The League Owns the Melnyk Mess

What an embarrassment.

An entire fanbase, sitting on the edge of their seats, refreshing Twitter, waiting to see if the owner of their favorite team will destroy it. An entire trade deadline day, covered to the hilt by every network and dominated by speculation about when – not if – Ottawa will self-immolate.

Obviously, there’s a lot of blame to go around, and a huge share of that blame is Eugene Melnyk’s. He’s been so ham-fisted in the way he’s handled the past, well, several years, that they should use him as a case-study in crisis-management courses. But even if he’d revealed himself to be an insightful hockey thinker during one of his many interviews on Toronto sports radio, it should have signaled to the league that he was a meddlesome owner.

The owner is supposed to be invisible and sign the checks. When cornered at charity events, he should recite the line: “I let my hockey people make the hockey decisions.” Behind closed doors, sure, he’s the owner and if he wants to call the GM from Barbados and offer his thoughts on goaltending, that’s his right. But airing dirty laundry on sports radio should have been a red flag to the league.

The reason it hasn’t been over the years is that Melnyk used to be rich. Now he’s not, so now it’s a problem, but that wasn’t exactly out of the realm of the imagination. In Melnyk, we find proof positive that the NHL has been and perhaps continues to be far too comfortable with the risks associated with sole proprietorship of one of its franchises.

Melnyk bailed out this franchise over a decade ago and was welcomed as a conquering hero. Little did we know then that the pharmaceutical industry was about to experience a decade of contraction and that Melnyk’s personal fortune would shrink considerably. Hindsight is 20/20. But what can the league learn from this, only the latest in a long history of embarrassing owners? If tomorrow a different, whacky billionaire showed up whose fortune had been earned in, say, telecommunications or real estate, will the league make the same mistake in rubber-stamping the transfer of ownership just so long as he or she shows a bank statement with a lot of zeros?

Throughout the league, we see fanbases handcuffed to the investment portfolios of billionaire personalities: Jeff Vinik, Jeremy Jacobs, Ted Leonsis. The going is good in many of those markets, and not all billionaires are made equal. (Melnyk looks like a tin-pot dictator next to Vinik.) But we’re one worldwide liquidity crisis away from the league selling one of its franchises to the two guys who made Saw.

What’s the alternative? I couldn’t help but alight upon this Tweet yesterday:

What Winnipeg and Nashville have in common is not only patience – not that either franchise has had the funds to be especially hurried – nor is “good ownership” defined. What they also have in common is a diverse ownership group. It’s true that someone chairs that group and there’s usually a majority owner, but when a significant proportion of the funds for a franchise are put up by others, there tend to be mitigating governance structures that prevent a whacky billionaire returning from a rough weekend in Atlantic City from cutting payroll.

The league can and should be doing much more to build ties between potential owners at the local level. It can start by establishing principles for NHL owners that include public relations. What kind of sanction has Melnyk faced for threatening relocation during the league’s 100th-anniversary celebration? A stern phone-call from Gary Bettman? Having to film a canned statement on the league’s dime? To what can the Board of Governors refer when considering that one among them is comparing their product to fast food and what kind of sanctions are available to them? What diversity of investments should a group of investors create before they can realistically bid on a team?

Yes, Melnyk is the most stereotypical, embarrassing kind of clueless tyrant imaginable. Everyone in the league – not just in Ottawa – should be concerned when an owner takes over as President and fans are kicked out of games for holding up signs that criticize him. But we shouldn’t entirely villanize him without asking what sort of conditions led to him having such power over a franchise. The Ottawa Senators will be sold at some point; I can only hope that the league is changing the way they do business so that they don’t simply hand the keys over to some other, budding Melnyk.

WTYKY Podcast: Episode Eight: The price of life in blood magic is death

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In this episode, James and Varada welcome very special guests Chet Sellers and Luke Peristy of the Chet Sellers and Luke Peristy Podcast, and we collectively struggle to find anything to talk about because so little is going on in the world of the Ottawa Senators other than the slow-motion destruction of the very thing we all love so dearly.

