Thursday, June 3, 2010
Welcome To Edmonton East
Yes, Senators fans, that's what it has come to.
For just a moment, pretend what it would look like to an outsider, from afar.
Since the lockout, both the Senators and the Oilers have made a trip to the Stanley Cup finals and lost.
And since that loss, both teams have fallen into a spiral of missing the playoffs and having some of their best players demand trades.
Everybody knows no one wants to play in Edmonton. Just ask the wives of Chris Pronger and Michael Nylander. It's a sad fact, but nonetheless a fact.
Now people are starting to wake up to the fact that Ottawa, through a vocal minority of permanently outraged, reactionary fans and a jaded, cynical press corps, has probably reached the level that Edmonton has sunk to, and, possibly, could be headed further south.
Because once the stink starts to fester around a franchise, it's awfully hard to get that new car smell back, no matter how many promotional DVD's extolling the city you send to the agents of superstars around the league.
At least Edmonton has a stable of future superstars to look forward to and a number one draft pick this summer. Ottawa's cupboards are only starting to fill up again with competent prospects, never mind any bonafide superstars outside the potential of ace Swede Erik Karlsson.
Of course, all this Edmonton East talk is brought on by the latest superstar turmoil in Bytown. And that would be Jason Spezza, whom Black Aces predicted would be the next superstar run out of town after the Dany Heatley saga.
So here we go again kids. Satisfied?
You've likely all heard the now infamous Spezza interview with Carolyn Waldo where he hems and haws his way through questions of his desire to stay in Ottawa. He answers that he'll be here because his contract says he'll be here. There was no ringing endorsement of the team or his future with them. To anyone with half a brain, it sounded exactly like a player who quietly asked his GM for a trade out of town if it was possible (after all, Spezza is nothing if not polite).
And this theory sounds all the more probable when you listen to Bryan Murray say that Spezza was "emotional" at his end of year meeting with him, where Spezza told Murray he was unhappy to be booed throughout the playoffs despite having 7 points in 6 games playing for a team that was without Alex Kovalev, Milan Michalek and Filip Kuba, thereby having to face the Pens shutdown crew every single shift. In my mind, that's actually a good performance, but the legions of Spezza haters in the crowd relished the opportunity to tell him how they really felt.
And by all indications, Spezza felt it. There is no real evidence here, but it's obvious that the kid wants out.
Who can blame him?
He's just following in a long line of Senators players since the lockout to be either discarded by poor management or demonized by an angry fan base who apparently are too young to remember a time when this city didn't even have an NHL team, and don't know how lucky they are that they now have one.
Regardless, here's the informal list.
Zdeno Chara was well liked in Ottawa but then GM John Muckler had to choose to sign one of Big Z or fan favourite Wade Redden in the summer of 2006. Muckler made a mistake in keeping Redden over Chara but the fans didn't seem to have a big problem with this until Redden started to decline rather quickly in the bizarre 2008 season. When he balked at waiving his no-trade clause, the fans turned on Redden,who was once a community hero and franchise defenseman, to the point that we was booed wearing the hometown sweater. Fans seem bitter even to this day, taking every opportunity to point out how bad he is on the Rangers, as if that somehow justifies their moronic behaviour.
Then it was Ray Emery. We all know what happened there. In a city that once literally burned an effigy of Alexei Yashin in the streets of Arnprior, the amount of scorn towards a young, promising, but cock-sure goalie was surprising. He got the boot and everyone believed the Senators "locker-room problems" had been solved.
Then Dany Heatley demanded a trade and gave no indication why, creating a neverending smorgasbord of rumours that live on to this day. The fan disgust was even worse than anything Yashin or Emery endured. Can you sense a pattern here?
It probably didn't help the city's fragile ego when Alexei Kovalev signed in Ottawa as a last resort because they offered him "the most money". He also said he wouldn't mind finishing his career in his beloved Montreal, where the fans loved him so much they actually held a protest outside the rink to convince Bob Gainey to just give him the money.
Predictably, the fans in Ottawa loathed Kovalev right from the start. That too follows a pattern of Senators fans being wary of pure skill players. Maybe they were burned too hard by the likes of Alexandre Daigle and Yashin. The sense of trust was lost forever.
That's the only way to rationalize a fan base turning almost completely against many of the main players who brought the Senators to the only Stanley Cup final in their modern era.
Emery, Heatley (and now possibly Spezza) are gone. A loud group of vocal fans were not happy with the recent Chris Neil contract and like to point that out every chance they get, as if he "snuck" one by the fans. Heart and soul defenseman Anton Volchenkov is about to leave town and the reaction so far has been..... "whatever". The fans would rather see Eugene Melnyk save some of that hard earned money rather than shell out for one of the most unique and physical defenseman in the game, a player who will give his body for the team every single night and never complain about it.
There is a collective shrug of the shoulders.
But let's go back to that word "unique" for a moment.
