Five Thoughts For Friday

A Eugene Melnyk edition... just what we all needed.


That was the rallying cry of the Ottawa Senators during their thrilling 2017 playoff run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Now it’s making a return, and the team will once again return to glory, at least according to Eugene Melnyk in his Wednesday night statement.

“The Senators will be all-in again for a five-year run of unparalleled success — where the team will plan to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021 to 2025.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, which is why we’re dedicating this week’s edition of Five Thoughts for Friday to doing just that.

Some Context

First off, the above statement requires a bit of context. This past week, Melnyk and the Senators held a private event at the Hockey Hall of Fame with investors and partners close to the organization to divulge the big plan. Given the way the past year has gone for the team — losing games, off-ice controversies, LeBreton Flats crumbling, the Erik Karlsson trade — it’s fair to say that something needed to be said in order to save some face with the disgruntled business partners.

The gist of the plan was already well known from his infamous video with Mark Borowiecki in September, although this latest development seems to firm up the commitment to it. There will be pain, but wait until 2021 and the halcyon days of Sens fandom will return.

As a plan, it doesn’t sound so bad. The issue is that there’s absolutely no way Melnyk can make it happen.

His pockets have been getting thinner for last decade for a myriad of reasons, and every new anecdote makes it even more clear. There was his recent refinancing of debt, where his creditors trusted him so little that he was forced to pay Bobby Ryan his signing bonus a month early. There’s also the ongoing LeBreton Flats negotiations, where he couldn’t keep his 50-50 promise of the deal with his partner, and immediately tried to flock to a solution that involved him paying for nothing except arena maintenance.

LeBreton certainly plays a key factor in the timing. A move downtown would certainly bolster Melnyk’s financial viability, although given the rocky state of the negotiations, it’s tough to believe that he’ll be able to come out with a piece of the pie. The mediation process began just earlier this week, so unless a miracle happened in the first few steps, Melnyk would be making a massive jump to conclusions to assume that the project’s profits belong to him.

Trust Issues

Consider the man behind the operation. I went over Melnyk’s unethical history in a previous post, but the most important thing to know is that he’s already been convicted of fraud with his previous business, misleading investors with false claims. Not exactly the ideal track for building trust.

Even for those just looking at the roster moves, cost-cutting has been an organizational trend: trading Zibanejad for Brassard, Cowen + Greening for Phaneuf, subsequently flipping Phaneuf for Gaborik, and so forth. Add in the Sens’ silence in the free agent market, and the team’s spending has been dragging behind while the NHL’s salary cap increases.

Melnyk even admitted the dire circumstances at the NHL 100 Classic, saying that they had “cut everything to the bone” in the organization, in the middle of an empty threat to relocate the team. The messages don’t line up.

This is why fans crowdfunded billboards reading #MelnykOut. The trust has already been severed, so it’s no surprise that a release of such a statement would be met with backlash.

Stone & Duchene

I couldn’t help but think back to the timing of the original rebuild launch, days before the Karlsson trade. It’s an attempt to sell hope, while diverting attention away from the impending PR train wreck.

The difference between these two scenarios is that Karlsson’s departure seemed like a foregone conclusion, while Dorion is still seemingly working hard on extending his two remaining star players. We haven’t seen nearly as many leaked trade negotiations, with the deadline only weeks away.

Yet it’s hard not to see this latest statement as a step in the opposite direction. The players still hold all of the leverage on whether or not they want to stay. The entire team was present when Melnyk said that the team plans to still be in the basement for the next couple seasons. That isn’t very encouraging from the perspective of the players. Stone and Duchene are in their prime, eager to win a championship after playing on mediocre-to-bad teams for their entire careers. Telling them to be patient for just a bit longer won’t cut it, when they have a once-in-a-career opportunity to control their own destiny.

Nic Ruszkowski

Nic Ruszkowski, the Sens’ Chief Operating Officer, did a bit of a media tour yesterday to try to clean up some of the backlash to Melnyk’s statement. You can find the full interview here, if you really want to listen to 17 minutes of bland excuses.

He cited a bunch of financial numbers on how much Melnyk has invested into the team and community (none of which I can confirm), as a weak effort to build back trust. There was also a comparison made between the Sens’ record before and after Melnyk’s team purchase, which is flawed on many levels.

The one important quote came from when he was asked about Mark Stone’s importance to the team. This is what he had to say:

“If for the sake of argument Duchene or Stone is not to stay, I would encourage people not to look at that as the final straw, but to look at that as opportunity in the context of the rebuild. And the reason I say that is very simple: whatever we do, we have to stay at the bottom of the salary cap at a minimum. So any transaction that puts us below that requires us to get back either an equivalent return in the form of a roster player, or to make an equivalent investment in the form of free agency.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this infamous tweet from 2016.

He heavily stressed that Dorion is focused first on re-signing the upcoming free agents, which has consistently been the team’s position whenever the question has come up. It’s still hard not to see this as perhaps another pivot “towards the future”.

Final Thoughts

Building a winning hockey team isn’t easy, and it seems that every year yet another former contender announces their plans for a rebuild. A quick glance at the Stanley Cup contenders, and it’s plain to see why: Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, Tampa Bay and Toronto have all gone through the arduous process of enduring losing seasons in return for the high draft picks that netted them their franchise players.

Not all rebuilds are made equal, though, and a lot comes down to trust in upper management. It was a year ago that Melnyk pledged a “renewed commitment to scouting, drafting and development”, yet the staff size hasn’t expanded since. Fans are willing to endure a rebuild, but for Ottawa, the trust has long been severed.

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