Game 7

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Sens weren’t supposed to be here.

This season was supposed to be about the past.

After a disappointing 2015-2016 campaign in which Ottawa missed the playoffs and yet another coach was fired, the offseason moves by rookie GM Pierre Dorion didn’t inspire confidence in many. Dorion selected Guy Boucher as the new head coach, and not Bruce Boudreau like a lot of fans wanted. He traded the young and talented centre Mika Zibanejad for an older, local player Derick Brassard. The move raised more concerns about the team’s finances and budget. He failed to upgrade a porous blueline. These perceived failures weren’t new and it felt like another difficult year was ahead.

In some circles, the lack of enthusiasm for the team on the ice meant the focus of the 2016-17 season wasn’t on the current roster, the season’s schedule, and the team’s Cup chances, but rather on the past and the organization’s 25th anniversary. Early highlights of the season included the announcement of a Ring of Honour, a salute to the many people who have made the Senators what they are today. Former coach and GM Bryan Murray was deservedly the first inductee, and the ceremony honouring the man who undoubtedly left one of the biggest marks on the franchise was the highlight of a January game against the Capitals.

We waited for Chris Neil to have his moment. At 37 it’s clear his career is coming to an end, but for one night, Neil took centre stage, appreciated by the fans at the Canadian Tire Centre and by the only NHL team for which he has played; by the NHL team that drafted him half a life time ago.

The highpoint of the season was supposed to be a night in December when the Sens faced off against the Detroit Red Wings. Daniel Alfredsson’s number 11 was raised to the rafters and the first modern Senator ascended to a rarified place in hockey’s hagiography. It was the sort of night Sens fans had wanted for years, a night that provided a touchstone to the team’s history for all of us. It provided a chance for fans to show our appreciation to The Captain. What it crystalized for fans of this team, both new and old, was this team had a story. This team had a past, a past that contained excellence and a fair amount of heartbreak. A backstory that could now be passed down from long-time fans to newer followers, from older generations to younger ones, from parents to children. There are fans who never got to see Alfredsson play, who have gravitated to the Senators in the four years since he last pulled on an Ottawa jersey. These fans rely on YouTube highlights and the stories those of us who remember his playing days convey.

These were the things that were supposed to sustain Sens fans through another mediocre season. Making the playoffs seemed to be a pipe dream, at least according to most expert predictions. In this situation it was better to focus on what we used to have, the past, than hope for elusive playoff glory.

But the present kept breaking through our collective nostalgia. In the present there is adversity, difficulty, and pain. But at its best, hockey connects us to others who feel the same as we do about a player or a team, cheer the same goals, agonize over the same losses. At its best, hockey distracts and heals, if only temporarily. At its best, hockey provides community. Community made visible by a sticker on the back of each helmet signaling solidarity. Community made visible with a surprise visit. Community made visible online or in person, at the game or watching at the bar.

With each historic achievement or moment of this anniversary season, the present intruded. Despite predictions, the Sens started the season relatively strong. Pundits waited for Ottawa to fall off the pace and out of playoff contention but it didn’t happen. Even in March, when the injury bug hit, the Sens pulled through.

Early round victories against the Bruins and the Rangers were mocked and derided. Ottawa’s opponents had weaknesses, injuries, deficiencies. Yet Ottawa remained the underdog; when it came to predictions the team remained the choice of fans only, the experts repeatedly choosing Ottawa’s opponents to seize the day, banking on the Sens regular season results being a mirage.

Yet here we are, deep in May and there is still ice at the CTC. Ottawa is one of only three teams still competing for the Stanley Cup and is in a position the organization has only encountered twice before. We are on the precipice of something truly spectacular.

Tonight the present collides with history. A game seven against the defending Stanley Cup champions and their two generational talents. A win secures a trip to the finals and a chance to compete for the NHL’s ultimate prize. But it also secures something else: another chapter in the team’s history. It is rare to be present when stories become legends but for those of us who have watched every moment of this run we can say we were there. We were there when Mac scored for the first time in nearly two years and then capped his improbable return to the ice with a series-clinching goal. We were there when Jean-Gabriel Pageau added another verse to his personal mythology with a comeback securing, overtime winning, four-goal outburst. We were there when Craig Anderson staved off elimination with a 45 save effort. We were there when Bobby Ryan rose from the ashes of his worst regular season to lead Ottawa’s offense. We were there when two unreal assists from the injured Erik Karlsson, exclamation marks in a dominant postseason effort, forced much of mainstream hockey media to realize he’s the best player in the world right now. We were there when he made the case that his career is already worthy of the Hall of Fame, a week before his 27th birthday.

