31 Thoughts: Senators’ Melnyk scrambling to save arena deal

John Shannon explains how the Ottawa Senators are running into more issues with the city of Ottawa in their attempt to getting space for a new arena.

• Flyers seek fresh perspective in GM search
• Final week of Nylander saga
• Bruins looking for help up front

Let’s get this out of the way: the NHL and the Senators know Eugene Melnyk cannot win an Ottawa-area popularity contest against John Ruddy.

With the LeBreton Flats downtown arena plan in serious jeopardy of collapse, it will not be difficult to paint Melnyk as the villain. He’s deep in the civic doghouse with little chance of escape. Last year, Ruddy received the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The one-time Carleton University linebacker has a long list of local successes, culminating in bringing the CFL back to the nation’s capital and resuscitating football at his alma mater.

In every divorce, one spouse gets support. The other gets the cold shoulder. Ruddy is Cheryl David. Melnyk is Larry.

Melnyk filed a $700 million lawsuit against Ruddy last Friday. Several sources indicate he is expecting a counter-suit, although the exact response is still being considered. I can’t tell you who is right and who is wrong. My interest is purely big-picture. What does it mean for the present and future of the franchise?

Suffice it to say the NHL is unhappy (although neither commissioner Gary Bettman nor deputy commissioner Bill Daly would comment). It is unhappy for two reasons.

First, the Senators don’t need another kick to the solar plexus, especially with Erik Karlsson returning later this week. Even if the new arena gets built, the team wasn’t expecting to get there until 2022-23 — at the earliest. That means four seasons in Kanata no matter what happens.

You can’t mail it in that long.

On the ice, we know the plan. The Senators are rebuilding. While they hope to keep Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, the true sales pitch comes through Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and other developing prospects such as Drake Batherson. There’s promise.

Off-ice, employees know they’ve got to pull every muscle in their bodies striving to provide each fan the best possible in-game experience. The Senators have fallen to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but everyone knew that could happen. The games are wild, not-much-defence affairs. If you’re going to lose, make it entertaining. No matter what happens with Melnyk, everyone working there knows it’s important to make each person in the building feel something that makes them want to come back.

The second annoyance is, according to multiple sources, some time in the past 11-18 months, Melnyk began raising concerns about another Ruddy development project, one Ottawans know as 900 Albert St. Depending on who you talk to, the new arena portion of LeBreton is budgeted to cost somewhere between $450-$600 million. That was to be financed through the condominium, retail and commercial sales of the project.

Our suspicions about Melnyk’s finances have everyone thinking he’s looking for a free arena, but this is Business 101. You won’t find too many people — including, I suspect, Ruddy himself — who would fund a project any other way. In Melnyk’s lawsuit, there is a report from a consulting group indicating the 900 Albert St. sales would negatively affect the LeBreton project, thereby jeopardizing the financing.

In the eyes of the league and the Senators, this issue should have been settled long ago. Whether to avoid controversy during a municipal election or whatever, it took until last week, just two months before the agreement deadline, for the dam to burst.

Now, Melnyk is scrambling to find a new partner who can save the deal, although there’s not a ton of optimism. Even if he finds one, there’s no guarantee everyone won’t have to go through a new bidding process. That means a later target date for a new arena, and no guarantee Melnyk gets it.

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I would like to stress that in doing research into this story, no one made threats about the future. And I don’t think anyone will. The Senators don’t need more tidal waves. So, these thoughts are purely mine.

If you know anything about the commissioner and the way he does business, his foremost concern is franchise value. That’s what he protects.

You don’t have to be Einstein to recognize the damage this could do. There is a conspiracy theory that all of this manoeuvring is a long-term play to box-in Melnyk, force him to sell at a discounted price. I can see that being a plan.

I can’t see the commissioner letting it happen. No way. Not in his playbook. He just had an expansion franchise pay $500 million (US). He’s on the cusp of another at $650 million (US). He’s not undermining that. Publicly, the league supports Melnyk, although there’ve been times (see last season’s outdoor game) he drives them bonkers. This is different. People in Ottawa are making a mistake if they are framing it as them versus Melnyk.

The ultimate decision(s) will be made above him.

31 THOUGHTS
1. Whatever disagreements that took place between Ron Hextall and Paul Holmgren, the former lost his job for one reason: his position was weakened by sitting second-last in the Eastern Conference. Hextall was extremely loyal to Dave Hakstol, the team’s head coach. Many other GMs wouldn’t have held back the wolves, and there is no doubt some of those pushing him were internal.

