It was a completely meaningless evening, and yet every word spoken was being broken down and analyzed as if it somehow held the code to the future.
The two teams on the ice were the Montreal Canadiens, happily headed for the Stanley Cup playoffs next week, and the Ottawa Senators, their postseason long a lost cause and out of reach. The game meant nothing to either side. Montreal couldn't do any better; Ottawa couldn't do any worse. For the record, the Canadiens' Mike Cammalleri forced overtime when he scored with 10 seconds left to tie the game. The Senators won 3-2 when Filip Kuba's shot from the point went in past Montreal goaltender Alex Auld.
Off the ice, however, the absentee owner of the Senators had come to town and was speaking in oblique phrases and hinged language that would have left a campaign-promising politician speechless by comparison.
In a Wednesday interview on the Fan 590 radio in Toronto, and subsequent television chats on the local CTV outlet in Ottawa and Hockey Night In Canada, owner Eugene Melnyk was pressed to say whether or not general manager Bryan Murray and/or coach Cory Clouston would be staying on after a lost season in which so many changes had been made that pre-game player introductions had become a necessity rather than a formality.
In the Toronto interview, Melnyk said the club was now "rid of all the bad guys," a statement taken to mean the long list of players - Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Campoli, Alexei Kovalev and goaltender Brian Elliott - that had been dispatched to other teams for draft picks and prospects. While many in Ottawa were less than amused to hear admired local heroes like Fisher and Kelly slagged as "bad guys," it may have been a reference to "bad players," which would most assuredly include Kovalev and Elliott.
He said he "thought that on paper, we had a team that would easily go into the playoffs, the discussion was how deep we would go."
It was never a deep team, but it was a fair roster that was destroyed by the failures of No. 1 goaltender Pascal Leclaire, injuries to captain Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, and a coach, Clouston, who could not connect with the veterans, some of whom ignored him while others, like Kovalev, sulked and turned off.
In recent weeks, a hot goaltender - Craig Anderson, who came from Colorado Avalanche in a trade for Elliott - and a roster composed of ambitious college and minor leaguers hoping they might land an NHL job has created a sense that this team may have already righted itself. While applause is deserved, it has not righted itself. This is merely the latest example in hockey's long list of teams that fall out of the running and, with nothing to lose and often up against teams content to drift into the playoffs, sparkle enough at the end to give hope, usually false, for next year.
"It's a pleasant surprise to watch what happened the past six weeks," Melnyk said when he landed in Ottawa, "seeing this team step up to what I always thought they had."
He did, however, concede that the overall year had been a disaster. "It was really tough," he said in Toronto. "It's unbearable to finally admit you're a loser."
And therein is found the impenetrable question: what to do? The normal course of action after such a season would be immediately to fire the coach, which is certainly a possibility, and to consider a change in the hockey operations as the team enters what will be a rebuilding process of undetermined length.
Melnyk heaped praise on the 68-year-old Murray for his character, for his loyalty and for the job he did earlier this year in sacking his own team in return for future players and draft picks. He elected not to lay blame directly, yet conceding that "Something went terribly wrong. To pinpoint that on one thing is impossible. I've lost sleep. Bryan has lost sleep and Cory has lost sleep. There's not one thing you can point to and say, 'Aha, this is what happened.' It was the perfect storm: everything that could go wrong did."
Melnyk then teased in all his interviews by saying he had made up his mind but was not willing to reveal his thinking. He did say he would begin meeting with Murray Friday and talking about the future of the team's coaching and management.
"Look," he said in Ottawa of Murray, "we get along. It's only a question of seeing whether we think he is the right man for the position over the next several years. Whether we can come together and whether we can walk down that aisle together."
As for Clouston's future, he would only offer: "That would really involve the next GM -- whoever that may be."
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