When Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk made the announcement that Bryan Murray would be around as the team's general manager for another three years, there was a near-universal response: What? That was followed shortly after by disbelieving laughs from outside the Senators' fanbase, and a mixture of continued confusion or outright rage from within.
Both reactions are understandable. There is a good portion of Senators fans who have been calling for Murray's head for years now, and even many supporters had acknowledged that, after this season, maybe it was time for a change. Considering his age -- Murray is 68 years old now, and will be 71 at the conclusion of the contract -- it's surprising he'd commit to another three years, and more surprising that Melnyk would commit to him for that long.
And that's to say nothing of his record as GM, which has been spotty at best. No one will deny his success at the draft table: He has emphasized both quality and quantity while drafting, and has brought in a huge number of good prospects to the team's system, making smart choices with his early picks but also finding some better-than-expected gems with those in later rounds (Mike Hoffman, Corey Cowick, and Mark Stone being a few). There are both good and bad moves on Murray's trading dossier, with deadline-day rentals of Cory Stillman, Mike Commodore, and Matt Cullen all ending up without benefit for the Senators, while other deals -- especially acquiring Craig Anderson and David Rundblad -- have looked very shrewd.
Some contracts have been ugly, especially those given to Alex Kovalev and Sergei Gonchar (although the latter could still turn out to be a good one, it looks like a huge mistake right now). Limited-movement clauses given out like candy to everyone from Dany Heatley to Filip Kuba have undoubtedly hurt the team, to say nothing of the money that went along with them. But Murray has also signed a half dozen good free agent prospects (most notably Bobby Butler and Stephane Da Costa), and made it a priority to assemble drafted prospects of the previous management regime so they could begin contributing to the Senators organization.
The butt of most jokes, though, has been his terrible coach-selection work. John Paddock and Craig Hartsburg were unmitigated failures. When Murray himself stepped behind the bench, it improved nothing. The only coach that had any success was Cory Clouston, who was brought in on an interim basis and expected to be little more than a stand-in -- but even Clouston appears to be on his way out.
All of this raises the obvious question: Why is this guy getting another three years with the team?
The answer seems to be, among other reasons, that Melnyk wants to give Murray the opportunity to finish what he started.
It's a fairly common belief that to truly assess the value of a general manager, you need to wait a few seasons to see what the players he's brought become as professional NHL players. This applies a lot more to drafting than it does to trades, but given Murray's tendency to prioritize the draft and acquiring prospects in other ways, it seems like a logical practice in this instance.
To put it briefly, Murray inherited a team that wasn't of his construction. Over the course of several seasons, that team has been almost completely dismantled, beginning somewhat slowly and then speeding up around the trade deadline of this past season. In the process, Murray has been courting players that work under his blueprint: Mostly big players who can play on both sides of the puck. It would seem he's sold his blueprint well to Melnyk, and the owner wants to see whether it can work.
The Senate Reform is well on its way. The Ottawa Senators are, in some ways, ahead of schedule in terms of a rebuild, and while few will expect the team to compete for a playoff spot next season, the high-calibre prospects that will be joining some good established NHLers should offer Ottawa every chance of getting back into the playoffs within a few years. Assuming the team continues to bring in more prospects by drafting and signing them, they should be set up well to have a continuous supply of young players ready to fill in on the roster when holes come up due to losses via trade, free agency, or retirement.
Murray is already the second-longest-tenured general manager in Senators history. He stands poised to become only the second given the opportunity to see a team of his construction through to its pinnacle: Muckler had six seasons to put his mark on the team, and he built his Senators into an Eastern Conference-champion team.
But John Muckler and Bryan Murray had different ideas on how to build a team, and that disconnect led to the slow and painful demise of the Muckler-built Senators, and this genesis of the Murray-built version. But this team can now be seen as nothing but a Murray-built one, so if his blueprint doesn't lead to a contending team, the blame will rest squarely on his shoulders.