Three years ago, Bryan Murray was on his way out of town. The team's Stanley Cup window had closed abruptly, weighed down by decisions from the GM that had not worked out. The 2010-11 season saw the team reap what they had sown:
- Head coach Cory Clouston had lost the team, and would be fired. Neither of his predecessors, Craig Hartsburg and John Paddock, had even lasted a full season before getting fired.
- Goaltending coach Eli Wilson had been fired, and Rick Wamsley was brought in, as he was familiar with the team's starting goalie...
- Pascal Lecliare, brought in to stabilize the goaltending position, managed to play just 14 games, forcing the team to rely on a stable of Brian Elliott and five other players: Leclaire, Curtis McElhinney, Robin Lehner, Mike Brodeur, and ultimately, Craig Anderson.
- Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, brought in to "make other teams block shots" only managed 27 points (7G, 20) in 67 games for the team--he had 50 (11G, 39A) in 62 for the Pittsburgh Penguins the year before. The Senators would rank 22nd in shots per game (with 29), a drop from 18th (29.7) the year before. In terms of shots allowed, they were 4th-best (28.5) in 2009, and dropped to 20th (31.2) in 2010.
- The team had traded away draft picks and roster players for players such as Cory Stillman, Mike Commodore, Matt Cullen, and Andy Sutton only to let those players depart via free agency.
- Alex Kovalev, brought in to help offset the loss of Dany Heatley, put together a second season if inconsistency, infuriating fans and media alike.
- Just about every player missed time for some reason or another, with only winger Nick Foligno and defenseman Chris Phillips suiting up for all 82 games.
In short, everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Things came to a head after the team lost 7-1 at home to the Montreal Canadiens, and owner Eugene Melnyk, in an interview with the Ottawa Sun, said:
"We're going to do what it takes to bring the Stanley Cup to Ottawa, whether it takes one, three or five years. It will happen. You have my commitment. Don't think for one second that we're not putting a plan in place that's methodical, calculated and with a lot of forethought to win a Stanley Cup. The reason I've been quiet is I've been working on a plan. That plan is now in motion."
The plan, as it turned out, was to shed salary, get some draft picks, and open some spots for younger players. The next month, the team would go on to trade Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu, Kovalev, Chris Campoli, and most importantly, Brian Elliott. The Elliott trade, as fans well know, brought in Anderson, who played well enough in an 11-game audition to earn a 4-year, $12.75M deal. It was a confusing move to most fans, as the speculation was that Murray had been clearing the table for his successor. In fact, this was the second such signing that created consternation, as Murray had signed lifer Chris Phillips to a 3-year, $9.25M extension at the trade deadline--a move many disagreed with when the team was selling other assets.
Of course, Anderson played so well that the Senators moved out of lottery position to finish 5th (The New Jersey Devils would ultimately win the lottery, and bump the Senators to 6th overall in the first round.) And while Melnyk had not given any hint to the future beyond guaranteeing Murray, Clouston, and staff would get to play out their contracts, a statement usually viewed one step below "vote of confidence" on the kiss-of-death scale.
Instead, while Clouston was fired, Murray was signed to a three-year extension--an extension that expires this year. It's debatable how much the mistakes Murray had made up to this season were the results of bad decisions versus bad luck, but there's not much arguing that as the general manager, he was viewed as the architect for the direction of the team.
And the direction wasn't good.
So, why did Murray get his contract extended? At the time, I wrote:
Watching Murray seemingly solidify the goaltender position by essentially a one-sided trade, and load up with draft picks for departing assets seemed to give Melnyk the confidence to believe he was the correct GM to turn the Senators into a Cup contender again.
In fact, Murray had not merely loaded up on draft picks, but he had managed to get a better-than-expected return for nearly every player:
- Mike Fisher, viewed by some as a third-line center and a second-line center by others, netted the 21st overall pick, used on Stefan Noesen.
- Chris Kelly, viewed by most as a third-line role player with hands of stone, netted a 2nd round pick. (Kelly would go on to win a Stanley Cup, and will be trying for his second in a few days.)
- Alex Kovalev got the team a 7th round pick. (Ryan Dzingel)
- Campoli would land Ryan Potulny--a crucial piece of Binghamton's Calder Cup-winning team--and a 2nd round pick. That 2nd round pick was later used to acquire Matt Puempel.
