While the "national" hockey media shoot fish in a barrel reporting obsessively on the collapse of the Toronto Maple Leafs, up the road in Ottawa, a franchise has been in slow decline.
The bombastic and debt-laden owner, Eugene Melnyk, and general manager, Bryan Murray, have presided over the Ottawa Senator's slide to out-of-the-playoffs mediocrity. The Senators stand 11th in the Eastern Conference, nine points from the wild-card playoff position, and 22nd overall, a far cry from where they used to be a decade ago. Next week, the Senators start a hard five-game road trip against Western Conference teams, all of which are better than Ottawa.
Melnyk, who has recently sold his stables and horses to raise money, used to brag about being willing to spend to the NHL salary cap in quest of a winning team. Now, Melnyk boasts about having imposed one of the league's lowest salary caps on the Senators, claiming other owners are blowing money on bad deals. The result is obvious on the ice and in the organization. The Senators cannot compete against teams with much higher salaries. The co-relation is not exact (see the Leafs), but larger-spending teams do tend to finish higher up in the standing.
Melnyk remains defiant, insisting in December, "I'm not in the least embarrassed about us spending at the bottom. I'm happy about it because we'll be able to spend more in the future and some can't. Some are stuck."
Maybe, but there is no guarantee given the owner's debt load that the team will enjoy a bounce in the league's spending tables.
The owner's finances could worsen in the near future, when a new infusion of U.S. dollars (purchased at current Canadian dollar rates) will be needed. There is also the possibility some fans will not renew their season tickets or refuse to buy single-game tickets, given the consistently mediocre performance of the team. Some fans might justifiably resent the team's chutzpah at sending season-ticket renewal requests at the end of January for a season that begins next October with such a middling product on the ice.
Here, the Senators are very different from the Leafs, who sell out their building every night no matter how awful the team. What galls Leafs fans, among other indignities, is that the team has oodles of money, spends to the cap and is still dreadful. The Sens are marginally better on the ice, but they don't have the Leafs' kind of money to waste.
Perhaps this smaller-market reflex explains a little why Sens fans are remarkably uncomplaining. They don't make much noise compared to fans in other cities. They seldom boo. They don't throw sweaters on the ice in disgust or wear garbage bags over their heads. They don't hold up homemade signs decrying mediocrity. The Ottawa media are tame by Toronto standards.
It's almost as though by expressing unhappiness at Melnyk's Mess, fans fear he might try to move the team, which of course he could not easily do under league bylaws. Were his creditors ever to force him to sell the club, it would be purchased by someone else.
That he would be forced to sell the club is a consummation for which a growing number of sophisticated and dedicated Sens fans devoutly wish. Long gone are the days when Melnyk was viewed as a hero for having "saved" the Senators. He bought low, and Forbes magazine estimates the value of the franchise is more than double what he paid for it.
A decade ago, the Senators were among the very best teams in hockey. They stayed that way for three or four years thereafter, and then the slide began. In fairness, the slide began almost imperceptibly under the previous general manager, John Muckler: two straight draft years without an NHL player, the Dany Heatley for Marian Hossa trade, poor moves at the trading deadline. The slide has continued since.
Melnyk insists he has lost $94-million to $110-million (numbers have varied) since buying the Senators. As Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, an accountant by training, once quipped: You can make a loss into a profit and vice versa quite quickly in sports accounting.
The Senators are privately owned, so no one knows how much revenue the club produces goes into debt payment. What is known is that when Melnyk bought the franchise, which was bankrupt in 2005, he did so with plenty of debt. It is not known what Melnyk's divorce did to his wealth.
According to senior officials with both the Bank of Nova Scotia and Canadian Tire, Melnyk got mad at Scotiabank for its attitude to some of his loans. He tore up the bank's naming agreement for the building where the Senators play, and tried to wipe away the rest of the bank's public presence. It took the intervention of league commissioner Gary Bettman to get Melnyk to back off, since Scotiabank is the bank of the NHL in Canada and has exposure rights in every Canadian market. Melnyk then sold the naming rights for the building to Canadian Tire.
The Senators will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Over the past eight years, the Senators have failed to qualify for the playoffs four times, lost in the first round three times and have won only one series – two seasons ago against Montreal. In the past three years, the Senators finished 16th, 14th and 21st overall. This year, the Senators will likely end up somewhere in the 22nd to 24th range.
Sens fans' only serious solace has been to watch their rivals collapse in Toronto. But if judging any franchise's performance by that of Toronto gives comfort, then sustained mediocrity will do.
Rather than comparisons with Toronto or Edmonton, Sens fans should check out how the Montreal Canadiens have soared under owner Geoff Molson and general manager Marc Bergevin. Or the Winnipeg Jets, a team in a smaller market than Ottawa, that is going to qualify for the playoffs and has a stacked farm system.
