You could look long and hard but you will not find a more frank or critical piece written on the Ottawa Senators and their recent history than the sledgehammer that Jeffrey Simpson brought down today in the Globe and Mail.
Perhaps it takes the perspective of the outsider which might be the reason that no local beat writer has taken on the task of penning such a thought out and all-encompassing take on the Senators precipitous drop of the last two seasons.
Jeffrey Simpson is not usually a hockey writer, in fact he's a "national affairs columnist", but you wouldn't know it by the depth of his knowledge on the Senators and their recent travails. Some might be tempted to tell Simpson to "stick to his knitting", but when a writer of his stature drops an atomic bomb on a team from out of nowhere, it’s something that should be taken notice of.
I agree with a lot of what Simpson says here and I have written about many of these issues in the past but I also think he went too far in some cases and I’ll point them out as we go.
There is so much to wade through here that I thought I’d go through some of the main points of the story, line by line. You might not have the patience for this sort of thing but during a slow week, I think that this type of story merits attention.
Jeffrey Simpson: “They have burned through two coaches — John Paddock and Bryan Murray — and are not responding for the third, Craig Hartsburg. He whips them like a mule, but a mule is a mule. It can speed up a little under the whipping, but it remains a mule.
The Senators won Saturday 4-1 against the New York Rangers, offering a spirited effort. They won the only way they can, given a limited amount of talent, playing a chip-and-chase game and outworking their opponents.
The days of a fast, skilled Senators team are over. Apart from the trio of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, they have nothing but pluggers up
Black Aces: I think Simpson might be exaggerating for effect when he says “a mule is a mule” in the case of the Senators, but in essence, he’s right. Hard work can take you far but you need skill to win in the NHL, especially when most teams play very similar systems. The Senators can probably scrape into the playoffs if they play extremely hard-nosed every night but that very fact makes them just one of many teams in the same position. The last team to win a Cup without an elite defenseman was Carolina but they made up for that with a team deep in forwards who could score.
Lumping Mike Fisher and Antoine Vermette in with the “pluggers” is probably unfair but they have to take the criticism because they haven’t produced this season.
As for Simpson’s suggestion that the players aren’t responding to Hartsburg, I think he’s dead wrong. Not since Jacques Martin has this team played in such a structured way (in stretches, mind you). If anything, Bryan Murray just took off the reins when he came in and was able to win games on pure skill alone. John Paddock was a complete disaster in his short time as head coach and it would take someone more knowledgeable than me to figure out what kind of system he wanted to implement, other than to play the Big 3 to death.
Hartsburg’s challenge is much bigger than his predecessors and he deserves more time to mould this team in his image.
Simpson: “Senators fans are smart. They can see the team for what it is, a shadow of yesteryear's dynamic units, crippled by a long series of management errors under general managers John Muckler and Murray that have finally caught up to the franchise.
It's a team with only three bona fide scorers, two backup goalies, four sixth defencemen, no speed on the back end, little secondary scoring, not much size and, chillingly, little help on the farm.”
Black Aces: Senators fans are smart? If they were so smart, why are they so outraged at the play of the team thus far? Smart fans would recognize that losing Andrej Meszaros and Wade Redden without proper replacements would mean trouble. Instead, these fans cheered those moves and were dumbfounded when the team couldn’t move the puck efficiently through the neutral zone with solid passes that were once taken for granted. These are the same fans who want to trade Jason Spezza every time the team loses. They once wanted to trade Daniel Alfredsson too.
Smart fans? Please. (I’m mostly talking about the vocal minority of insane callers to the Over The Edge show on the Team 1200. I realize most real fans don’t bother writing blogs or calling radio programs.)
Simpson says that the team has “four sixth defenseman”. I’m not sure out of the three who he’s describing as a sixth defenseman – Chris Phillips, Filip Kuba or Anton Volchenkov but he’s wrong on any one of them. I would call them all third or fourth defenseman and that’s no disrespect. It’s just that they’re not elite offensive players although Kuba has surprised everyone with his point production.
Simpson: “The start-again strategy would require a new general manager. One intriguing choice would be Steve Yzerman, who played some hockey before turning professional in Ottawa and is popular in the city.”