Music by James.

The three stages of defending the Dion Phaneuf deal

So, Ottawa managed to get out from under one of its two supposedly unmovable contracts, dealing Dion Phaneuf and Jersey Shore-looking Nate Thompson to Los Angeles for the haunted shade of Marian Gaborik and fourth-liner Nick “Not Quentin” Shore. Ottawa keeps 25% of Phaneuf’s salary, which immediately becomes Ottawa’s third-highest paid defenseman.

Who won the trade? Some will say “whoever got the best player,” which is clearly LA in that they received “a” player. Others will say, “Ottawa sheds millions without giving up any picks or prospects” and that’s fine too. I don’t really care. They’re both true. The only winner in these “winner and loser” debates is the paywall.

What I’m most interested in is looking back at the Dion Phaneuf contract itself and how our collective thinking about it has evolved. Or not evolved.



Back in 2013, when Toronto signed Phaneuf to his 7-year deal worth almost $50 million (a “monster” deal, if you will), I remember listening to James Mirtle guesting on a Pension Plan Puppets podcast. (Give me a break. I was on a bus in the winter. It was stuck on ice. I wasn’t going anywhere.) What Mirtle said then seems true today or at least prevails as consensus opinion: that defensemen who can play more than 20 minutes a night are extremely difficult to come by.  Was the Phaneuf deal bad? Sure, Mirtle conceded. But it didn’t matter. Paying him on this bad deal was not as bad as not having him on the roster at all, as you can only replace somebody who can play more than 20 minutes a night with somebody else who can play more than 20 minutes a night.

Here was a player who’d served in leadership since a young age and whose YouTube reel includes the kind of open-ice hits that makes you want to buy light beer and care about which trucks won the most J.D. Power and Associates awards. The presumption was, at that time, that millions in wasted money are just the price you pay to have what amounts to a rare specimen. If a player like Phaneuf ever became available on the free agent market or for trade, you’d have to pay the exact same bad contract – or worse – on top of possibly giving up assets. A bird in hand is better than two bastards in a basket, as they say.

Toronto went on to win four Stanley Cups.


I’ve always found the myth perpetuated by the Toronto contract a little bit hard to swallow. Let’s say you’ve got somebody on your roster who plays, on average, between 10 and 16 minutes a night. Most teams have a few of these guys. Let’s take Freddy Claesson, who makes $650,000 a year to Phaneuf’s $7,000,000. Is the four minutes of ice time that Phaneuf plays worth all of that extra coin? Sure, Phaneuf players tougher minutes and in tougher situations. Plus, there are all of the intangibles he provides, which, unlike some, I attribute at least some value to. But both players’ possession numbers are, in the scheme of things, equally underwhelming. What is it about the difference between 16 minutes and 20 minutes that separates the acceptable from the elite, and what is it about Phaneuf that gives him that edge? Would it really crater the team’s chances to give 20 minutes to a series of unknowns making nothing and see who sticks? Is it really worth $6,350,000 to not have to find out?

Bryan Murray said yes, it is, and not only said he’d take on Phaneuf’s bad contract – without Toronto having to retain any salary – but threw in a 2nd-round pick to boot. (Ask any Sens fan: every 2nd-round pick works out.) Toronto did take back a series of junk contracts that weren’t providing Ottawa any value, but the underlying assumption remained intact: players like Dion Phaneuf are rarely available, so you do what you have to to get them on your roster. Even as Toronto was doing whatever it had to it get him off their roster.

The deal wasn’t a disaster for Ottawa, especially if you attribute some of last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals to Phaneuf’s play (debatable) and the development of some rookies to his stabilizing presence in the locker room (the definition of debatable). There’s also a world in which the deal worked out even better for Ottawa. In that other, better world, Phaneuf’s guidance enables Cody Ceci to become the bedrock top-four defender at age 23 that Ottawa hoped he would be, as opposed to what he is now, which is sub-Tom Preissing.

