Having two related Murrays in GM roles is a convenient way to contrast approaches to building an NHL team. While we’ll never know the degree to which Tim Murray was involved in the decision making in Ottawa, what we do know is that in 2010-2011, when Ottawa finished 5th last in the league, they declined to sell off a number of their veterans—Chris Phillips, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and the newly acquired Craig Anderson—and go full rebuild. Instead, they traded Mike Fisher for a late 1st round pick, Chris Kelly for a second, and salary dumped Jarkko Ruutu and Alexei Kovalev for late picks. By the end of the 2011 draft, their rebuild was entirely comprised of the sixth overall pick, and two late first rounders.
In a lot of ways, this was totally defensible. Ottawa had almost as many points separating them from dead last as they did from a playoff spot. They weren’t a catastrophe; they were just one of many mediocre teams in this league. Ottawa settled for their meager picks, the emergence of Erik Karlsson as a stud defenceman, and the notion that once you make the playoffs, anything can happen. Ottawa looked at their future and decided to be a bubble team sooner than a contender later. Buffalo, in the same situation, could have re-signed Miller, kept those veterans who wanted to stay, drafted 1st overall this season and hoped for the best. Tim Murray took the other option. He set the house on fire.
And Ottawa’s choice may just reflect the reality of a mid-sized market team without a Pegula to stand on. (Sorry.) Eugene Melnyk surely had no appetite for four or five years of basement finishes and terrible financial returns in the name of a complete rebuild. Bryan Murray, in the twilight of his career, would surely rather go for it than be the Overseer of Rebuild: Phase One. All of this is fine. You do the best with the cards you’re dealt.
But here we are, just three years later, and the returns of the mini-rebuild are pretty much exhausted. Zibanejad is a good player with lots of room to grow, though not someone you build around. Noesen and Silfverberg are gone in the Bobby Ryan trade. Matt Puempel is in the minors, shaping up nicely as a complementary scorer. Ottawa now looks to several mid- to lower-tier prospects, like Mike Hoffman, while preaching the importance of the pipeline. Cody Ceci and Curtis Lazar are promising, but nobody is winning championships on their backs. Ottawa’s status as a middle-of-the-pack team is secure.
Contrast this with Buffalo, where everything not tied down is out the door for draft picks. Tim Murray not only has quality picks, but also quantity. I think he gets to make a sour face at the podium 12 times in the first two rounds over the next two drafts. This is in addition to Buffalo already selecting twice in the first round last season, and already having excellent young players like Grigorenko to build around. You could see a scary Buffalo team in a few years…
…or maybe you won’t. Ask Oilers or Islanders fans how that goes. Rebuilds are not a sure thing, and a few years is a long time to wait to find out. As a fan of hockey, I wouldn’t be particularly interested in soul-crushing awfulness for that long. And make no mistake that it’s going to be a painful few years in Buffalo.
But the point is that, even though a rebuild is not a sure thing, it’s a shot: an opportunity that comes along maybe once every decade. Rare is the opportunity where ownership, the fans, and management are aligned in their willingness to be terrible in the service of eventual greatness. When Ottawa had their chance, they didn’t take it. Even this year, given the opportunity to trade Chris Phillips – an old, soft, poor-possession third pairing defenseman – Bryan Murray decided to re-up for two more years. It’s just sort of sinking in for me…Ottawa is comfortable with being mediocre.
So we are what we are: a bubble team at best, who hopes for lightning in a bottle come playoff time, and who are at least another 3-4 years from the next opportunity to rebuild. We may bother a higher seed and occasionally go to the second round. We’ll bring in decent prospects like Lazar to replace the players we lose to free agency or ineffectiveness, but we won’t have these players at the same time, and we won’t have blue-chippers. I think the best we can hope for is to compete for a cup in…what, 2022, five years after the rebuild we launch in three years, if we decide to go for it then?
This isn’t a criticism of management, understand. Ottawa doesn’t have the money or the patience for a rebuild. And I saw a good comment on Twitter about how Ottawa still has a lot of flexibility and interesting opportunities in the offseason this year. (And, Jah-bless, we still have Karlsson.) But it’s about managing expectations. I, for one, feel much more comfortable heading into every season hoping for a low playoff seed at best and just enjoying hockey for what it is. What other choice do we have?