Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Tale of Two Hockey Cities

          Having lived in Montreal through the glory days of les Glorieux, and in the days of decline of the dynasty, I can testify to the exceptional brutality of its hockey pundits when it comes to losing.  No one in Montreal has time for, or patience with, bumblers running their hockey club.  This was as true in the late eighties as it is now.  Even after the club improved dramatically in the last (short) season from the disaster it was the year before, the nastiness and the barbs were in evidence at once when the Habs went out sheepish-like in five against Ottawa in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Michel Therrien’s post series rejoinder that despite regular season success much remains to be done was met with universal derision. Comme quoi par example, quipped one of the regulars on the popular TV show  l’Antichambre. 

         In sharp contrast, when Ottawa went out with a thud in the next round against Pittsburgh, getting walloped  in the last two games, the local media had nothing but lavish praise for the hockey club and its leadership’s accomplishments. And this in the face of obvious and long-standing issues.  Even though the victory against the Habs was a nice combination of grit, goaltending and gamesmanship (by Paul McLean) which for a moment obliterated the holes up front, the desperate lack of offensive talent on the Sens’ bench became immediately and painfully in evidence against a fast-skating, star-studded club like the Penguins. The spirit was willing; the flesh was weak. But the Ottawa press corps would have none of that. By and large, the pundits lapped up the Sens marketing script which asserted the club has much improved under the smart Walrus and even brighter days lie ahead.  And yes, Bryan Murray is going to get a top-six forward in the off-season which should make Ottawa even  stronger contender for the coveted prize. 

         Had the club been covered in Montreal, a howl of razor satire would meet this rosy picture of the world in May 2013.  Why ? It is doubtful that Spezza and Michalek can come back to their former days’ production. If Spezza’s is the kind of injury that all but destroyed Jagr’s ability to skate, do not expect much.  For one thing, Jaromir is much tougher fighter than Jason. If Milan’s knee is not rehabilitated – and one can never be optimistic with that particular joint – he will not get twenty-five goals again. So, who else on the club is a legitimate twenty-goals scorer ?  Turris can likely do it – he scored twenty four, mind you it was in San Antonio, in the AHL.  But yes, he definitely can do it with some talent on his line.  Who else ?  Silvferberg might.  Greening might. Zibanejad just might.  None of them scored twenty goals in the NHL.  Alfredsson might if he decides to come back for one season.  So the first thing that a Montreal hockey pundit would have shot through is the totally insane notion that the Sens need only minor fixes to become a legit contender.  But this is really nothing – nothing, compared to the discovery that this state of affairs has developed with the club operating somewhere $20 million below the annual cap. (It is probably close to $24M since Alfredsson’s cap hit last year was 3.5 million over what was paid to him) The club has not had a forty goal scorer since Heatley left town.  It had not had a power forward since Hossa left town. And yet, the dynamic duo of Melnyk – Murray cannot seem to find spare money to get some bang up front.  Why would that be ?  The answer is very simple. Why should Mr. Melnyk spend money on hockey in preference of his other ventures (major soccer club, casino at the hockey arena) if the club is making money with overachieving minor league cast led by a coaching wizard?  

          None of this of course would make the Ottawa papers. The headline in the Sun the day after Alfie kissed goobye a former Melnyk’s mania ('Stanley Cup where it belongs – Ottawa !’) and headed up for Detroit, was screaming : ‘ 11 WINGS AWAY…But in a BLOCKBUSTER deal, Sens give up Silfverberg, grab superstar BOBBY RYAN from Anaheim’.  (Capitalization preserved). Again, a Montreal-bred hockey cynic would see immediately through the psychobabble. This was no blockbuster; Bobby Ryan is no superstar(ranking the highest 28th, on the NHL best players list in 2011-12, and having an off year last season) and the deal has panic over Alfie’s  flying off the cuckoo’s nest written all over it.  It is a takeover of a contract with two years left on it for a current Sens No.1  prospect (already a top 6 forward), next year’s No.1 draft pick, and another young player.  This is a horrendously high price given there is no long-term commitment in it. I would not be surprised if in the future I see Jakob and Bobby playing on another team together like Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden in Boston, with the same amount of  equity for Ottawa Senators – zilch.  

         Bruce Garrioch (Ottawa Sun) describes July 5 as a day of ’agony and ecstasy for Ottawa hockey fans’.  It’s really neither.  Despite the shameless propaganda there were rumblings that Alfie was done in Ottawa in advance of his signing with the Wings. The cries of ‘shock and disbelief’ ring a bit hollow.  I am persuaded that given Daniel’s value to the club, not to re-do the contract in his option year and make him play for way less money than he was worth, was an act betraying the lack of management know-how and finesse that I have long observed with the club under its current ownership and GM.  Then there is the 'mysterious' tale of offer-counteroffer this spring. If it is as I believe - Barry asked for six (agreeing to drop two-year deal for one-year)  and Murray offered four million - then the club added insult to injury.   This is not simply because Daniel Alfredsson even at forty is a fine hockey player, a major contributor, and a greatly respected leader on the ice. It was especially galling because of the enormous marketing value his long service to the club and the community represented. I think it was more this than the putative yen for the Stanley Cup (though I believe Alfie wants that also) that made him leave Ottawa.  The jump has "ticked-off" written all over it.  Never mind the phoney "we were ready to write him a blank cheque".  It's a feeble-minded attempt to re-write what happened.   

       And again,  Garrioch seems too optimistic about the Ryan deal.  If he turns out to be a high-scorer on an underfunded (and therefore a non-contending) team he will want out at the earliest opportunity to protect his market value: the Dany Heatley scenario. 

      I think at this juncture it is the ‘fifth estate’ that can do much more for hockey in the city.  Get Montreal mean !  Ottawa is not Phoenix and the columns should not be written as hockey-ticket sales job for people who are essentially strangers to the game.  Right now, the Senators will likely sell tickets no matter what, but eventually people will tire of mediocrity, or even valiant efforts if they are futile. If you want to compete in the big league, you will have to spend big-league money!  People will not root for Ottawa Cheapskates !  This should be the message to Melnyk. And if Murray does not have the touch to pick value for Melnyk’s money, he should retire.  He’s been at it for nine years, and his July 2013 ‘trading frenzy’ scorecard describes his progress in a nutshell:  one top-six forward signed for two years, two top-six forwards gone for good and no sign of a proven offensive blue-liner to replace Gonchy! 

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