In the end, Phaneuf ended up on some league-wide “worst contract” lists, coming in ahead of even Bobby Ryan, a scoring winger with seven goals who’s making more money and is signed one year longer.

Sure, the contract was bad…but how else do you get him on your roster???

Los Angeles

Which brings us to the latest victim of the “you can’t just find these guys anywhere” mentality. Ottawa, just as Toronto did before them, took on millions in bad contracts, from which they will derive close to zero value, just to get out from under Phaneuf’s contract, which at least was providing some value. That’s how little value he’s providing, as the type of guy you can’t just find anywhere. Ottawa prefers to pay money for nothing than to pay more money for what he provides.

Will he provide value to Los Angeles? He can’t help but provide some, in the sense that he is technically present and alive on their blue line. Is that value really so much greater than literally any replacement-level defencemen Los Angeles has in their system? Than *squints* $650,000 Kevin Gravel?


There’s some magical quality assigned players who “can play more than 20 minutes a night.” I’ve certainly invoked it on our podcasts and elsewhere. And I do believe that if the NHL regular season is more a marathon than a sprint (it feels that way to me, and all I’m doing is drinking beer on the couch) then having someone who can be not terrible for a third of the game, game-in and game-out is truly something to look for. In the sense that you should try to draft those guys, keep them in-house, and squeeze value out of their RFA years. Once you pay them like the supposedly rare commodity that they are, the situation takes on the air of self-legitimizing logic. Of course Phaneuf plays more than 20 minutes a night, because you’re paying him like it.

I’m not sold that the tens of millions you have to pay in bad contracts is really preferable to a “defense by committee” approach or by giving ice time to young and cheap players and seeing how they do. Consider this: between Toronto and Ottawa, teams have taken on the combined contracts of Milan Michalek, Colin Greening, Jared Cowen, Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore – $29.1 million in dead salary, or roughly 60% of the value of Phaneuf’s contract – just to get out from under it.

This will obviously be a sticking point as Ottawa approaches the Karlsson contract. 2014’s $7 million per / $50 million contract is today’s $12 million per / $100 million contract. You can make more of an argument that you can’t find a Karlsson anywhere else – he’s a generational talent, unlike Phaneuf – but as the journey of Phaneuf’s contract shows us, these gifts can quickly become curses and you feel curses in years.

Breaking Down the Ottawa Senators’ New Peyote-Induced Fever Dream of an Arena

As I’m sure you’ve read, the Ottawa Senators and the National Capital Commission have reached a preliminary land-transfer agreement, paving the way for a new hockey arena in downtown Ottawa. To commemorate the event, the NCC released the following concept image:


There’s a lot going on here, and it demands a breakdown.

…but first thing’s first: let nothing I’m about to say detract from how exciting this prospect is. We’ve been talking about how the arena is too far for literally two decades. Having a modern-looking downtown arena will make going to Sens games more fun, not to mention more likely. It’s awesome. But quite separate from that discussion is a discussion about how this concept image looks like something you’d see on the back of a Sega CD game case after you took a fistful of acid and conjured a Sega CD game case from memory.

Let’s start with the main attraction: the arena itself.


Okay, cool, cool. It’s got some indoor wood, which continues Canada’s unbroken streak of reminding everyone that we are a nation of trees. I can live with that. If the AGO and our own football arena do it, then that’s fine, even if this aesthetic flourish has the shelf-life of carpeting in the 1980s or people who built their modern in-fills with corrugated metal like five years ago. Let’s admit it: for a team whose aesthetics have been QUESTIONABLE since like 1996, doing what literally everybody else does was always going to be the best-case scenario. Let’s not let the makers of the SNES jersey get too creative, here.

Obvious caveat: that better not be the team’s fucking logo when this monstrosity is completed, but if it is, guaranteed, 100%, the team will have added a swoopy white halo thing around it as appears here.

