A Brief History of Time: Totally Narrow-Minded Edition

John Muckler was fired as GM of the Ottawa Senators in mid-June 2007, despite his team making the Stanley Cup finals just weeks earlier. Bryan Murray, the coach that helped get them there and the former GM of the team that beat them, was seen as the true mastermind, succeeding despite Muckler rather than because of him. In what seems, four years later, like a change in the very culture of this hockey club, Murray was promoted to replace Muckler. In the intervening years, Ottawa never won another playoff series, missed the playoffs twice, and were swept once. They’ve had four coaches, including Murray’s second stint. In the kind of irony that can only happen in Ottawa, Murray, age 69, was renewed for three years. For all the clichés about how this is a results-based business, Stanley Cup Finals equalled “you’re out on your ass” and fifth last in the league an extension.

The governing thought seems to be that Murray is too respected, brings too many intangibles to the prestige of the club to let him go. His drafting record, or at least his choices in a scouting department, are lauded. The failures of this club to contend are Muckler’s, and Muckler’s successes were…someone else’s. Being just another hockey fan on the outside, I can do little else but concede that this might be the case. All I have is a record of transactions and public statements on which to base my skepticism. One thing can’t really be debated, which is that the culture of the Murrays is now inextricably tied to this franchise, and rather than make a huge cultural change, Melnyk decided to keep the same vision and plan in place for the foreseeable future. If Kanata sort of resembles a desert, Bryan Murray now sort of resembles Hosni Mubarek.

But in an attempt to restore some semblance of the results-based analysis, let’s look at Murray’s spotty transaction record up close. It ain’t pretty.

