I don’t mean just this season, though this season’s been plenty weird. This season was weird before it even started, right around the time people starting picking Ottawa as a Stanley Cup contender. Since that time it’s been an acid trip for Sens fans, from Spezza on the third line with Chris Neil to now Cody Ceci is a 20-minute-a-night guy to Ottawa’s weirdly putrid home record to the fact that every game Ottawa plays is at 2pm. It’s a polar vortex of emotions.
But if you think we’re in uncharted waters right now, get ready. We’re about to enter the lost world.
There’s a tendency to treat changes in management as state-of-the-union, “what does it all mean?” moments. We might look back at the loss of Assistant GM Peter Chiarelli to Boston as one such moment. Shortly after Chiarelli’s departure, Zdeno Chara signed in Boston, and shortly after that Boston won some trophy.
If the rumours are true, and heir apparent Tim Murray is also fleeing Ottawa for the balmy beaches of division rival Buffalo and Terry Pegula’s unlimited budget, then we’re about to head into another period of soul searching.
After all, we were talking about Bryan Murray being too old to stay on, or him not being the real brain behind the solid scouting and overperforming Sens, the LAST time he was extended. Now, at 71, Murray will likely be extended again—if only because what else do you do when your entire secession plan is pulled out from under your feet?
This should probably be a pretty big deal. Not because we can’t handle another year of Murray doing his competent, respected GM thing. But because when Murray finally does go in a year or two, there’s a greater risk of losing the structure and personnel that have made Ottawa a first class organization. If Tim had stuck around we’d know that from Pierre Doiron and his team on down, the strategy, outlook, and expectations would probably remain the same. But if a whole new GM comes in he’ll want to bring in his guys—his assistant GM, his scouts, maybe even his coaches. A team with its share of ups and downs over the last half-decade could enter another period of instability.
And once again it has to do with money. Eugene Melnyk’s shaky finances may have led to the loss of the most beloved player in franchise history, and now is leading to the loss of the candidate they’d been grooming for years to take over the role. Ottawa has expiring contracts for three top six forwards, one top two defensemen, and a starting goaltender all happening at the same time. Maybe they love it here and will re-sign regardless the situation, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a franchise in flux that’s been able to attract and keep core pieces. Whether rightly or wrongly, stability is seen as key to contention.
THEN there’s the arena. Hoooooboy, the arena. With all the hand-wringing about money, and Melnyk’s propensity for playing with the sentiment of fans to pressure city council, I am not looking forward to a prolonged—years-long, potentially—debate with my city councillor, my mayor, my family, my boss, my girlfriend, my colleagues, James’ dog, etc. about the role of the sports franchise as a public institution and its right (or lack thereof) to public funding. Personally, I tend to fall on the side of “a few tax breaks” rather than “tens or hundreds of millions in public dollars,” but I think the latter is where we’re headed. That’s the precedent, and Melnyk will say “me too” when the time is right. Fair-weather fan Ottawa will slap on the chastity belt, and the debate will go on for-fucking-ever.
All this to say that I would love it if sports franchises did as organizations tend to and make public a five year plan: when do we plan to contend; what major investment milestones are coming up; who’s driving the boat? What is this team’s identity? Am I being naive to think that the Ottawa Senators, being a low-payroll, small market team with a caustic owner, would benefit from providing a little clarity in uncertain times?
Because here’s a scary thought: the only constant over the next few years might be Eugene Melnyk.