You could say that Heatley is a unique player. He's a pure sniper who was good for 50 goals nearly every season he wore the red and black. The Senators survived without him, but the fact is that the Sharks, with Heatley, went to the Conference final and finally shed some of their image as a playoff no-show, the same image Ottawa had before they acquired Heatley themselves from the Thrashers. Facts are facts.
But Heatley was not very well liked here even before his trade request and there were whispers he didn't like playing under the shadow of Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher, two players embraced by the community in a rare show of civic enthusiasm.
So be it. Heatley left. Ottawa was worse because of it but their character allowed them to battle back to the playoffs in a somewhat redeeming year. Other players stepped up in his absence and a lot of those goals were recovered.
But go back to Chara. There is no one like him in the NHL. A talent and force unto himself. Would the Senators have beaten the Ducks in that crucial final series, with Chara balancing out the size and leadership of Chris Pronger? We'll never know. A unique talent left Ottawa because of money and that will forever remain an unanswered question.
Look at Volchenkov. You could sign three beasts like Andy Sutton but it still won't be the same. Volchenkolv is a unique talent and deserves to be paid like one. It looks like the Senators won't do that and the fans don't seem too squeamish about it.
That's fine. Life goes on. But now let's look at the case of Spezza.
Let's pretend the warning signs are for real. Spezza wants out of town. Murray is forced to find a trade partner. He needs to get back a number one centre for this team. Is he going to find it?
Of course not. What kind of trade would make sense for both teams in the equation? The only trade that seems possible is trading one problem for another. You either trade Spezza for a top prospect and face a rebuilding era or you get back another expensive number one centre who was a problem for his old team. Like Vincent Lecavalier. Or pick your poison.
Spezza is one of the top 3 pure playmaking centres in the game and you're not going to get one of the other two in a trade. So, no matter who he gets traded for, the Senators will be worse off, at least in the short term.
The constant siphoning off of "unique" talent will take it's toll. It already has. This was once a team on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup. Now a first round defeat seems like a victory.
The new important word will be "mediocre". Because that is what this team is turning into (or already has) because there is no value placed on skill by their fan base, which in turn forces the management to have to trade these guys because they are unhappy.
The only reason Ottawa isn't in the bottom third of the league is because they have at least kept their unique character players such as Alfie, Fisher, Neil, Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Kelly and Chris Phillips. Given half a chance, a lot of fans would throw at least half these guys overboard as well. Just read the blogs and the message boards where the rabid hardcore fans reside.
The Senators now have a strong group of character guys that you need, but no team wins the Stanley Cup without the elite offensive players (or at least one, in the case of Carolina), especially in the "new NHL".
Just take a look at the current Cup final. Both Chicago and Philadelphia have many different components of skill and grit. Some players are pure goal scorers and are lucky to have one hit a night. Others carry their stick like a shovel and are there to bash brains in when needed. It's a formula that is tried and true.
But what's Ottawa's formula going forward? How do you win a Stanley Cup without a number one centre? Without an elite shutdown defenseman? Without a winger that will score you 40 to 50 goals a year?
If Jason Spezza has asked to be traded, as I believe he may have, the Senators are in a world of trouble going forward. Murray will never get equal value in a trade and he is in a situation where his franchise player, Alfredsson, needs to win now because of his age. If Murray decides he wants to tear it down, he has only one player in the stable who could possibly carry the tag of franchise player, and that's Karlsson.
That's what happens when you let unique talent either leave or get unhappy. You turn into a mediocre team. Sure, you save money for Eugene Melnyk, or you take that saved money and throw it away on average players to compensate for losing the better ones. Players like Michalek and Kovalev are good examples. They are fill-ins for losing a 50 goal scorer. Like someone once said, "Nice guys are nice, but get me some assholes who can play".
And where has Murray been when all this talent has become unhappy in the nations capital? He's sat by the sidelines as the fans and media rip into players beyond all reason and has barely lifted a finger to defend anybody. He has finally come out in defense of Spezza by saying that he's an easy target because when his game is off, he looks bad because he's not a physical player. That's a fairly tepid defense and has come far too late. The toothpaste is out of the tube.
Do you think old-school guys like Brian Burke or Glen Sather would let the fans and media get away with so many rip-jobs on their players without saying a word? If Murray is unhappy with a player, he should say it. Likewise, he should defend them to death as well. Murray didn't have any trouble ripping into broadcaster Jim Fox a few years ago when Fox suggested that Murray incited violence after a Kings-Sens game got out of control. We know Murray has the fire. So why isn't Murray protecting his most valuable assets when they get ripped all day long on team sponsor stations like the Team 1200, where making a mockery of Spezza and his personality has been a staple for years now?
Many people will be happy to see Spezza leave town, just like they were happy to see the others leave.
But haven't you noticed that the team just isn't that good anymore?
Can you connect the dots here at all?