The Ottawa Senators have accepted defeat.
Not just the 7-1 drubbing the Montreal Canadiens placed on them here Friday night, or the 6-2 defeat by the Philadelphia Flyers the night before, but defeat for the season, defeat, even, for all the hopes ignited during the team's 2007 run to the Stanley Cup final.
It's over. A decision has been made not only to accept the inevitable, but to embrace it.
Ever so quietly in recent days, the team solicited opinions and advice from key figures in its fan and corporate base. The message received was clear: Fans are sick of losing, sick of talking about losing, sick of analyzing why they keep losing. They want to look ahead to next year's games, not back on this year's games. In their minds, this season has been written off.
The interpretation of this message has been that the Senators' fan base will not only accept but will enthusiastically cheer a complete rebuilding program. They want to move from the negative to the positive.
Owner Eugene Melnyk, under fire recently for his silence on the subject, finally spoke to an Ottawa newspaper on Saturday and conceded that "the time has come to make some of the most difficult decisions that any owner can make." Melnyk says he not only has formulated a plan, but that plan "is now in motion." He would not elaborate, so let us do it for him.
According to various sources in and around the team, general manager Bryan Murray - widely blamed for the team's demise - will move into a senior adviser role similar to what coaching legend Scotty Bowman has done with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Murray, 68, has a wealth of experience that the franchise is keen to tap as the rebuilding begins in earnest approaching the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
Murray's record as GM is mixed, ranging from the success of trading up in the draft to get defenceman Erik Karlsson to the disaster of signing forward Alexei Kovalev to a two-year, $10-million (all currency U.S.) contract. His greatest downfall, however, was more just plain bad luck: trading for goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who will pick up $3.8-million in this final year of his contract. Picking up Leclaire was widely applauded in hockey circles when it happened, but the goaltender never lived up to promise and has been almost constantly injured.
There is also the misfortune of losing offensive threat Jason Spezza to injury, but the situation in Ottawa has moved beyond talking about goalposts, crossbars, scoring chances and bad bounces. It is simply a bad hockey team, counterarguments no longer welcome or required.
Melnyk is fond of Murray and, a year ago, talked Murray out of his plans to retire. The native of Shawville, Que., was offered a three-year deal, but told Melnyk: "We'll take it one year at a time." There have times this winter when Murray has regretted that decision. Friends say he has been "shattered and sickened" by the team's collapse.
Melnyk has told his senior people that both Murray and coach Cory Clouston will finish the season, but then Murray will hand over his GM duties to someone else.
Clouston is unlikely to remain as head coach beyond that time. While Clouston is highly organized and hard working, he has never connected with team veterans - he was the main reason top scorer Dany Heatley forced a trade - and has had no success working with such Russian players as Kovalev and Sergei Gonchar, a defenceman signed last summer for $16.5-million over three years.
The new general manager has not been selected yet, though interviews are planned. One possible candidate for GM, who has already been interviewed, is TSN broadcaster Pierre McGuire, himself a former NHL coach.
McGuire is a fan of Kirk Muller, an assistant coach with the Montreal Canadiens, and former Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish. Another coaching possibility is former NHLer Kevin Dineen, currently coaching the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League.
However, other candidates are still to be interviewed, and the coaching decision will be entirely in the hands of Murray's successor as GM.
Clouston has shown an ability to work with prospects - the only slightly bright spots on the team are young, such as teenage goaltender Robin Lehner and 20-year-old Karlsson - and could be asked to rejuvenate the franchise's scouting system, particularly in the West, where Clouston previously coached junior hockey.
The main task for 2011, however, would fall to the general manager of the team, first Murray and then his successor. The immediate requirement for Murray involves the "selling off" of assets. Attempts would be made to move any veteran players prior to the trade deadline. Non-performers such as Kovalev and disappointments such as Gonchar could attract interest for the stretch run and playoffs. Players with no-trade or no-move clauses, such as captain Daniel Alfredsson or assistant Chris Phillips, might be asked to waive their clauses if it meant moving to a team with playoff potential.
Next will be the June draft, which would be under the new GM. The Senators will continue to compete as best they can, yet even so may still finish in the bottom five of the league. This would put them into the NHL lottery that determines the first five picks in the entry draft. A high pick would fit the plan perfectly.
In summer, the task of the new GM would be the dumping of salaries and, whenever possible, deals that might bring in prospects or draft picks.
For as of now, it is only the future that matters for this franchise.
The present is over.