Many years from now the long-time fan will look back on this moment in Sens history and say “I remember”; the new fan will look back on tonight and say “I’ll never forget”. For much of the Senators’ existence, fans have lamented the team’s lack of storied past. But in its 25th year, Daniel Alfredsson’s number 11 hangs from the rafters and the present, throwaway season has proved historic.

We were supposed to reflect on Sens history in 2016-2017; Boucher, Karlsson, Anderson and company decided to make it instead. Tonight that history grows in magnitude.

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Dorion Wrong to Defend Burrows Deal

When it comes to yesterday’s trade with the Vancouver Canucks, there appears to be consensus among Sens fans; trading skilled Swedish teen prospect Jonathan Dahlen for the 35-year-old super pest Alex Burrows was a bad move on the part of rookie GM Pierre Dorion.

Trading for Burrows, a player almost twice the age of Dahlen, whose career year came seven years ago, who’s been in steady decline for several seasons, and who was inked to a two-year extension to complete the deal  has been rightly panned by many bloggers and media members.

I share these concerns about the trade. I’m not opposed to trading Dahlen or most prospects really, but the return needs to make sense for the team in the short or long term (ideally both). When it comes to Burrows, he’s probably better than a few current Senators, but any improvement he offers is undermined by the term and financial commitment to Burrows until 2019.

In justifying this trade, Dorion spoke about Burrows as a “character guy” and that he hopes the veteran will influence young prospects like Colin White, Thomas Chabot, and Logan Brown. Here in lies my main problem with this trade. Teams make silly, ill-advised trades all the time, it happens. But when character is your justification, you better make sure the player you are acquiring is actually worthy of such adulation.

However, Alex Burrows isn’t worthy of that praise.

A pest in the classic sense, Burrows is an infuriating player on ice. He’s dirty and known for cheap play. He’s been suspended for reckless, dangerous play and his apparent bite on Patrice Bergeron in the 2011 Cup Final is still remembered. He’s had run-ins with officials. The only reason he’s been on anyone’s radar lately was a recent altercation with Robin Lehner in which Burrows provoked Lehner’s wrath. While I don’t like players who play the game this way, Burrows is in no way unique. All teams have employed players like him before, the Sens are no exception. The Sens currently have a few players whose style of play I don’t like. But that doesn’t mean I want more players like that.

Burrows’ cheap play is not the only reason he shouldn’t be praised as someone of good character. He’s said some truly horrible shit, proving he’s no one’s role model. In December 2015, Patrick O’Sullivan revealed that when both he and Burrows junior and again when they were breaking into the league, Burrows mocked the physical abuse and emotional abuse O’Sullivan suffered at the hands of his father. After O’Sullivan addressed Burrows’ behaviour publicly, Burrows offered a weak apology to O’Sullivan. Burrows expressed remorse if O’Sullivan was offended by his earlier behaviour and explained that the insults were part of his plan to earn more ice time.

It’s possible that in the intervening years between his on ice harassment of O’Sullivan and his belated apology in December 2015 that Burrows matured and grew as an individual and leader. He offered a similar explanation: “I think I’ve matured a lot. I grew as a player and a person and in today’s society, for sure, it’s something I’ve got to be careful [about]. I wouldn’t cross that line now”. A person of character would realize mocking the physical and emotional abuse of a child is simply wrong and unacceptable, not something to be “careful” about, not simply a matter of not getting caught.

But while Burrows claimed he’d matured, the O’Sullivan revelation came a mere month after Jordin Tootoo, the first Inuk player in the NHL and a recovering alcoholic, stated that Burrows made “classless and unacceptable” remarks about Tootoo’s “personal life and family”. For his part, Burrows downplayed the incident, saying that he didn’t cross the line and that “What I said, I’ve been told the same in the past, and I’ve heard it plenty of times throughout my career. I kinda think it should’ve stayed on the ice, where it belongs. For me, I’m just moving on”. It doesn’t matter if Burrows thinks he crossed the line or if his intention was just to get under the skin of his opponent. The impact of his remarks on Tootoo (and O’Sullivan before him) matters more than Burrows’ intent. Burrows’ comfort with repeating offensive remarks he’s heard frequently throughout his career is also troubling.

