Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk arrived in the city to watch his team defeat the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in overtime last night and this morning he took care of some outstanding business – putting an end to some of the questions revolving around his franchise. With one game left on their schedule, a 1pm match-up against the Boston Bruins on Saturday, Melnyk announced that Bryan Murray had agreed to a three-year contract extension.
“I’m pleased to announce on behalf of the Senators organization that we have come to an agreement for the next three years,” Melnyk said. “We are looking forward to implementing his vision for the team, which is to bring it back to elite status and I think we are getting there.”
During his time as GM in Ottawa, it has been clear that Melnyk has great respect for Murray’s work as a coach and GM in the NHL and he trusts the Shawville, Quebec native with his franchise. While some Ottawa fans will be shocked and disappointed by the announcement, hoping that the struggles this season would have led to a clean-sweep in the front office and behind the Ottawa bench, Melnyk believes that consistency is the key to rebuilding the struggling franchise.
“Going into this coming draft, it is probably going to be a game-changer for the team,” Melnyk explained. “We’ve got five picks in the first two rounds. I can’t think of anybody better to have in that spot than Bryan – he can make the decisions, know what to trade up to and know the talent that we have in place.”
“A lot of people were screaming at the beginning of the year ‘make changes, make changes’ and the stupidest thing you could have done was make a change one month before the trade deadline. You wanted somebody to know what our strength and weaknesses are, so the continuity is absolutely important and the experience is priceless.”
Murray has excelled at the draft table and at signing college free agents but many of his decisions on professional free agents and his choice of coaches have left the Ottawa fan base wanting more. In fact, it could be said they are looking for the same consistency and continuity that team owner Eugene Melnyk spoke of earlier today. Reaction to this move will be mixed at best. The late-season surge by the team has renewed the hope that the Senators can be competitive next season but every team in the Eastern Conference will look to make improvements this summer; a trip to the playoffs for Ottawa is not assured.
The local media has dubbed Ottawa as the “goalie-graveyard” in recent years, but the coaches that have arrived in the nation’s capital have not fared much better. John Paddock and Craig Hartsburg did not finish their first seasons behind the bench and it now appears that Cory Clouston will not return. Murray’s next choice of coach, if it is not Clouston (and don’t be surprised if Clouston is brought back), will have to be a home run. There is plenty of speculation that Dave Cameron, Canada’s World Junior coach and the bench boss of Melnyk’s St. Mike’s Majors in the OHL is the first choice for the Senators job. A coach like Bob Hartley or current Binghamton Senators coach Kurt Kleinendorst could be in the running as well – only time will tell what Murray and Melnyk are planning. They will make a decision when the season ends.
As GM in Ottawa, Murray has brought in Martin Gerber and signed Ray Emery to an extension that required a buyout (Emery is still on the cap for $562,500 next season). Dany Heatley was sent to San Jose with only Milan Michalek and a cap hit for the buyout of Jonathan Cheechoo’s contract ($1.16 million) all that remains of that deal and Jason Spezza found himself in the midst of a media frenzy last summer when Murray revealed the star forward might not be happy in Ottawa. When fans factor in the contracts of Alex Kovalev, Sergei Gonchar and Filip Kuba, you can see why Senators fans are left scratching their heads.
While it is difficult to say that Melnyk made the right decision by bringing back Murray, it is equally difficult to say that it was the wrong decision. Bryan Murray has a plan – Eugene Melnyk believes in that plan. If Craig Anderson can carry the load as the number one goaltender next season and the young players continue to develop, the Senators will move up in the standings. After mising the playoffs two of the past three years, that is what the Senators fans want to see, a winning product on the ice.
Andrew Rodger is an independent sports columnist and member of the Canadian Association of Journalists. Along with operating The Voice of Sport, he covers the Ottawa Senators and writes the “Ask the Alumni” series here at The Hockey Writers. He is the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association and a contributor on CBC News Now.