To the surprise of many, the Ottawa Senators announced today that current GM Bryan Murray had signed a three-year contract extension, but the logic behind the move isn't as outrageous as it appears at first glance. Murray's contract was set to expire on June 30th. That contract itself was a one-year extension, signed on February 12th, 2010, of Murray's previous contract, signed on June 18th, 2007 -- just a few weeks after the team had lost to the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup Finals.
That extension by itself was a mild surprise. The Senators were contending thanks to an impressive winning streak and some fans felt Murray would step aside, having built a playoff team that only needed tweaking in future years despite the loss of Dany Heatley in the offseason.
At the time, Murray said:
"I'm not a spring chicken at this point in time by any means, but I feel very comfortable in being able to work for a while longer."
Many fans took this mean this would be the final year of his role as GM. In January, when it became clear the Senators were not going to be in contention, speculation ran rampant over the fates of Murray and head coach Cory Clouston. Team owner Eugene Melnyk ended this speculation, which had reached a fever pitch after a 7-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, by announcing the next day both Murray and Clouston would stay for the rest of the year, and the decision on their futures would be decided after the season had ended. In that interview, he famously stated:
"The reason I’ve been quiet is I’ve been working on a plan. That plan is now in motion."
Two days later, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that Eugene Melnyk's plan would be to hire a new GM and move Murray into an advisory role. That report -- now revealed as erroneous -- fueled speculation on who would be the next general manager of the Ottawa Senators, though Melnyk did not give any further information until this week.
That Murray would not be returning as general manager seemed a foregone conclusion as he supervised the fire sale of tradable assets during the month of February. To many, it looked as if Murray had been tasked with clearing the plate for his successor -- at the end of the deadline he had acquired at least five picks, two players, and cleared almost $15M off of the books. All told, the team would be entering the offseason almost $20M below the existing salary cap. These actions, combined with Murray's earlier "spring chicken" comment, seemed to reinforce the belief that he was stepping aside.
The fly in the ointment to this speculation came around the same time, as Murray re-signed defenseman Chris Phillips to a 3-year, $9.25M contract extension. Why would a departing GM be making personnel decisions for the future?
This question was raised again a month later, when goaltender Craig Anderson signed a 4-year, $12.75M deal. Murray was either sticking around or really stepping on the toes of his successor.
How did Murray go from being shown the door to landing a three-year deal?
Probably the biggest factor is the play of Anderson. Since joining Ottawa, he has a record of 11-5-1, with a team-leading GAA of 2.05. He has a fantastic save percentage of .940 and 2 shutouts in 18 games. Anderson was acquired via trade from the Colorado Avalanche for Brian Elliott, who owned a 13-19-8 record with a GAA of 3.19 and a save percentage of .890 with the Senators this year.
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.
Once Melnyk had accepted that the Senators were not going to be the contender he desired, he had a decision to make: Despite having a hand in the team's slide since that 2007, was Murray the right person to rebuild a team? Here, the list of evidence weighs in Murray's favor: his selections in Anaheim (most notably Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, but also including Joffery Lupul, Drew Miller, Shane O'Brien, and Ladislav Smid) formed a part of the team that beat the Senators in the Finals. In his tenure with Ottawa, he has already selected six players (Erik Karlsson, Patrick Weircioch, Zack Smith, Jared Cowen, Jakob Silfverberg, and Robin Lehner) who are expected to be part of the team's future. In addition, he acquired three more (Bobby Butler, David Rundblad, and most recently Stephane Da Costa) through other means who are also expected to contribute.
This does not mean Murray is absolved of blame in seeing the team reach the point of needing to rebuild. He traded away draft picks for players such as Cory Stillman, Mike Commodore, Matt Cullen, and Andy Sutton only to let those players depart via free agency. He signed Ray Emery to a contract that was bought out the next year. He has fired two coaches, John Paddock and Craig Hartsburg, before their first seasons were even completed. His free agency signings have not had major impact with the team.
The signing of Alex Kovalev, in particular, looks like a tremendous mistake in hindsight. Fans are already wary of last year's signing of Sergei Gonchar heading down the same path. In the conference announcing his extension today, Murray mentioned several times that he was not interested in making "stopgap" moves by signing aging veterans. Earlier this year, I argued these moves were made, in part, due to a fan base unwilling to support a team not in playoff contention. His repeated use of the word "stopgap" seems to support the idea that the moves were made with the intention keeping the team competitive in the short term. Whether fan sentiment was a factor in those decisions is only speculation on my part, but fan reaction to the team's turnaround since the NHL's trade deadline has to be encouraging for Melnyk, because it means Murray has the freedom to stop pursuing "stopgap" measures and truly build a team with his own vision instead.
Melynk is often mocked for his unbridled enthusiasm, but there isn't any doubt that he wants to win Stanley Cups. His acceptance of reality -- that the Senators were an aging team not truly capable of contending -- has cleared the way for the next GM of the team to try to build that elite team he desires. However, if Melnyk has accepted reality, so can we as fans, and that reality is that the team does not yet have the talent on its roster to be considered elite. The effort it will take to get there is going to be a multi-year one, and if Melnyk believes Murray is the man for the job (and based on the foundation Murray has already laid and his history of success in doing so, this is not an unfair belief) then it was only logical to sign him to an extension spanning those multiple years.