I’m not naïve, I know NHLers say any number of vile, discriminatory, and offensive things on the ice. But from O’Sullivan and Tootoo’s reaction, it’s clear this isn’t just chirping, it’s something more. It’s also troubling that Burrows has consistently resorted to these types of insults throughout his career; from junior, to his early years in the league, and more recently during his time as a veteran leader on the Canucks, he’s shown little to suggest he’s matured. Burrows is far from the only NHLer to say such things on ice. Andrew Shaw’s suspension last year for calling an official a faggot makes it clear that this language remains a persistent problem in the league. However, that negative spotlight could easily shine on Burrows again.

If you want to justify a trade for a player like Alex Burrows, fine. But stick to hockey justifications and analysis. By making an argument in favour of Burrows’ intangibles and by suggesting Burrows’ character was a desirable addition to the Senators, Dorion endorsed the Burrows who harassed O’Sullivan and Tootoo. What kind of character is that to bring into the room? Why would you want young players like White and Chabot to model the behaviour Burrows has exhibited throughout his career? Simply put, this is a player the Sens shouldn’t endorse.

O Captain! My Captain! On Retiring Alfredsson’s 11 in 2016

2016 has reminded us that our childhood heroes grow old, become ill, and die. We have had consistent warnings that artists, advocates, and athletes we’ve admired and respected, who changed the way we relate to the things we love, who’ve inspired us to strive for some small fraction of that same greatness, can be gone in an instant.

The Ottawa Senators are no stranger to this type of tragedy. Gone are Sergei Zholtok, Karel Rachunek, and Pavol Demitra; all had their playing careers and lives sadly cut short. We said goodbye to Roger and Mark, the men behind the bench. The Ottawa family has suffered losses and survived near misses; cancer has been a frequent companion.

As the franchise celebrates its 25th anniversary, it confronts a certain maturity. Few players from Ottawa’s golden age still play in the league. Sens veterans Chris Neil and Chris Kelly are nearing the end of their careers and former Sens Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza are reaching career milestones wearing other colours. Friends and countrymen Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara won championships in other cities, and will be turning 38 and 40 respectively in the coming months. Soon, the last of the players who played a formative role in this franchise’s contending years, and for some of us, the formative part of our lives, will be retired. Their contributions only memories.

In this context it is vital to remember and honour those who have transcended the normal boundaries of the athlete-fan relationship. Players whose outstanding ability on the ice was matched by their leadership on and off of it. Daniel Alfredsson is eligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame for the first time in 2017 and while he might have to wait a year or two to be enshrined, eventually his portrait will hang in that venerable building’s Great Hall. Just as important was his support of LGBTQ inclusion in sport and his mental health advocacy.

In many ways, the team hasn’t been the same since his final game as a Senator. There are undoubtedly those who are still upset about Alfie leaving. But as this year has reminded us, everything can change in an instant. After 17 seasons wearing red, white, and black, there are still things to say and new moments to experience. The retirement of Alfredsson’s storied number eleven, worn by Mark Freer, Jarmo Kekalainen, and Evgeny Davydov before him, but by no one again after his warm up retirement skate two years ago, is one such moment. That Sens fans should cherish this moment is a given, but after a year in which so many public figures who impacted our lives left suddenly and without warning, we should savour the opportunity. The opportunity to show the first legend this franchise had, our captain, and still the embodiment of the Senators, how much he matters, how much he is loved, how much his career is a part of our lives.

I have seen sports fans use the Walt Whitman phrase “O Captain! My Captain!” in relation to the success and achievement of athletic leaders too many times to count. In his time as the leader of the Ottawa Senators, I have seen these words applied to Alfie’s achievements frequently. This tendency always struck me as odd. While many no doubt are referencing the iconic scene in Dead Poet’s Society, Whitman’s original lines were part of a conceit about the death of Abraham Lincoln. What is exclaimed as an act of solidarity in the movie is called out with full-bodied mourning in the poem. An elegy about an assassinated political leader at the conclusion of a civil war hardly seems an appropriate way to mark sporting achievement and yet the poem has a particular resonance in 2016. The speaker’s words in this poem have been lodged in my head throughout the year; for in its lines the poem describes a relationship between us and those we idolize in which adulation is tragically belated.

O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Unfortunately, in the poem, the Captain (Lincoln) lies “fallen cold and dead”; like too many this year, cut down before their time, unable to hear their posthumous acclaim.