In Out Grade Pourquoi, cacaouette?
Shean Donovan Peter Schaefer B- Peter Schaefer was once considered a high-end prospect – remember when Ottawa traded Sami Salo for him? – and he had a lot of good years playing on a line with Martin Havlat. His work along the boards helped Ottawa develop a diverse game, following up a skilled line with dump-and-chase cycling. In the end, Schaefer was a salary dump for a fourth liner with a lot of character, and then he bombed out in Boston. Donovan was a fan favorite who was never given much of a chance under Clouston, and will one day be the mayor of a small Ontario town.
Mike Commodore and Cory Stillman Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves B Corvo was ineffective and mistake-prone, if occasionally useful on the power play, and Eaves, otherwise known as Brandon Bochenski, never turned into the top six forward the team seemed to insist that he should be, and in exchange Murray received a player who was seen as top four defenseman (and who cashed in with Columbus just a year later) and a two-time Cup Winner and verifiable top six forward. That was the weird voodoo year of spiraling death that resulted in a sweep in the first round (btw, wtf happened that year anyway? Will we ever know?), but this still looks like a great trade on paper.
Martin Lapointe sixth-round draft pick in 2008 (#169, Ben Smith) C- Didn’t do a damn thing, but hey, this is the equivalent of the Ruutu-for-a-sixth that happened three years later when the team finally imploded, so you know Murray paid market.
Boston Bruins‘ fifth-round draft pick in 2009 (#146, Jeff Costello) Brian McGrattan C- Turned a premier pugilist into a gritty player whose absolute ceiling is as a fourth liner. This is typical Canadian GM drafting – go for the gritty kid who might be an NHLer one day, even if you have to give up a gritty kid who is an NHLer now; would have liked to see him take a flyer on a risky, skilled player with the extra pick, given Costello will likely never crack the lineup. All I can say about McGrattan is that in a league where fighters are a dime a dozen, he keeps finding work because he’s one of the scariest men on the planet.
Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and San Jose‘s first-round draft pick (previously acquired) in 2009 Andrej Meszaros D+ The guys who made Saw traded for Meszaros shortly after dealing Dan Boyle (seriously), and his time in Tampa was awful, though so too was the team. Now in Philadelphia they’re overpaying him to be a second-pairing defenseman. But what at the time looked like a coup for Ottawa was turned into nothing much – an overprice veteran who can’t be moved and gets booed even as he’s literally giving the jersey off his back to a fan on appreciation night; a long-gone prospect who can’t find a home anywhere else, and a pick. Meszaros is young, and has some good years ahead of him. Well shit.
Ryan Shannon Lawrence Nycholat A Shannon might just be a top six forward, or at least he is on this terrible team. He’s also a hard worker and a character player. Nycholat is learning how to use Microsoft Excel. Solid!
Drew Fata Alexander Nikulin C Drew Fata is an AHL enforcer. Nikulin is one of Ottawa’s many disenfranchised former Russian prospects. He plays in the KHL now, where he sucks ass.
Mike Comrie and Chris Campoli Dean McAmmond and San Jose‘s first-round draft pick in 2009 (#26, Kyle Palmieri) C This trade somehow gets a lot of ink, because A) Ottawa gave up a 1st round pick for Chris fucking Campoli, and B) it was weird to trade for Mike Comrie and then let him walk for a second time. I always liked Comrie, so I was glad they took a second look, but he sucked, so it amounted to the Islanders saving about $300k and Ottawa giving up a late 1st rounder for a player that Murray knew could be an NHL player right away, a really cheap stop-gap while all of Ottawa’s defensive prospects were given time to develop. Unfortunately, Palmieri is a top prospect for Anaheim, disproving the theory that late 1st round picks don’t turn into anything. Chris Campoli was pretty ok when he was here.
Pascal Leclaire and a second-round draft pick in 2009 (#46, Robin Lehner). Antoine Vermette D- / B- The split grade is because the short term gains were atrocious, and the long term gains – Lehner – may turn out alright. When I think of all of the trade deadlines in Ottawa under Muckler, when Vermette was always the trade bait for that week’s hot commodity, and to think when the trigger was finally pulled it bought this team about 50 games of that paper skeleton flopping around in net, it just makes me shake my head. James says it best: he was injured when we traded for him. Jesus Christ. Anyway, Vermette gets to play with Rick Nash now, but on the 2nd most cursed team in the league behind Florida, so you win some you lose some.
Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and San Jose‘s second-round draft pick in 2010 Dany Heatley and a fifth-round draft pick D The trade that will define Murray’s legacy in Ottawa. There are those who will continue to say that he couldn’t have gotten better elsewhere for a disgruntled player making $10M a year, and that’s probably the case, and sitting the player, Yashin-style, would have really been a mess. But much of the blame for the poor return I place on Murray’s apparent lack of appreciation for the importance of good PR and the ability to control the message.I’ve seen far too many press conferences where Murray walks up to the podium and shoots from the hip and gives away the farm; far too many of Melnyk’s diarrhea-mouth interviews that make about 14% sense; seen the clumsy handling of coach firings, and fumbled opportunities like the press conference for Alfie’s extension taking place on the road with a Sens uniform hanging from a bent hanger in the background. It might be part of Murray’s charm: he doesn’t stand on ceremony. More likely, I think, is that he’s so old school he just doesn’t know how to operate in this hyper-connected information technoscape (**SHHRRRROOOOWWWWWN** goes my laser sword). If only we could hire a GM who appreciated the power of media. Maybe someone who has worked in it for years and years…someone who resembles a turtle….All of this to say, is there any doubt at all that Heatley’s trade request was leaked by the Senators camp? What might have been quietly shopping around one of the team’s best scorers turned into a summer of horrible gossip and hyperbole (egged on by the Sun’s trio of hysterical, irresponsible, unprofessional sports ‘writers’). And in the end this team got a young, promising player with a lower ceiling than Heatley, a reclamation project, and a pick. Cheechoo was bought out, Michalek spends most of his time hurt, and the pick is long gone. That San Jose didn’t have to give up Marleau, didn’t have to give up a 1st rounder, AND got us to take $3M Cheechoo off their hands…holy fuck, let’s move on.
Matt Cullen Alexandre Picard and a second-round draft pick in 2011 C Picard didn’t last long in Carolina and Cullen was awesome. Pretty decent deal. No idea why we didn’t sign that dude. Oh yeah, we signed Sergei Fucking Gonchar instead. That’s why this isn’t a B.
Andy Sutton second-round draft pick in 2010 C Solid trade, textbook deadline move. Sutton hasn’t had a good year in Anaheim, but I was sorry to see him go. Once again, letting him walk keeps this from being a B.
David Rundblad first-round draft pick in 2010(#16, Vladimir Tarasenko) B The grade might seem low considering how into Rundblad we all are (and winning defenseman of the year in Sweden is no small thing), but let’s not overlook how good Tarasenko is supposed to be. If I’m being a pessimist, this is Murray drafting yet another defenseman when he could get a skilled forward – an area where Ottawa has zero depth. I’m stoked for Rundblad, and gaining a year of development is a savvy move, but I give credit for this to Murray’s scouts. St. Louis isn’t stupid: they knew what they were getting when they drafted Vlad the Impaler of Canadian Junior Hockey Teams.

