There are two sides to every debate, of course, and plenty of Ottawa Senators fans will be outraged with my inclusion of Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray, seen above in The Hockey News' 1986 yearbook. The long-time NHL veteran has certainly seen his share of ups and downs with the Ottawa Senators since coming on as head coach for the 2005-06 season, but recent transactions have offered promise for the immediate and long-term future of the Ottawa Senators franchise.
Murray's first season as head coach was a strong one, and he led the Senators to a 52-21-9 record. They had significant expectations of playoff success, as was the case with so many recent Senators teams, but were a disappointment after being eliminated in the second round at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres. His second season started awfully, with Ottawa going 8-11-1 in the first 20 games of the season. Fans were calling for Murray's immediate firing, but owner Eugene Melnyk and GM John Muckler stuck with Murray, and it turned out to be the right decision: He turned the record into a 48-25-9 mark by the end of the season, and led the team through the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, and Buffalo Sabres to win the Eastern Conference before falling to the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup Finals.
That summer, in a move that surprised many, Muckler was fired as GM and Murray took over as the chief decision-maker. His first order of business was replacing himself, and that didn't go well: John Paddock, for various reasons, wasn't able to maintain a torrent pace to which he started the season, and was eventually fired and replaced by Murray himself. The GMs second choice was an even bigger bust, and Craig Hartsburg was behind the bench for most of the Senators' worst season in over a decade. His third choice, however, appears to be a keeper, as Cory Clouston was recruited from the AHL's Binghamton Senators and turned the Senators ship right around to end the season (although not enough to get the team into the playoffs).
His transaction history in terms of trades includes some major busts and some good deals. Trading Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves for Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore was a mistake in retrospect, but many were hailing it at the time as a terrific deal for a team gearing up for the playoffs--particularly because Corvo had demanded a trade. Acquiring Martin Lapointe for a sixth-round pick was a waste of a pick, but it was another playoff-push deal. The verdict remains out on trading Andrej Meszaros, who still has the potential to be among the league's top defencemen, for Filip Kuba, Alex Picard, and a first-round pick, but that trade appears to favour Ottawa for the time being. Acquiring Chris Campoli and Mike Comrie for that first-rounder and Dean McAmmond may have been a good deal, if Campoli can become the puck-moving powerplay specialist he is expected to be. Trading Lawrence Nycholat for Ryan Shannon, who'd become a significant producer for the Sens, was a steal, and getting a fifth-round pick for Brian McGrattan was a shrewd trade, as well. Most impressive, perhaps, was the acquisition of Pascal Leclaire, Ottawa's first bona fide starting goaltender since Dominik Hasek's brief stint, as well as a second-round pick for popular if often underwhelming forward Antoine Vermette. Should Leclaire develop as expected, he will offer the Senators a significant improvement over the goaltending of past seasons.
In the free agent pool, Murray brought in Luke Richardson, a serviceable flop who's transitioned into coaching for the team; Brendan Bell, a surprisingly capable (and very cap-friendly) puck-mover; super-pest Jarkko Ruutu; capable and inexpensive backup goaltender Alex Auld; and playoff warrior Jason Smith, who's looked uncomfortable while playing out of his element. A rather varied pool of acquisitions, highlighted more by the players he wasn't able to acquire (Brian Campbell, Dan Boyle, any starting goaltender), but none of whom are or will be long-term cap-killers.
Murray's drafting has historically been his strongest point, and that is most true for his tenure with the Senators. In two drafts he has virtually regenerated the Senators' previously bare prospect cupboard with the likes of Jim O'Brien, Louie Caporusso, Ben Blood, Erik Karlsson, Pat Wiercoch, and Zack Smith, and also brought in free agents Jesse Winchester and Craig Schira.
Still, the biggest hit on Murray since he began as GM were the contracts he signed to Senators players, and the loyalty--perhaps to a fault--he shows to players he is familiar with. This, obviously, includes a six-year, $45M contract to Dany Heatley; a seven-year, $49M contract to Jason Spezza; a five-year, $21M contract to Mike Fisher; a four-year, $21.6M contract to Daniel Alfredsson; a three-year, 11.1M contract to Filip Kuba; and a four-year, $8.5M contract to Chris Kelly; the first five include some no-movement of no-trade stipulation at some point in the contract. And this doesn't include the three-year, $9.5M contract that was given to Ray Emery and bought out less than a year later, and is a hit against the Sens' cap until 2012. These contracts certainly make it difficult for the Senators to adjust their roster on an annual basis, especially in the context of a seemingly inevitable salary-cap reduction.
Certainly, Murray has had succeses and failures with the Senators. His drafting, so far, appears to be very strong. His trading has been positive at times, but he has also made poor deals. He has often been generous in re-signing players to contracts, and that may put the Senators in a difficult situation should these higher-paid players not produce as expected. Still, his experience as a shrewd manager of talent should benefit the Senators in both the short- and long-term, if he is given time to see out his plan for the franchise's development.