It was the perfect Valentine’s Day in the capital: blue sky, sun, bright white snow, even a news report on the arrival of the first robin.
And Bryan Murray showed up all in black.
Black shirt, black pants, black shoes, black mood.
How could he not be in a black mood, as general manager in a shrunken season that has already turned into an annus horribilis for his Ottawa Senators?
Hearts and hopes were broken only the evening before in Pittsburgh, when the skate of notorious NHL bad guy Matt Cooke came down hard on the back of Erik Karlsson’s left foot, slicing into the Achilles tendon and ending what had begun as a magnificent season for the league’s top defenceman.
Murray came to Scotiabank Place to announce that surgery had been performed Thursday morning in Ottawa. The tendon had been 70-per-cent severed, but surgery had gone well and a full recovery is expected.
But, as Murray said of the young star: “His year is finished at this time.”
Last year the now 22-year-old Swede had been the surprise of the league, emerging as an offensive force rarely seen as he scored 78 points and captured the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman.
This year, with a team-leading six goals, Karlsson had been talked about for the past week or so as perhaps the NHL’s best player – a debate now rendered moot until at least next season, assuming the promised “100-per-cent recovery” comes about.
Losing such a player would rattle any team, but for the Senators it is devastating.
They had already lost their top stay-at-home defenceman when Jared Cowen blew out his knee while playing in the minors during the lockout. They then lost top forward and key playmaker Jason Spezza when, five games into the season, he was forced to quit and undergo back surgery for a herniated disc. Top-six forwards Peter Regin and Milan Michalek are out with injuries. Guillaume Latendresse, the big forward signed over the summer by Murray, is out with an injury. And top prospects with the minor-league Binghamton Senators, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman, are both injured.
That’s eight players, several of them critical to any success the team might have.
“I got fired in Washington when we had seven players out,” Murray said, referring to his dismissal as the Capitals’ coach during the 1989-90 season.
When Spezza went down, Murray said the “back end” would have to contribute, and the defence, led by Karlsson, has done just that. Now, however, the only answer is a tongue-in-cheek “We just won’t allow any goals” and pray the depleted team can score a few “by committee.”
What this means to fans is not hopeful. Without their top playmaker and their top player, Senators coach Paul MacLean will be forced to resort to what all NHL coaches turn to when they have little more than good goaltending: a shut-down, trapping style of play that suffocates opposition and puts viewers to sleep.
If goaltender Craig Anderson – NHL player of the month in January and widely considered the top goaltender in the league at the moment – takes a turn for the worse or, gulp, suffers his own injury, it could get even uglier.
Does Murray still think his team, which squeaked into the playoffs last year, can make it to postseason play?
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that,” he said. But, of course, what else can he say?
Murray also guarded his mouth when discussing the injury and the NHL’s decision not to do anything to Cooke. Cooke’s rap sheet is filled with convictions for head shots and knee take-outs, though he supposedly reformed last year and stayed clear of the disciplinary office of NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan.
“I feel terrible about it,” Cooke told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “I’m not trying to do that, obviously.”
The league obviously agreed. Murray spoke with Shanahan in the morning to get the league view that it was nothing more than “a hockey play gone bad.”
Murray did not agree. “I don’t see that,” he said.
“I suggested Matt Cooke has somewhat of a history, and that should be considered as well.”
If it was purely accidental, as many will argue, it was a fluke in another way as well. Had the play been blown down, as it should have been, after the puck flew up and bounced off the netting, there would have been no crush along the boards, no attempt by Cooke to pin Karlsson in an inconsequential play and, of course, no slicing of the Achilles tendon.
Murray denied that he was outraged that Cooke had been excused on the incident.
“We get no benefit of a player being suspended,” he said with a shrug.
“I’m outraged that we lost Erik Karlsson, that’s all.”