 

B.I.G. Krit: Da Rebuild

 

f Ryan Potulny
2011 2nd-round pick
Chris Campoli
Conditional 2012 7th-round pick
C- A player Murray got for a 1st rounder then yielded a 2nd, and Potulny can’t crack the NHL lineup on the club’s weakest team in years. Buy high sell low, that’s the way it goes, right? Oh, and we gave up a pick to make this happen.
Conditional 2011 draft pick F Alex Kovalev D + I suppose getting anything is laudable…this should be thought of as Ottawa just getting Pittsburg to take a couple million in remaining salary off their hands. Still, we paid Kovalev almost $10M to come to Ottawa, shit all over everything, write a poem about how no one appreciates all of this beautiful shit he created, and then we got a bag of yet more shit in exchange for him. Write it down: he’ll re-sign in Montreal for league minimum next year and score five goals on Ottawa when he comes to town.
Craig Anderson Brian Elliott A- I can’t believe this trade even happened. Sure, Anderson could have signed elsewhere, and we would have lost an RFA goaltender for nothing, but Elliott literally looked like he hated being a goalie. I like the kid; he deserved better than to be relied on to be a starter and then run out of town. But boy, what on earth does Colorado see in him at this point? Do they even qualify him? Could they not have gotten at least the shitty pick we got for Kovalev in exchange for a great, character guy who seems pretty talented at times?
2011 6th-round pick Jarkko Ruutu C+ Pretty standard, I guess. See Lapointe, Martin. It this turns into Colin Greening or Eric Condra, I’m fine with it.
2011 2nd-round pick Chris Kelly C Seems sort of low to me, to be honest with you. Kelly is the kind of versatile utility player who I thought more teams would have been in on. I’m surprised Ottawa couldn’t get a prospect closer to development for him. If it was going to be a draft pick, a 2nd rounder is pretty good.
2011 1st-round pick
Conditional 2012 draft pick
Mike Fisher B This deal, more than almost any other on this list, is indicative of the new NHL. This kind of player would have gotten so much more in a pre-cap league, but in 2011, we’re just smacking our chops thinking about the cap space and the fact that a team as broke-ass as Nashville actually committed to pay Mike Fisher $4M next year without us having to take Jonathan Cheechoo back. It’s looking like Ottawa will get that 3rd rounder if Nashville can finish off Anaheim, and a 2nd if they can win the 2nd round (they won’t). But what’s surprising is how into this trade everyone is. Nice-guy Mike for a lottery ticket? Guess we really are ready for change.

