined timeline. This is reality for the Senators now. Until the organization signs multiple homegrown superstars to market contracts, it will always be an open question as to whether they are capable of doing so, and therefore an open question as to whether they are worthy of being thought of as anything other than some assets on a balance sheet.
Now we enter a liminal state of fandom. There will be little worth watching at the NHL level for the foreseeable future. The Belleville Senators, to their credit, have come on strong in the second half of the season and are now fighting for a playoff spot. Their ranks will be bolstered by some of the trade acquisitions from the past few days. Maybe they will put a little playoff run together. Hell, maybe I’ll go crazy and start getting attached to Drake Batherson and Vitaly Abramov. Maybe I’ll put my hope in the unknown future. I have no idea. But if I do, there will always be that niggling question in the back of my mind: What if they eventually want a signing bonus?
1. For what it’s worth, neutral third parties have reached out to me to say they think the return on the Stone trade was perfectly acceptable, given the circumstances, and that the centrepiece, Erik Brannstrom, looks like a potential superstar. I may come to love Brannstrom with time, in much the same way one may eventually develop feelings for someone they met through Ashley Madison, but for now I maintain that I would rather have actual superstar Mark Stone due to the famous Bird-Hand-Bush Theorem proved by Euler in the 1700s. ↩
I’ve noticed a tendency to think of this round of Ottawa Senators trades as the latest chapter in a coherent, linear narrative: Ottawa trades or allows to walk some of their best players because the owner doesn’t have the money to pay them. I have to disagree, somewhat, that this is only the latest in a constant theme. I offer, instead, that what’s happening right now is much worse. What’s happening right now is the final emptying out of the idea of the Ottawa Senators as a shared experience, a local narrative, and a hub around which Ottawans build community.
During the 2010-2011 season, which resulted in the Ottawa Senators finishing fourth last in the league, the feeling was that the time was right for a rebuild. The team had older veterans who might garner picks and prospects – Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, Chris Phillips, Alex Kovalev, Chris Neil, Milan Michalek, Sergei Gonchar, Chris Kelly, and Zack Smith. In the end, only Fisher, Kovalev and Kelly would be traded for futures. Goaltender Brian Elliott would be traded for an older goaltender, Craig Anderson, who was extended. The team elected to keep several key veterans in the fold, either because no deals came along to their liking or out of fear of losing long-time Ottawa players.
In other words, the team was loyal to a fault and maintained a higher payroll thinking they might soon return to contention.
When Daniel Alfredsson walked to the Detroit Red Wings before the 2013-2014 season, it was viewed as an inability or unwillingness to pay a franchise player who’d taken team-friendly deals (and been screwed by salary rollbacks during CBA negotiations, to boot). But on the same day, GM Bryan Murray traded for Bobby Ryan, a younger, scoring winger (theoretically; this was before his hands turned to dust) who would soon require a big-money contract. The fans felt anxiety, at the time, that Ottawa would not pay up. Instead, the team signed Ryan to a massive seven-year, $50.75 million deal.
When Jason Spezza was dealt in 2014 it came in response to a request for a trade and with the veteran on an expiring deal. He was extended by Dallas, an extension that has not looked great for the Stars who now pay him north of $7 million to play select minutes.
Ottawa made decisions that would not turn out particularly well in some cases and would alienate long-time fans with affection for their homegrown talent, but at least these decision existed in the world of logic: if your team is not contending with your current roster, you sell off your older players for futures in the hope that a future iteration will contend. Ottawa might have turned off a few because of bad decisions, but they maintained the narrative on which hockey relies: the team, and as an extension, its community, are always building toward the future.
What is happening to the Ottawa Senators right now is different, for the simple reason that teams that are lucky enough to draft good players, and lucky enough to develop them into good players, and lucky enough to still have them on their roster in their prime do not typically trade those players unless it’s for other players with the same or higher potential. For Ottawa to trade Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, and Ryan Dzingel – all players who are still young and could contribute to a rebuild – is a perversion of the natural cycle of team development. It is mortgaging the future on which sports mythology rests.
You amass futures and develop them so that you can compete when your window opens. You don’t amass futures and develop them so that you can sell them off for more futures prematurely. If you do the latter, it alienates your fans even worse than losing a player we feel nostalgic about because it dilutes the very premise of the sport, the underlying narrative that informs our long-term loyalty to the game. If the team is not building to anything in particular, then why should we spend any time on it? If the heroes of a particular narrative are not in pursuit of some commonly-understood objective, then why should we see that narrative through to the end?
The current state of the Ottawa Senators is not unpredictable; we’ve seen this throughout the world of sports. This is a natural byproduct of any business model that relies on sole ownership by people whose wealth is concentrated in markets that can, occasionally, bottom out. If and when Melnyk sells the Ottawa Senators, if it’s to another sole owner or small group and if their wealth is derived from a single source – real estate, pharmaceuticals, a traveling circus, whatever – we are at risk of returning to this endless cycle of building to nowhere.
The fault for this lies in part with the NHL. As I’ve written before on this site and on Twitter, until the league starts focusing on building up consortia of local business interests that make risk more diffuse among partners, we’ll always be at risk of a billionaire owner becoming less than a billionaire or, at the very least, going senile and interfering with management decisions.
I, more than some, have been able to ‘gotta-hear-both-sides’ many of the decisions made by the Ottawa Senators management over the years. While I might disagree with a particular trade or signing, I have, in most cases, been able to understand the assumptions that were made that led to it. This time, it’s different: the financial status of the owner has interfered with the natural cycle of sports narrative to disrupt our shared sense of purpose.
As a result, this is the lowest moment in the history of the Ottawa Senators, including those early expansion years. This is the moment those leading the team acknowledged that the Ottawa Senators as an idea, as a hero in their own story, as a community, are meaningless.