By recognizing those who impact us now, while they are still with us, a different relationship is struck. A continuity with the past is realized in the here and now, and those lessons, values, and priorities, are carried forward.

That is why it’s also important to acknowledge the people who have made the franchise what it is today. To honour the individuals who have shaped the character of the team; who define what it means to be a Senator. Some might feel that a team Ring of Honour is overstated. As the Senators have never won a championship it makes little sense to elevate those who have played for and worked for the team to such an exalted level. However, I think it’s an important step for the organization to take. Yes, there have been rough times for the Senators, but there has also been a considerable amount of good. There have been many who have impacted the community in positive way. Honouring Bryan Murray, recognizing a man who has been part of the team for half its existence, is a good thing. It allows for fans to show their appreciation but it also affords Murray the opportunity to see that he’s respected and loved. Waiting longer might result in another belated adulation. Players like Chris Phillips, Wade Redden, Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, and Chris Neil have also shaped the character of the team and community. There longevity and achievements on and off the ice more than merit ascension to the Ring of Honour. Importantly, it’s not just a tribute to those who wore Sens colours on ice. In the coming years, Senators founder Bruce Firestone should find an honoured place there. Former CFO Erin Crowe, for her longevity and skilled management during the team’s grimmest periods, should as well. Jacques Martin who coached the team to greatness deserves a place. Such a list would not be complete without Cyril Leeder.

Collectively, we are eager to bid farewell to 2016. This makes sense as for many, the memories of our formative years have been battered. Unfortunately, something far worse looms on the horizon. If we are to have any chance to counter such threats, we must remember who we’ve been. It is vital to acknowledge those who have influenced us for the good with their greatness, and to carry those links forward, holding tight to what matters.

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You Didn’t Have to Invite Detroit

It is interesting, operating as part of the theatre of sport, that the Ottawa Senators have become keen subscribers to realist narratives when it comes to Daniel Alfredsson.

The most recent contribution to this genre, famously begun by the former captain himself with his oft-quoted quip “probably not,” is Alfredsson’s number retirement ceremony scheduled for December 29. In a ceremony designed to mark the highest honour a sports franchise can bestow on someone who has played for that organization, the Sens have opted to invite the Detroit Red Wings, the only asterisk on Alfredsson’s career in the capital.

It is possible Alfie wants the ceremony to take place when the Sens play the Wings. And of course that’s fine for him to want. It’s his career the team is marking after all. He wouldn’t be the first athlete to be honoured by one club while a former team was in attendance. If memory serves, long-time Oiler Mark Messier had the Rangers in the building when his number was retired and long-time Ranger Mark Messier had the Oilers in attendance when his number was celebrated by New York. This sort of dual acknowledgement works for players with significant connection to multiple franchises. Your Wayne Gretzkys, your Mark Messiers, your Al MacInnises, and your Ray Bourques. But that’s not what we have in Alfredsson. Honest question: do the Detroit Red Wings even care about their 2013-14 leading scorer or remember him? Probably not.

In Alfredsson we have a player who is Ottawa’s all-time leading scorer and a player who sits tied for 220th in all-time points for Detroit. The difference is staggering.

This sort of feting is for the individual, Alfredsson, but it is also for the fan base. Hence the public announcement in August, the (likely) more-expensive-than-usual-tickets, the delayed start time. Retiring number 11 has been inevitable for the Senators franchise for some time now (I suspect since 2007?), but the ceremony is also the last event in a three-part rehabilitation of the team’s relationship with the Sens legend. Beginning with his one-day contract/final pre-game skate with the Senators to announce his retirement and continuing with his hiring as a member of Ottawa’s hockey operations, Alfie’s number will now be retired during the franchise’s 25th anniversary celebrations. This Alfie triumvirate suggests a seamless transition from suiting up as team captain, to assuming a much speculated, post-playing role with the team, to having his number raised to the rafters as a legend.

Except inviting the Red Wings to crash the party recalls not Alfie’s triumphant return to the team, but his painful return to Ottawa with Detroit in December 2013. That night, it was impossible to ignore who and what Ottawa had lost. With Detroit as the opponent, the careful fabrication unravels.

It wasn’t seamless.

It wasn’t painless.

It wasn’t what anyone wanted.

Many of us have moved on from July 5, 2013 and to a fan, I’d bet no one wants to go back to that moment.