 So there you have it. Pretty middling, if you ask me. Combine this with his coaching hires, his UFA signings, and his inability to throw Cyril Leeder down some stairs for the SNES jersey, and I’m pretty ambivalent. He re-signed Chris Phillips after a brutal year, re-signed Craig Anderson to what will seem like a looooooooong deal if it doesn’t work out, and he picked up some decent looking NCAA guys, so maybe that’s a wash? Hard to imagine, with all the thirst for change in Ottawa, that three more years of this seems at all reasonable. Only time will tell if (*suddenly stops writing because this post took forever *)

10 thoughts on “A Brief History of Time: Totally Narrow-Minded Edition

  1. I think that this has a certain ‘the grass is greener’ feel to it. How many trades pan out for any GM, really? If Muckler had stuck around, would the team really have done any better, or would he have done any better? We don’t know.

    As for your point that “[t]he failures of this club to contend are Muckler’s, and Muckler’s successes were…someone else’s.”, as a way of summarising the prevailing opinion that Murray has done better than Muckler as GM (despite what appears to be plenty of evidence to the contrary), it is worth noting that no GM comes in with a clean slate; he always has to deal with what his predecessors have handed him. Muckler was not wholly responsible for the success the team had under his watch – but to be fair, he is not wholly responsible for the mess it is in now.

  2. This organization missed the boat.

    After the 2007 run, they could have simply had the Murrays go full-bore in scouting and development and traded some of the deteriorating assets in 2008 or so. Smallish trades for picks might have helped out Bingo in the short-term.

    The most alarming thing to me as a fan was Roy Mlakar getting gassed. I guess no one remembers him now, but he was so much better at PR and selling the team than Melnyk or Murray or even Leeder. Roy could grab a piece of shit out of toilet bowl and convince you it was the best thing you’d ever seen in your life AND get a season ticket package out of you. He was also eminently personable and he and Tammy were super active in the Ottawa community too, a HUGE loss. They should have kept “Ram” as the PR guy/public face of the franchise. The man put out so many fires in his day it was unreal.

    As to the coaching, it’s pretty obvious Murray wants a rock-solid powerbase and does not wish to have a coach or anyone challenge him or start a coup. I really don’t know how how long Murray can keep hiring inexperienced coaches (yes, yes, Padddock had coached the Jets 20 years ago, Hartsburgh had some experience) and firing them half-way through the season. At some point you need to question Murray’s decision-making coming into conflict with his own survival instinct.

    Draft-wise, we have some nice pieces but…their value will only be known at the NHL level. It’s great Rundblad got the Salming trophy but can he deal with 82 games of getting pounded into boards, hooked, speared and occasionally concussed? Time will tell.

    I’m not happy with Murray being kept around. There just hasn’t been any accountability at the management level and while I’m not about to start an open bar with Muckler, at least under him we didn’t have non-stop drama. I am also finding it excessively difficult to support this team financially, All-Star Game or no, when there is such chaos and lack of direction and confidence from the top.

    Your mileage may vary.

  3. Consider that the Oilers received a first round pick, conditional second or third round pick AND a prospect (Colton Teubert) for Dustin Penner, it looks like Murray didn’t get enough for Fisher.

    • I hadn’t really considered this. Good point.

      Somewhere in here is a much deeper post that actually transaction-by-transaction compares Murray and Muckler along with comparables from the day. Someone should do a thesis on that.

    • Penner has scored more power play goals than Fisher in nearly 300 fewer games, and has better points-per-game than Fisher. He scores more goals on average than Fisher does: in 8 seasons in which he has played at least 60 games, Fisher has scored 20 or more goals 4 times; Penner has done the same (including scoring at least 30 goals once) in 5 seasons in which he has played at least 60 games. It may be said that Fisher offers more in terms of other aspects of the game than Penner does, but from this, I don’t think that Murray could have got for Fisher what the Oilers got for Penner. Penner is more valuable as a tradeable asset than Fisher is.

