In this upside-down city, it felt more like the beginning than the end of the hockey season.
The temperature had plummeted from a balmy 24 C the day before; recently raked lawns were covered with a fresh fall of wet snow; traffic was snarled; and people were talking Senators.
Not how they’d do – but what to do with them?
The fans had certainly had their say: Fire the coach, fire the GM, trade the captain, sell the team, get rid of the bunch of them.
If you’re a Canadian NHL team anywhere but Montreal this year, April is indeed the cruelest month.
A year ago, the Ottawa Senators went farther into the playoffs than any Canadian team and head coach Paul MacLean was awarded the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s coach of the year.
Now, after a season in which MacLean’s Senators were inconsistent, took terrible penalties, played beer-league defensive hockey and couldn’t beat the weakest teams in the league as they fell well short of the playoffs, the shine was considerably off.
“He just had a bad year,” team owner Eugene Melnyk told a media conference call Tuesday. “And I think he’d readily admit that.”
General manager Bryan Murray was even more critical, telling a press conference that MacLean – with two-and-a-half seasons as a head coach under his belt – was still learning how to coach.
This year, Murray suggested, MacLean changed his approach. Whereas previously he was known for his approachability, willing to sit and talk to the players, this year a frustrated MacLean often got confrontational. This works with some players, Murray said, not with others.
“The players liked the old Paul,” said Murray.
There will be no coaching change at the top. “Paul’s our coach,” added Melnyk. “And he’s going to be our coach going into next year.”
If there are going to be changes – and both Melnyk and Murray, not to mention the fans, say there have to be – they will come within the roster. Murray would like to land a good “harder” forward – what team wouldn’t?
But apart from that, he has a fairly restrictive budget (the Senators were $8-million under the salary cap this season) when it comes to taking on expensive free agents.
The current roster was roundly scolded by both Melnyk, who pays for it, and Murray, who largely built it. Melnyk found the team’s inconsistency intolerable. How, he wondered, could the Senators “go in and beat up on the best teams in the league and then come back and miss what I call ‘the two-foot putts?’ ”
Any late-season playoff hopes the team still clung to vanished with losses to the likes of the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders. “What’s with that?” asked Melnyk.
Murray said there were games over the season that were simply “embarrassing” as the Senators were badly outshot, could not get out of their own end and offered turnover after turnover.
“Not one of our young defence showed marked improvement,” said Murray.
Murray’s critical moves over the coming months will not, however, concern young defencemen who stumbled badly. It will involve the core veterans.
Without naming them – no need to in this hyper-critical market – Murray said there are five key players (a sixth would be winger Clarke MacArthur) who must be evaluated: Decisions have to be made on whether to offer them contract extensions, allow them to pursue free agency with other teams, or offer them in a major trade.
Primary among them is lightning-rod captain Jason Spezza, who is regularly blamed for every sparrow that falls in Ottawa. A risk-taking playmaker and a defensive liability, Spezza is a point-a-game scorer with a $7-million cap hit, and he is eligible for unrestricted free agency after next season.
The sense is that the team will actively seek to trade him over the summer.
Spezza’s wingers, then, would also be “re-evaluated.” Milan Michalek, another UFA in 2015, did not have a good year and is considered expendable. Ales Hemsky, a trading-deadline pick-up from the Edmonton Oilers, worked marvellously with Spezza but is up for a new contract this summer and might prefer to see what the open market might offer.
Goaltender Craig Anderson – the saviour of the 2013 mini-season – may well be offered an extension, as would be MacArthur, who had a fine season.
That leaves Bobby Ryan, the winger Murray dealt for last summer in an attempt to pair a proven scorer with Spezza. That never worked out, but Ryan did work well with centre Kyle Turris and scored 23 goals before undergoing surgery for a sports hernia.
Murray made it clear he is a Ryan fan, indicating there have already been preliminary contract talks.
Fans have bemoaned the fact that the Ryan deal cost this team-in-need its first-round draft pick in June, and the Anaheim Ducks also received prospects Jakob Silfverberg and Stefan Noesen. But Murray was quick to defend the deal.
“I would do it again in heartbeat,” he said.
The one concession Murray will make is that the team missed former captain Daniel Alfredsson, who left for the Detroit Red Wings when the Senators would not offer what he felt was his due: “I’d be wrong if I said he didn’t have an impact on this year.”
The concern now, however, is next year.