And speaking of that logo, the building is on some kind of 1/3 perspective but the logo is flush to the “camera” and super big so it’s cut off, like a big ‘DRAFT’ water stamp on a Word document, which is convenient, because this image was created in Word. It kind of has the feel of “we cut and paste an arena and then to make sure you know this is YOUR arena, we cut and paste your team’s logo on it.”

Again, this is fine. What can we assume from this? There won’t be a giant fucking logo on the side of the building, for sure.


Panning down a bit, we see the entrance to the building and what looks like four tents or utility sheds. I like how the artist didn’t try to make the tents or sheds seem like something the crowds of people would be interested in – they’re just sheds. People will walk through them or otherwise line up to get inside. Also, they will be red because Canada, and they will say Ottawa Senators on them because Ottawa Senators. I have zero idea what’s going on on the roofs of the sheds, or inside the upper right shed. “Meet me at the sheds!” will not be a thing that people will say.


Okay, now we’re playing acid jazz. You’ve got an asymmetrical skating rink, complete with piles of snow that have been pushed off to the side because there’s nowhere to dispose of it; actual NHL players sort of skating around, celebrating for some reason; a band playing in the middle of the hockey rink without the aid of amplification; and several fans who, despite the total lack of security, are politely watching from what looks like red carpeting.


We can only assume this is the Missing Chiclets, or possibly their children, trapped inside what appear to be beams of pure energy or possibly water cannons. They are also wearing short sleeves in what is apparently winter. This seems like a terrible gig.


Several ghosts celebrate with confetti, including the Force Spirits of Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan. Off to the left, it looks like Jackie Onassis is pointlessly standing in the snow instead of on the red carpet, and a lone Senator appears to be throwing a puck over the glass into the crowd, though there’s no glass, and there’s no crowd. WERNER HERZOG VOICE: “It is a theater of the absurd, designed to draw attention to the fact that hockey, as a pastime, is a social construct and we, as passive audience members, are whiling away what little time we have.”


A dejected goaltender without a net just sort of skating around, looking like he was just scored on though, as we’ve established, there is no game except the one in his mind.


Not to be outdone by the weird unsatisfying skating rink involving several jagged boards and extremely pointy edges, the arena also features: 1) a dock, for those who wish to sail to the game, 2) river access, which makes the weirdly dangerous rink even more pointless because, according to this picture, you can skate on the river, and 3) of course, a gigantic projection of the unpopular logo onto the ice from a projector in the sky. The logo, as is tradition, is off-center and too big to entirely fit the surface onto which it’s projected.


This dark corner of the concept is very mysterious. Along with several dead trees and what looks like either an empty set of stands or possibly a pile of folding chairs or even an army of Japanese apparitions from Spirited Away, we have some people kind of hanging out. Three of them, possibly tourists, look at the chairs. “Do you think they make those chairs in Canada?” they ask themselves in their German accents, and then go for dinner and talk about how they should have gone to Massachusetts on vacation instead.

Speaking of desolate, dystopian emptiness, where is this supposed to be, anyway? QUESTION: Is the new Ottawa Senators arena going to be in Ottawa?


I’m not sure if the NCC’s plan includes several multi-story skyscrapers, which I’m fine with, but I’m mostly interested in what that weird, cube-like intelligence hovering on the horizon is supposed to be. Is it pointing out or sucking in? Is that a starburst of energy radiating from its foreboding exterior? I’ve looked at this thing for like five minutes and I can’t tell what it is or where it begins or ends.




Finally, you have a parking lot, which will be empty because nobody will need to drive because the arena is downtown.


There you have it folks: the thing we have all been asking for, for twenty years. Ottawa being Ottawa, we took this moment, and we sort of slapped together a thing that approximated what we’ve all been talking about, like a parent so afraid to say the wrong thing in front of their kids’ friends that they just blurt out the most nonsensical thing possible.

And it’s…fine. It’s all fine. The underlying concept remains awesome. You’ll be able to walk home from a game, or even *GASP* go out afterward! The execution is a bit muddy, but in the end, we’ll all be together downtown. It’s going to be great.

I’ll see you at The Sheds!

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