Like the Leafs, the Senators changed coaches midseason this year. Dave Cameron, a Sens assistant coach reported to be a Melnyk favourite, replaced Paul MacLean, but the team's record did not improve. Selecting a coach is arguably a general manager's most important decision. Bryan Murray has appointed five in eight years. None has been able to stop the slow slide. Four previous coaches have taken the fall, while upper management remained intact. The Senators are lumbered with bad contracts to underperforming players. There are not as many horrible contracts as in Toronto, but for a low-cap team, a bevy of bad contracts eats up desperately needed money.
As in, a three-year, $7.9-million contract for Colin Greening, who is now in Binghamton, never to return. As in, a two-year, $6-million contract for declining centre-iceman David Legwand, signed as a free agent. As in, a $4-million-a-year, three-year deal for Milan Michalek (11 goals in 51 games). A slightly more lucrative and longer deal for Clarke MacArthur (one goal in 2015).
Then there are the two veterans – Chris Phillips and Chris Neil – whom the team is trying to peddle, although Neil fractured a thumb in a recent game and is likely untradeable. They both have a year left on their contracts. Bobby Ryan, a joyous personality and a talented player, has signed an eyebrow-raising contract starting next year: an average $7.25-million, not commensurate with someone with 14 goals this year and on target for maybe 20 or 22.
Despite brave talk about how the Senators are building for the future, its AHL team, the Binghamton Senators, is last in its division and stands 28th in a 30-team league, with no evident talent ready to make a serious difference in the NHL. A recent review of 50 top prospects not in the NHL showed none in the Senators organization.
The slide – remember the Senators went to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007 and remained strong for several years thereafter – has featured bad trades, the worst being goalie Ben Bishop to Tampa for Cory Conacher.
Bishop was nominated for the Vézina Trophy and is back-stopping Tampa for a Stanley Cup run. Conacher couldn't stick with the Senators, Buffalo and the Islanders and is now in the AHL. By contrast, the trade that brought Kyle Turris from Phoenix was a steal for Ottawa, although this season with Jason Spezza gone has revealed that Turris is a second-line centre, not a No. 1.
Spezza wanted out of Ottawa, knowing the team could not afford to sign him to another long-term deal. He went to Dallas for Alex Chiasson (nine goals and occasionally benched), Alex Guptill (four goals in 37 games in Binghamton), OHLer Nick Paul (who showed good promise on the Canadian junior team) and a second-round pick in this year's draft.
Even with Spezza gone, the false promises of better days ahead still kept coming from Melnyk, because every year Sens fans are treated to another blast of Melnyk's braggadocio.
In August of last year, for example, Melnyk declared that "If everybody just plays to their potential I think it's a great team and is going to be very competitive and will be a playoff team. … Once the playoffs start anything can happen … I think we are going to be very, very competitive." After each loss, the same clichés pour forth about "puck luck," "bad bounces," "tough breaks." Nobody ever says the team just isn't good enough.
Even when the Senators do win, there are occasionally questions. For example, the Sens recently squeaked past Buffalo, the league's worst and lowest-scoring team, by a 2-1 score, but were outshot in the second period 21-4. How could that happen?
There have been a few very bright spots. Goalie Craig Anderson, acquired in a good trade, has been excellent. (His backup, Robin Lehner, has not). Without Anderson, only Buffalo would stand between the Senators and last place in the East. Rookies Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman have been pleasant surprises. Stone is a two-way player who has bagged 36 points and 14 goals. Hoffman is quicksilver fast. He has scored 20 goals. Both look as if they're solid NHLers.
The Senators are among the league's youngest teams. Perhaps that explains the team's inconsistency, as in a 6-3 loss this week at home to a bad Carolina team; a 4-2 triumph over first-place Montreal. The franchise hopes that many of young players are still adjusting to the demands of the NHL and, with time and more experience they will help the Senators improve. The Senators will have a high pick this year in a draft with many fine players.
The most important future questions all swirl around the owner and the front office. Melnyk insists he will not sell the team. If he gets a new arena adjacent to downtown Ottawa on LeBreton Flats, as he is proposing, that might be good for his bottom line and for the city.
The new arena would be many years away. If any public finances were requested – as is very likely – the idea would be furiously denounced in many quarters. Public land for private gain would be a tough political sell. In the meantime, all signs point to continuing tight finances for the team. Also, episodic bouts of impetuous behaviour are likely, as when Melnyk made life so uncomfortable for the iconic Daniel Alfredsson that he left Ottawa to play one year for Detroit.
Recognizing the public relations catastrophe of Alfredsson's departure, Murray (to his credit) arranged for the most popular (and best) player in franchise history to return for his retirement, a night Sens fans cherished. Melnyk was present, of course, and said all the right things. Alfredsson will be given the keys to the city at a ceremony in early March.
The stars are all aligned for Alfredsson to return to Ottawa (where his family was very happy) in a front-office capacity where his brains and integrity – to say nothing of his local credibility – can only help. Just where he would fit in – and whether he could abide working under Melnyk – remains unknown, especially since GM Murray soldiers on making long-term decisions despite having Stage 4 cancer that has spread from his colon.
At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Senators' front office will look somewhat different. Whether with the budget constraints as they are, new personnel could reverse the slow slide remains to be seen.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Mr. Melnyk has been divorced twice. This version has been updated