      • Agreed that Penner is worth more than Fisher, at least at this point in both of their careers. (Though only a season or two ago that Penner offer sheet was being seen as a huge waste.) But judging by the number of “King’s Ransome!” headlines that happened after the Penner trade, the consensus seems to be that Lombardi paid a bit much for him. I don’t think Murray could have gotten the same, but perhaps something between what he got and Edmonton got? Maybe remove the condition on the second pick? In any case, I”m pretty happy with the return. Murray’s mandate seemed to be to not take back any salary, and he did it.

      • Interesting quote from a Melnyk transcript: “The Fisher trade, I don’t know if Bryan spoke about that to you as an example…we gave up a lot to put Mike into Nashville. We could have gotten a lot more for him shipping him off to at least three other cities that were really after him, but you know what? This is a quality individual who is a leader, who I thought of him as a friend and I said, ‘you know what? Bryan, make the call to Nashville. That’s where (wife Carrie Underwood) lives and see what you can do for this guy.”

        Which is sort of admirable, and also sort of stupid.

  4. I’m loathe to draw a correlation between Leclaire’s injury at the time we traded for him and the injuries he sustained in Ottawa. That’s like saying getting shot in the ankle means you’re more likely to get shot in the face (MIKE FISHER ALERT) or hip. I mean, maybe the guy’s injury-prone, but since none of his injuries were of the reoccurring kind, I don’t see how that claim can be made. Whose face doesn’t break when hit by a 105mph slapshot?

    Also, your Kuba grade ignores the fact that he put up 40 points for the team in his first full season, and was on pace for 43 last year before his injury. It’s cool to hate Kuba (don’t get me wrong, I hate him too) because of the season he had, but I don’t see how you can ignore the fact that he was a replacement for Meszaros who was both better and cheaper if you’re going to grade the trade. That trade grade also seems to ignore that Picard was part of the package that brought Cullen here. Trades that link to other trades should be considered in the grades, yes?

    • There’s definitely a lack of holistic thinking in my ratings…The Kuba trade might have looked okay in its first year, when he put up good numbers and Picard was considered a high(er) end prospect, but then Kuba was re-signed for too much and Picard turned out to be nothing, and Cullen was let go. So that would be the grade I give Murray now, with the obvious caveat that these things change all the time. Let’s say Kuba gets shipped out for a prospect who turns into something special for the Sens. In that case, if I do this again next year, I might give Murray a much higher grade. But looking at him now, at the point of his extension, I’m just not sold.

      As for Leclaire, he had a pretty crazy injury history before Murray traded for him, and though you’re right, and that doesn’t prove anything, in hindsight it looks pretty damning. And we’re all about hindsight here 🙂 It’s the root of our shaky sense of superiority.

    • The thing is Mark, that Murray made a LOT of trades just to clean out “the other guy’s guys” and bring in his own, or to clean house for whatever reason. Whether this is a product of ego or the system, it did happen. It’s said Meszaros was part of the “clique” and so on and that he likely wanted a raise. Kuba just isn’t going to play longer than Meszaros and is older and frankly mediocre. Kuba DID get 40 points, but that was the highest among defensemen on the team. That points more to a lack of PMD (odd sicne we had 40 point Preissing, 30ish point Corvo, 30ish point Meszaors et al.) which is again an indictment of Murray, as he traded PMDs for plugs and old guys and grinders. Now, he’s drafting and trading for PMDs.

      It’s like some weird Bizarro World.

      “Mark, do we have a stapler?”
      ‘No, I threw them all away years ago.’

      *moments later*
      “Hmmm, we need a bunch of staplers…I’ll go buy some!”

      I sure hope that this team Murray is building pans out with some playoff success. At some point you need results and I can’t imagine that even Melnyk’s unfettered love with Murray will get in the way of making a change at the top if the team continues to linger at the bottom half of the standings.
      Saying that, of course, Murray will replace with Murray (Tim), so maybe in 2040 we’ll actually see a different direction and culture.

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