I often write about how sport is a reflection of society, that there is a realism to the issues games like hockey face on and off the ice. Generally I think it’s a shame that when we cover sports like hockey, we resort to the mode of fantasy, obscuring controversy, issues of safety, and discrimination from view. But if there was a moment to remain in the fantasy genre, this ceremony fits. We don’t need to acknowledge Alfredsson’s departure from Ottawa, no one has forgotten it. But this is a ceremony celebrating what he meant and means to the team and city; surely we should revel in all that was good about Alfie, greatest Senator, on this night? For one night we can believe the fiction, embrace the fantasy, and ignore Alfredsson, Red Wings forward. In this moment, we should feel like he never left.

However, Alfredsson and the Senators have chosen realism and the bit part Detroit played in his career will be acknowledged if only in its presence. Perhaps that’s for the best. The myth of the player disrupted, if only slightly.

But on December 29, I wanted a little bit of fantasy and I don’t think I’m alone. I wanted that myth intact.

The Atlantic Division is Trash and That’s Probably a Good Thing

I remember whenever it was (it was 2013) that the NHL underwent a minor realignment and created the scary Atlantic Division which included such Eastern seaboard cities as Detroit. I recall some slight dread about this. Not only was Ottawa still in a division with all the teams I hated from the Northeast (I’m talking about you, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, and Toronto) but Detroit joined and the Florida teams. So an 8 team division with three very three recent conference/cup finalists/winners and the Wings? Cool. Thank god for Buffalo, I guess.

Fast forward three years and we’re in the same division with a team that traded Tyler Seguin and lost to the Sens 6-1 in an elimination game to end the 15-16 season, a team that traded P.K. Subban for a dog lover with a very terrible contract (how many seasons will it take for Weber to be bought out?), and the worst team in the league in 2015-16 that somehow also has cap trouble. Sure, Tampa is good and re-signed Stamkos and co. to decent deals, but they still have a “Rotten in the State of Denmark” vibe (hint: Stevie Y is the head of lettuce liquefying in the bottom of Tampa’s fridge). Hats off to the Panthers who seem poised to contend for the division title for a while after re-signing their RFAs to decent deals and adding James Reimer and Keith Yandle to offset the inevitable decline of the great Roberto Luongo (sadly this might be as soon as this season with Lu’s age and offseason hip surgery). But as much as we like to denigrate Ottawa’s commitment to the Department of Statistical and Mathematical Dominance In Sport, Boston, Montreal, and even The Team Who Has Done Everything Right The Last 2 Years have made some questionable decisions this summer. This isn’t exactly a division filled with the best and brightest in management (with possible exceptions in Florida). And while the Florida teams are good, they haven’t hit the great standard of teams like Pittsburgh etc.

So sure, Carey Price can be great, and probably will be, but for the Habs to be good two years ago, Carey Price needed to win significant individual hardware and have a career year (Fearless Leader Max Pacioretty probably had his career year then too). They are worse now than they were two seasons ago, Carey and Max probably won’t be quite as good, Subban is gone, and Andrei Markov is now two years older (so am I). Boston has a defense worse than the Senators (hey! Anything’s possible). Detroit has been running on fumes since Lidstrom retired and now that franchise’s most pressing question is, which contract is worse: Justin Abdelkader’s or Danny Dekeyser’s (it’s Abdelkader’s, but wow, Ken Holland is making some questionable decisions)? Don’t worry, the Detroit Method of wasting players’ prime years in Grand Rapids will most definitely keep the Wings irrelevant for years to come.

So where are the Sens going to finish? Look, Ottawa is hardly a model franchise, but there is some talent here. I see Ottawa competing for third in the division if this is an average year. If it’s a year with injuries to key players like last season then it’s fighting for a wild card spot/slightly missing the playoffs. Is it possible Ottawa players have had their career years and the team will mimic the downward spiral Montreal is destined to act out in front of our ravenous eyes? Sure.

I’m not expecting much from Craig Anderson this season and at 35 he’s probably played his best hockey (even if he was lightly used in his 20s). Regardless, I think Andrew Hammond might just be a decent goalie? I think it’s likely he’s Ottawa’s starter by season’s end and that’s not a bad thing? This Andrew is on Team Andrew not Team Andy.

Bobby Ryan probably won’t duplicate his Anaheim numbers (I’d be ok with it if he did though) but that’s fine? Yeah, Ryan makes too much, but dudes in their UFA years always make too much. His production is fine even if it leaves you wanting more (I worry more about his health). Maybe Brassard is the left-handed playmaker with the keys to the Bobby Ryan 30 Goal Season.

