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.
(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!