- And of course, Elliott brought back Anderson, who has been both outstanding and consistent at the position, something the team has never had before.
Luckily for Murray, his moves to kick off Senate Reform bought him enough time to reap the seeds he himself had sown:
- Eight players drafted by Murray had major impacts on this season and look like they will continue to do so: Erik Karlsson, Patrick Wiercioch, Z. Smith, Jared Cowen, Jakob Silfverberg, Robin Lehner, Mika Zibanejad, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
- In addition, there are several more players who are merely awaiting their own opportunities in the near future: Mark Borowiecki, Mark Stone, Noesen, Puempel, Shane Prince, and Cody Ceci.
- Still more players look like promising projects. Guys like Mike Hoffman, Corey Cowick, Fredrik Claesson, and Mikael Wikstrand have each shown some kind of tantalizing flash that could make them late bloomers like current roster players like Colin Greening, Erik Condra, and Andre Benoit.
- Trades for players like Kyle Turris, Marc Methot, and Ben Bishop have turned positions of weakness into positions of strength.
In short, he's done well. He's even shown a willingness to swing for the fences, pursuing big names like Rick Nash, Zach Parise, and Ryan Suter, though he was ultimately unable to land any of them. Murray's current contract ends with the team already having in place a Norris-caliber defenseman, a top center, consistently above-average goaltending, a potential franchise goaltender in development, solid depth down the center, and a highly promising pipeline of prospects.
Oh, and a head coach that's been nominated for the Jack Adams Award twice in two years on the job.
With everything coming up Murray these days, you'd almost wonder why the Sens would even want anyone else doing the job. But when Murray signed his original extension--the one that took him into the tumultuous year referenced above--he already indicated age was becoming a factor, joking that he was "no longer a spring chicken." Well, Murray is now three years older, and though at age 70 he shows no real signs of slowing down, one has to wonder what he wants to do next, and the Senators have to wonder what they want to do next.
The future of the team is secure--there's not much debate about that these days. But the Senators have also lost some quality front office talent to the rest of the league over the years: Jarmo Kekäläinen, former player turned scout (he helped identify Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and Ray Emery for the Senators) is now the GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and widely respected as a talent evaluator. Peter Chiarelli, assistant GM under John Muckler, is the architect of the Boston Bruins' current success.
That could happen again if they wait too long. Bryan Murray did not achieve this success single-handedly. It's built on the work of a very good scouting staff, headed by the eternally surly Assistant General Manager, Tim Murray, and Director of Player Personnel Pierre Dorion. Both men have very good histories of finding talent for their teams, and both seem to be savvy, well-spoken gentlemen.
Dorion on the team's prospects
Dorion on landing Ceci
Murray holding court at this year's deadline
Murray explaining the team's approach to the 2012 draft
Murray, both as the nephew of the current GM and the assistant GM, seems the more likely of the two to take over. Some who would prefer to see his uncle step aside would also like to see him move on as well, based on a belief that his philosophies are too similar, but Tim appears to be his own man. It's probably a mistake to label him with his uncle's faults.
Dorion has worked his way up the ranks since 2007, and we've already outlined how those drafts have begun to bear fruit. It would be a shame to lose such an important piece of the team to someone else. Teams can't keep talent in place forever, either on the roster or in the front office. Over the years, we've seen the Detriot Red Wings slowly picked clean, and it's not a coincidence that in that time they've slipped from their perennial contender status. Meanwhile, Ottawa hasn't even reached contender status yet. They can't afford to lose anyone that's helped play a role in getting them on that path.
Still, Bryan Murray has undeniably cleaned up his mess, and has probably left the team better than he found it. At this point, he's earned the right to make his own decision. His track record since that 2010 season is not without bumps (Nikita Filatov springs to mind) but also lends some confidence towards his ability to continue moving the team in a positive direction. And you know he badly wants to win a Stanley Cup--he's got to be sick of hearing how he was beaten by the Anaheim team he built. It would certainly eat at him at least a little bit to see the foundation he laid here become someone else's ultimate success.
Ultimately, without a major reversal of fortune, the job of general manager of the Ottawa Senators is Murray's for as long as he wants it. He has the trust of his owner, and the success he's had in rebuilding the team should rightfully earn him quite a bit of leeway. The questions now are: Did Eugene Melnyk's plan extend beyond this year and if so, did it include Murray? And if so, does it carry its own long-term risk of losing front office talent to other teams?