What if Marc Methot isn’t good? Well, he wasn’t last year, so we’ll be prepared. That’s where I’m at with the defense. Yes, they were bad. Yes, they haven’t made any changes. Yes, it’s possible they’re that bad again. But they haven’t had a good defense for several years now? Turris and MacArthur healthy this year should help and if Ottawa’s goaltending can be slightly above average (not great, just a tad better) I think they probably make the playoffs in the third spot. I mean, an improved defense would be preferable, but the only real change that might come would be Thomas Chabot (I don’t care about the “don’t rush prospects method,” I still kinda want to see this kid work in the NHL).

Is it possible EK already had his career year?

No.

Here’s the thing, I think Karlsson is getting 30 goals this season and pushing 100 points. Why? Because he’s low key pissed about the Great Omission of 2015-2016, because holy hell did that dude pass up a zillion opportunities to get a shot on goal last season (opting for passes and tips down low, plus he had more trouble getting his shot through bodies, but I expect him to improve on this in 16-17 because it really is one of his strengths). I also think EK improves on his goal and point totals because the Sens re-signed Mike Hoffman and because Guy Boucher seems much more determined to use the power play as an actual advantage for his team. Plus, I choose to be optimistic about EK. I also think Karlsson is going to have one of those long primes like Lidstrom, so mostly I’m just enjoying watching the majesty unfold in Sens colours.

Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone will be better too. I don’t really think Hoffman has another gear, I think he’s already the player we can realistically expect him to be, and he’ll just be used better by a new coaching regime. Mark Stone had a sophomore slump and still managed 20+ goals and 60+ points and I think he has like four more gears? Good things are happening on the wings.

Ultimately, I’m not worried about the other bubble teams in the division. Detroit, Boston, and Montreal either don’t have a superstar (Boston, Detroit until Larkin fully matures) or have a weaker supporting cast (Detroit, Boston, and Montreal). Ottawa lacks bottom six depth and depth on the blueline but so do those other teams. I’d take Ottawa’s top six over the top six forward group from any of those teams and I’d take EK over any defender in the league.

You might worry about how Ottawa’s new GM and coaching staff are going to perform but it’s not like those other bubble teams have front offices that are the envy of the league. Claude Julien has almost been fired two years in a row and Don Sweeney probably won’t get another job as a GM in the NHL once he’s inevitably fired from his current gig. Michel Therrien is fairly conclusively a terrible coach but won’t be fired until Former Genius Marc Bergevin feels the rising water around his own neck, then he’ll fire his friend and use him as a floatation device (yes, Marc is Rose in this scenario and Michel is Jack). Jeff Blashill is not Mike Babcock (overrated in his own right) and will therefore be more fallible in Detroit but hey, Ken Holland managed to trade Pavel Datsyuk’s bloated remains of a cap hit to the Arizona Coyotes who are always willing to do everyone else’s dirty work. There’s nothing to be envious of here.

But what if one of these teams gets off to a hot start? Here’s the thing about Montreal starting the season 10-0 last year: it made me really happy. You know why, because if you start a season 10-0 you’re likely playing your best hockey of the year when people are eating turkey and watching football and playoff baseball. A bad start would be rough for any of Boston, Detroit, Montreal, or Ottawa, but it would be worst for Montreal. There’s a scenario in which Montreal loses its season opener, and then puts up a few more losses. Montreal sports media would gleefully continue to talk about P.K. Subban and the pressure would mount on Bergevin and Therrien. One can only hope.

It’s extremely difficult to win the Stanley Cup. It’s still hard to make the playoffs. But this is the Atlantic division and the bar isn’t set high. Sens finish third in the Atlantic.

In Praise of Rooftop Patios: Or How I Learned to Stop Caring and Turn off TSN on July 1st

Free agency is awful and should be avoided at all costs.

To clarify, I don’t begrudge players who exercise their rights as free agents, nor do I mind that the age and accumulated experience at which a player can opt for free agency has been getting progressively younger and shorter. I have, and always will be, on the side of workers getting paid.

But from a franchise perspective, free agency is bad news.

There is no day on the NHL calendar more hazardous for a team than July 1. Organizations might hit or miss at the draft, but picks are marketable and have currency, they can be traded. Even prospects once selected have a shelf life (some longer than others) in which they can be moved. The trade deadline at times leads to grievous error, but it is often a swap of expiring deals, worth a third of their original value, and obligatory throws-ins, like second round picks. In one form or another, it’s an exchange of money and at a reduced rate.