Black Aces: Wow. That name, Steve Yzerman, just sort of jumps out at you and until Simpson said it, I haven’t heard his name linked to Ottawa in even the wildest of rumours. Obviously it’s just speculation on Simpson’s part, but if ever Melnyk decided to change GM’s, wouldn’t Yzerman be a perfect fit in this town?
To be clear, I don’t think that Bryan Murray deserves to be fired and one of the positives is that he’s managed to lock up the core of the team to long contracts. Some might see that as a negative but it will probably pay off down the road, especially when Alfredsson departs in four years. Spezza and Heatley are still young and will be playing in their prime for the Senators for years to come. That alone will give them a chance to win every year.
Simpson: “Muckler had inherited a brilliant team and proceeded to erode its foundations. Sami Salo, still a top-four defenceman for Vancouver, was traded for Peter Schaefer, who is no longer in the league. He blew the draft after the lockout, in which the Senators got a huge break by picking ninth. He selected Brian Lee, who remains in the minor leagues, while passing on other players such as Marc Staal and Anze Kopitar, now young stars. …
Chara, Redden, Havlat, Corvo, Eaves. For these players, the Senators have nothing to show today. No team so mismanaged can remain competitive. Coming up empty for these five, coupled with indifferent draft picks, plus those end-of-season Muckler trades, meant that past mistakes suddenly caught up with the Senators.”
Black Aces: It’s easy for Simpson to look back at the Salo trade now and say it was a bad move but Schaefer was a good pickup who was effective for a number of years in a defensive role and occasionally on offense. Salo was injury prone when he was traded and the Senators didn’t suffer on the backend as they had the likes of Chara and Redden in the mix with a young Volchenkov and Meszaros soon on the way. If no one had ever heard of a salary cap, then yes, the trade looks bad now. But they got good mileage out of Schaefer and they still have Shean Donovan so it hasn’t been a complete wash like the brutal Havlat deal or the Chara free-agency loss.
I do agree with Simpson on Muckler though. The seeds of the fall were planted in that brief era when he let Chara go for nothing. If Muckler had kept Chara, maybe Bryan Murray, his successor, would have been forced to play hardball with Mike Fisher or even trade him to stay under the cap, but this team would be in much better shape regardless.
Simpson: “So did the demise of Ray Emery, the goalie who showed promise of evolving perhaps into a solid No. 1, only to play himself out of the league through what are euphemistically called "off-ice" distractions. He is now playing in Russia.”
Black Aces: Simpson only devotes one line to Ray Emery. And that’s probably about all it deserved. Emery might have been the biggest scapegoat in recent NHL memory and the overblown fuss about his “antics” last year were mind-boggling. Emery didn’t help himself but the local media went out of their way to destroy this guy. Now it’s on to Spezza I guess.
Simpson: “Gerber had played for Anaheim when Murray ran that organization. Apparently, he liked Gerber and argued for signing him to the albatross contract.”
Black Aces: I’m not sure if Simpson has some insider information on this one but it seems strange to blame Murray for Muckler’s mistake just because Gerber and Murray once worked together. Murray has enough on his plate and can’t be blamed for this contract. He also brought in Alex Auld who is playing great right now so it sort of makes the Gerber problem moot at this point.
Simpson: “The team will not make the playoffs with the current mess, so existing or new management either has to make short-term trades to try for rapid, if ephemeral, improvement; or clean house, fall further to the bottom, and try to put together in three-to-five years the kind of team that not so long ago was the envy of the league.”
Black Aces: “Cleaning house” doesn’t seem to be a logical option at this point. The Senators have a trio of forwards in Spezza, Heatley and Alfredsson that are at an elite level. You could never get full value in a trade for either of those players. The way forward is to build around them.
The Senators are still a valid team to make the playoffs in their current form if they scratch and bite for the rest of the season and keep to Hartsburg’s defensive game plan. But they need a few vital upgrades to turn into a challenger. You’d be surprised the difference a real puck-mover would make on the back end for this team - on the power-play and in 5 on 5 situations.
If Auld can keep playing well, they could do some damage in a playoff series. In a way, the Senators are a bit like the Toronto teams who used to knock them off in the earlier part of the decade – a couple of high end skill guys surrounded by a lunch-pail crew with tons of character and a few irritating pests for good measure.
There are worse places to be.
At least the Senators don't have their nickname on the front of their...errr.. nevermind.