In the middle of June, National Post writer Noah Love looked at the Ottawa Senators and the work they needed to do in order to repair the franchise that just came off its worst season in more than a decade. The story wasn't well received by followers of the Senators, and was torn to shreds by fellow Sens blog The 6th Sens. I have little to add to what Tim wrote in that piece, but there is one question Love posed which has been asked by numerous others, including many Senators fans: Why is Murray still running this team?
The short answer is that it's complicated.
The long answer is even more complicated. It boils down to the fact that Murray inherited a roster that was on the verge of collapse regardless of what he did, as he's had to navigate the tricky waters of a demanding fanbase and a difficult (perhaps even overbearing) boss, and that a lot of the moves weren't bad at the outset--but that they turned south in a hurry, and ended up about as badly as they could have. That doesn't excuse all of the mistakes that have been made, but it explains some of them.
I'm not going to try and deny that Murray has made mistakes; he has, and they've been well-chronicled. But he's also found himself in a huge number of extremely complicated no-win situations, and the outcomes of those have hurt this team as much or more than the bad decisions Murray's made.
I'm also not going to fall back on the easy 'solid drafting' explanation. I won't because a lot of the credit has to go to the staff that surrounds Murray, including Anders
Hedberg Forsberg (who has since moved on), Pierre Dorion, and--perhaps most importantly--Tim Murray. It's also a fact that, despite the high hopes people have for a huge number of Murray's acquisitions, the only thing we've really seen materialize from them is Erik Karlsson and a Calder Cup Championship. It remains to be seen if any of the prospects in the system can translate their success into NHL success, and if the percentage of players drafted in the Murray regime that turn into effective NHLers is anything greater than a historical average. Signs seems to be indicating that Murray's drafting has been above average, but it will likely take 4-5 seasons before we really know for sure.
I am, however, going to offer some explanations that go part of the way in explaining why Eugene Melnyk has kept Bryan Murray around to run his team.
There is an argument, one that was made by Love, that Murray inherited a Stanley Cup Finalist in 2007, and proceeded to dismantle it until the Senators reached their lowest point in over a decade last season. One thing is true: That Stanley Cup Finalist was dismantled, and it happened during Murray's tenure. That doesn't mean he's culpable for its dismantling, nor does it mean its dismantling wasn't inevitable.
For instance, a good portion of that Eastern Conference Championship squad wasn't dismantled--it crumbled. This includes most notably Ray Emery, who for whatever reason came back the next season without the right mindset to begin a season, and Dany Heatley, whose play diminished until his role followed suit and he demanded a trade. Neither of those personnel problems were directly the fault of Murray, but they were hugely important in the collapse whose goat horns Murray is currently wearing.
Aside from those two, take a look as well at a few more: Joe Corvo demanded a trade, Wade Redden and Tom Preissing have completely fallen off the map, and Daniel Alfredsson's age seems to be catching up to him. None of these facts are things a general manager can prevent.
The fact of the matter is that the team Bryan Murray inherited in the summer of 2007 was about as precarious as any Stanley Cup Finalist has been in recent years, and whatever could have gone wrong did go wrong. And in the process of trying to plug the holes on a sinking ship, Murray ended up making some things worse.
For instance, the acquisitions of Matt Cullen and Andy Sutton cost the Senators two second-round draft choices, and the prospects who could have been selected there would look good on a rebuilding team. But at the time of the trades, the Senators were tearing their way up the standings of the Eastern Conference; Murray is guilty of over-evaluating his team, but the Eastern Conference was vulnerable at the time, so it was a risk he decided was worth taking. Attempts to re-sign those players in order to make the cost worthwhile didn't work out: Sutton got an inflated offer from the Anaheim Ducks, and Cullen signed in his home state of Minnesota.
Goaltending has been the formost problem through Murray's term as GM, and his attempts to solve it didn't work out--so far. Pascal Leclaire was an unmitigated disaster, but that doesn't change the fact that the cost we paid was fairly minimal, and the trade looked good at the time it was made. Things are looking good for Craig Anderson so far, but that doesn't get us back the two years lost while waiting for Leclaire.
The one series of mistakes that can't be explained are the coach hirings Murray has gone through. I can't really explain why they went wrong, but it's Murray's job to predict how a potential coach will work with the players assembled, and it's obvious that Murray mis-judged the abilities of John Paddock and Craig Hartsburg with respect to their fit with the Senators team. The most successful hiring was the most accidental, but even Cory Clouston didn't quite work out. Time will tell if the fourth (or fifth, if you include Murray's stint as head coach) time is the charm.
But he also made some things better. The biggest problem with the 2007 squad was a lack of prospects in the system ready to make any type of meaningful impact on the team, and Murray quite obviously identified that and set out to correct it--a correction he seems to have implemented effectively. His from-the-net-out philosophy has set the Senators up with several very highly ranked defencemen (Karlsson, Jared Cowen, David Rundblad), as well as several other project prospects who, with a few years, may become everyday NHL players (Patrick Wiercioch, Eric Gryba, Craig Schira, Mark Borowiecki), not to forget the best goaltending prospect the franchise has ever had in Robin Lehner, who just led his team to the Calder Cup Championship and won the playoff MVP trophy in the process. There's still plenty of work to do in re-establishing the Senators as an offensive juggernaut as they were at the turn of the millennium, but any of several wild card prospects could feasibly turn in to top-six forward in the league (Bobby Butler, Stephane Da Costa, Andre Petersson, Mark Stone, Louie Caporusso), not to mention whatever forward prospect the Senators draft at sixth overall this year.
The salary balance of the team has never been better since the advent of the salary cap (although the fact that the team has little in the way of proven assets makes that easier). With ample space and plenty of cap-friendly entry-level contracts on the books, the way is cleared for significant acquisitions (whether through trades or free agency) when the prospect group show they're truly just one or two pieces away from Stanley Cup contention.
Rebuilding the depth of a franchise is neither a painless nor a simple process. It's made all the more difficult when as many things go wrong as have gone wrong for Bryan Murray.