But free agency differs from other ill-advised NHL traditions in that it more often leads to damaging deals that hamper a team’s ability to compete for years. July 1 gives GMs the opportunity to throw escalating dollar and term figures at players who will either start their new deals on the wrong side of 30 or will soon count themselves among hockey’s elder statesmen. The desire to improve their team, a somewhat free market, and an incrementally increasing salary cap, all push prices higher. Because the only assets teams give up are money, cap space, and flexibility, free agency is a steal for GMs who only think short term, not long term.

In this context, the winning team almost certainly overpays to get their man. But that’s part of why it should be avoided. In any bidding war, you have to know when to step aside. Free agency should be avoided because GMs can’t be trusted to make smart decisions.

Why not hire a smarter GM and save your billionaire owner more money than a municipality bent on securing a pro sports team?

The list of GMs who were once considered smart but recent hirings, bloated re-signings, terrible trades, and general misguided July activity, have caused that status to be revoked, is a long one. Smart GMs don’t trade P.K. Subban or Taylor Hall for bad returns. Smart GMs don’t re-sign Ryan Kesler. Smart GMs don’t lose decent defensemen to free agency because they insist on trying another year with the same expensive, underwhelming tandem in net. Smart GMs don’t regret trading for Kris Russell because they avoided the move in the first place. Smart GMs who have created their own roster problems don’t get celebrated when they signed a new deal with their captain on the eve of free agency because they operate in a state without income tax. Smart GMs don’t watch Roman Polak get walked on every other goal against San Jose in the playoffs and then think “he should play more hockey. He should play more hockey for our team”. Smart GMs don’t hire Michel Therrien.

There are no smart GMs. There are only Jim Bennings and those on their way to becoming Jim Bennings.[1]

There are numerous reasons for this, not the least of which is possessing excellent sporting ability in your 20s is in no way preparation for the job of running a modern professional hockey team in your 40s and 50s. I’m recalling Brett Hull and Joe Nieuwendyk in Dallas but Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy (who seemed poised to do something regrettable with their own young stars this offseason), are a comparable current example. However, these limitations can be overcome with time, training, and occupying various hockey ops positions at the junior, minor, NHL level, a sort of apprenticeship program.

Unfortunately, none of that can save them from one of the primary reasons they make mistakes. These are emotional men who make rash decisions in the moment to shake things up, trade for players they like on a personal level, and ostracize athletes who are skilled players, but different in some way. This is why Pete Chiarelli moved on from 24-year-old Taylor Hall and seemingly replaced him with the less-good Milan Lucic (a player he’s known for years). Lucic might do great things in Edmonton, especially if he gets to play with Connor McDavid, but that doesn’t change the fact that Chiarelli made an ill-advised trade for the sake of trading and brought in a player he has a personal relationship with to mitigate the damage. He’s not the only GM to make this mistake.

Most of the year I am in favour of spending money. I want the Sens to be able to secure RFA talent like Mike Hoffman. I want Ottawa to be able to sign players like Hoffman for the prices that kind of talent commands and for a long time. I want Pierre Dorion to flash the cash when it’s needed to develop and re-sign homegrown talent, to invest in hockey ops, and to pay the coaching staff more than bargain bin prices. But no GM can be trusted with the kind of money that’s needed to sign marquee free agents, and that’s why, for one holiday weekend a year, I’m glad my team lacks the kind of money required to land big name free agents.

It’s not that I don’t believe in Pierre Dorion. At this point, there isn’t enough info available on what kind of a GM Pierre Dorion will be. He may be great, he may be awful, he may be some muddy middle ground but it’s too soon to tell (I do like that he seems to conduct his business behind closed doors and not through the media). It’s that GMs across the league have shown a willingness to make bad signings every year.

Things as they are have basically insured the Sens don’t drop $42 million paying Kyle Okposo to not play with John Tavares until he is 35 or Loui Eriksson $6 million to play when he is 36. Can you imagine if Bryan Murray was still Ottawa’s GM and the trio of David Backes, Milan Lucic, and Andrew Ladd hit free agency? He would have refinanced the Canadian Tire Centre, sold off the largest parking lot in Eastern Ontario, and leased Spartacat to the Nepean Junior Wildcats so he could make an offer to at least one of those guys.

