Halloween week in the capital.
Tuesday was trick or treat night, followed immediately by the Day of the Dead, the Aztec Dia de los Muertos, where all are to remember those who have passed.
It seemed, at times, as if Eugene Melnyk, the controversial, unpredictable owner of the Ottawa Senators who died in early 2022, might have somehow returned for a little trickery.
Certainly, Michael Andlauer seemed rather startled, if not quite spooked, when in a Wednesday news conference the exasperated new owner said, “In the last 10 days, we’ve had three losses, three injuries, a 41-game suspension, and the loss of a first-round pick.”
(Now four losses after losing 3-2 to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night.)
Only last month, Andlauer, whose group paid some US$950-million for the franchise, was feeling nothing but love in Ottawa. He brought beloved former captain Daniel Alfredsson back into the organization. He brought back respected former team president Cyril Leeder. He even brought back Lyndon Slewidge, the retired police officer, to sing the anthem at the home opener, which the promising young team won.
But then came the losses, leaving the team with a 4-5-0 record, last in the Atlantic Division. Not where they want to be. Not where they expected to be.
Then there were the injuries, a broken finger to critical defenceman Thomas Chabot, a head injury to defenceman Erik Brännström, and a lingering injury that has kept the team’s steadiest defender, Artem Zub, out of the lineup.
It gets worse.
The Senators lost centre Shane Pinto, who has yet to be signed to a contract, to a 41-game suspension. The heavy penalty was imposed following a league investigation that determined Pinto was somehow involved in sports betting, though it was claimed it did not involve his betting on hockey games. The league offered no further explanation, though one was certainly called for by all who learned of the surprise penalty. The Senators, it might be noted, are a team that advertises gambling on its helmets and plays in a league that allows cringing television ads in which Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews turns to the camera and says, “Bet on yourself.”
Then came the real crusher. As the result of yet another league investigation, it was determined that the Senators had bungled a trade of journeyman player Evgenii Dadonov when they failed to inform the Vegas Golden Knights that Dadonov had a 10-team no-trade clause in his contract. When the Golden Knights tried to deal him last year to the Anaheim Ducks, they were informed the Ducks were on that list. The trade was quickly nullified by the league.
The NHL penalty for this error? The Senators must forfeit a first-round pick from one of the three next drafts – a devastating blow to a young team trying to rebuild itself into a serious contender. They are a team clearly improving, and the loss of a potential star player from the first round of the draft is devastating news to the franchise.
“Why I inherited this is beyond me,” Andlauer told local media on Wednesday. “It was basically, from the seller’s perspective, really a non-issue. I don’t know if first round is a non-issue to you guys, but it is to me.”
Though clearly upset with the league decision, the new owner chose to take the high road. “At the end of the day,” he said, “we are at fault for what transpired. We can argue about how harsh this penalty was, but ultimately this could have been avoided. …
“As a member of this league, we have to be held accountable for our actions. And while this was done before my watch, I must respect the league’s decision.”
As for Andlauer’s own decision, it was to separate ways with general manager Pierre Dorion, who had been running the team since 2016. While Dorion had made several excellent draft picks and signings – captain Brady Tkachuk, rising star Tim Stützle among them – the team has not made the postseason since 2017. Steve Staios has been appointed interim GM.
What both Andlauer and Staios, both out-of-towners, need to know, if they do not already, is that Ottawa sports fans are deeply insecure, having lost their NHL franchise once generations back and previously watched professional football, baseball and lacrosse teams either collapse or move.
This reminder of the Melnyk chaos and uncertainty was certainly not welcomed by the fan base. Especially not early in the season.
These modern-day Ottawa Senators are also November Nervous Nellies, having seen the past two promising seasons stumble in early autumn and never recover in time for the playoffs.
“This has got to be a big month for us,” Tkachuk said following Thursday’s morning skate. It does indeed. Especially with another loss to open the month of November.
“Obviously,” head coach D.J. Smith added, “there’s been distractions the last week or so.”
A few, yes … quite a few.
The time has come, Smith said, to “Cut the noise out.”
This week, unfortunately, it’s been positively howling.