Many were glad that new GM Dorion seems to have moved on from the top-6 forward crushes of old GM Murray to focus on improving Ottawa’s defense. But would landing the best available defenseman be worth it? Jason Demers, whose $5.5 million annual salary has been declared a Good Deal by hockey twitter, is one of the marquee signings of a successful offseason for the Florida Panthers. However, I absolutely believe if Ottawa had the money to make that same deal, Sens fans would still find a way to complain about the money or the term or both. We both refuse to acknowledge the economic limitations placed on management by ownership when making our free agent wish list and then moan about current market rates. Sens fans are nothing if not predictable.

Further, with Methot and Phaneuf already taking up space in the “Over 30 and more than $5 Million Lounge” the Sens really can’t afford to add another member. Instead, we should take Dorion at his word when he said he was interested in adding a depth defenseman to shore up the blue line. That the team hasn’t yet signed someone for the role, and given Development Camp comments designed to push prospect Thomas Chabot in training camp, it seems likely there will be no new faces on Ottawa’s blueline. That seems a reasonable place to start evaluating Dorion, not for his failure to land one of the big names.

But what about the hidden gems? Sure, it’s possible to pull a Clarke MacArthur out of another team’s trash, but for every deal like this, there are 10 Matt Martin signings. What about those low risk signings like $800,000 for Patrick Wiercioch? It’s possible a fresh start (which I think was best for him at this point) works out, but on the other hand, he was signed by Colorado and Patrick Roy seems like the sort of coach who will absolutely destroy him for every defensive failing. Regardless, there just aren’t that many guys available who actually prove worthwhile. Last year the Leafs found some hidden gems only to find they were neither hidden, nor gems. Ditto Montreal with Alex Semin. Maybe it works out, but often it leads to trades, buyouts, and regret.

And that’s the crux of the problem with free agency: the youngest guys available are in their late 20s, many are in their 30s, all have established NHL track records that will increase their value, and the often limited talent pool creates competition and drives salaries up. On top of that, virtually every one of these guys is looking for a long term deal. While some of these deals will undoubtedly prove to be good value, too many of them will lead to diminishing returns and salary headaches. Since GMs don’t listen to the analysts teams have hired anyway, I’d rather my team be broke than flush with cash on Canada Day.

Don’t agree? Remember a team is still going to add Kris Russell in the coming days.

[1] Perhaps after the disastrous P.K. Subban trade and the ludicrous decision making that led to not only hiring Michel Therrien but choosing him over Subban (in part because he’s your friend), the term for managerial incompetence should be changed to “Marc Bergevin” to reflect this new and enjoyable reality.

Cottage Life

Cottage season is upon us.

With the May Two-Four weekend quickly approaching it’s time to prep your garden, buy some fireworks from a truck in a grocery store parking lot, and think about opening the cottage for the season.

However, if, like me, your cottage has seen better days, its small, cramped quarters in need of a makeover, summer presents an endless series of chores. Fix the leaky roof, replace a few boards on the dock, prop the barbeque up with cinder blocks. At some point you wonder if that expensive Sea-Doo that doesn’t always play a 200-foot game is still going to be tied up on the lake in the fall.

It’s times like this that I start to peruse cottage rental sites and Airbnb listings and joy of joys, it turns out former Maple Leaf gawds have prime Muskoka real estate and want you, yes you, to stay for a night or two for the low cost of a year’s tuition.

Since you’ve stipulated no parties or guests, I thought I’d give you a heads up at what I’m playing to do while I stay at your place.

What would I do if I spent a weekend at a former Leaf’s luxury cottage?

I’d pick up a stencil at Canadian Tire and rename your boat the SS Fraser.

I’d stock your fridge full of hot dogs and leave a “For Steve” note.

I’d examine your fine collection of cottage Canadiana and across every carving, painting, and print of a bear I find, I’ll scrawl “It was 4-1”.

I would carve Tyler Seguin’s initials into every tree on the property.

I’ll replace all the hand towels with Sens “Young & Hungry” playoff towels

I’d break all your fishing rods in half but only pretend to throw them into the lake.

I’d replace all your family photos with pictures of EK and Alfie riding bikes.

I’d use your fridge magnet grocery list to write a love letter to Clarke MacArthur.

I’ll tape Guy Boucher’s head to your Casino Royale poster.

I’d change your answering machine to the dulcet tones of Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean

I’ll add a “Nonis” and a “Ferguson Jr.” profiles to your Netflix account

Finally, I’d fill your house with Webber Naturals products to remind you of the big Toronto endorsement deal that got away.