But, Ed Snider’s Flyers were built on loyalty to those who represented the logo, and decisions to remove long-time employees like amateur scout Neil Little (who left in 2015) and assistant coach Joe Mullen (2017) caused fissures.

Around 24 hours before the announcement Hextall was gone, one executive said there was no way Holmgren could stand Philadelphia’s 6-0, penalty-free loss in Toronto on Saturday. Remember when the late Ray Emery fought Braden Holtby? That was Nov. 2013, after Holmgren (then the GM) went into the dressing room during the second intermission with the team down 6-0 to Washington. He gave it to the players, lecturing them for accepting defeat without passion. Holmgren’s not looking for Mel Bridgman, Don Saleski and Jimmy Watson to be charged by Ontario’s Attorney General like in 1976, but he wanted more edge.

“We wanted a new voice, a different mindset that would push the team to the next level,” Holmgren said at Tuesday’s media conference. Added Comcast Spectacor Chairman and CEO Dave Scott, “Do I think we can do better as a team now, not two or three years from now, but now? The answer was yes.” It’s very possible Hextall’s moves will look even better as time passes. He lost the power struggle as the team lost momentum.

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2. So, where do they look? This wasn’t waking up Sunday morning and suddenly deciding. Scott said they’d been considering it for some time. Holmgren didn’t make it sound like he wanted to keep the job. “Our goal is weeks, not months,” Scott added, so this will not be an enormous search — more like a targeted one.

There are some with Flyers connections, including Scott Mellanby and Chris Pronger. Holmgren said Dean Lombardi, already in the organization, will not be a candidate. There is a belief Holmgren wants fresh perspective and will pursue non-Philly blood. Ex-GMs Chuck Fletcher and Ron Francis have already been fingered, and both make sense, although there’s doubt Francis seeks anything more than an advisory position. I figure they have to at least ask Steve Yzerman if he’s interested. Curious to see if Philly asks to talk to Tom Fitzgerald, Mark Hunter or even Chris Drury.

3. Why Drury? It was in July 2007 that Holmgren, in his first full off-season as Philadelphia’s GM, signed Daniel Briere to an eight-year, $52 million contract. When Briere retired in 2015, Holmgren invited him to learn the business. Now, Briere is GM of the ECHL Maine Mariners, who have an affiliate agreement with both the Flyers and the New York Rangers — who employ Drury, an old friend and teammate.

In an appearance this season on the 31 Thoughts podcast, Briere said he preferred to keep his options open, but a career in management is a possibility. He’s not a candidate for the job. But, after the podcast, one exec reached out to say that Holmgren respects him. If Briere asked, it’s not a stretch he suggests a conversation with Drury. Not sure the Rangers would love that.

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4. This is probably as tough on Hakstol as anyone. “I’m not looking over my shoulder,” he told reporters. “I never have. I never do.” Holmgren did say that, under the circumstances, Hakstol did a “decent” job. “All I could offer Dave yesterday was my support,” he said. “The players know, the coaches know, it’s about winning. We haven’t won enough games lately.” Get ready for an avalanche of Joel Quenneville rumours. My prediction: Quenneville makes a decision on this season post-Christmas and the Flyers will be very interested.

5. Holmgren debunked reports he and Hextall disagreed on calling-up prized goaltending prospect Carter Hart. Reaching out to scouts, execs and coaches who have seen Hart in his first professional season, the overwhelming opinion is to keep him at AHL Lehigh Valley. While talented, he is not yet ready. “(Hextall) is right about this,” one said.

6. Finally, one exec on Holmgren’s return to Hockey Operations (at least for now): “This is good for the trade rumour business.”

7. It was whispered that one of the reasons Chicago traded Nick Schmaltz is the Blackhawks weren’t comfortable with where extension discussions went. Agent Kurt Overhardt disputed that. “At no time did we ever talk numbers or term regarding Nick,” he said. Arizona GM John Chayka said the ex-Blackhawk was once considered “untouchable.” When we reported Stan Bowman’s interest in Carolina’s Justin Faulk during the last offseason, word was Chicago’s GM would not include the centre in that potential transaction.

8. Bowman has clarified that Jeremy Colliton is not an interim hire. Sources say it is a three-year contract, at a higher salary than what was expected. Maybe somewhere around $1.4 million.

9. One former St. Louis Blue reached out after last week’s blog in defence of Vladimir Tarasenko. “He’s not blameless,” the player said. “But he’s a convenient scapegoat sometimes.”

10. That said, the Blues are open for business. A lot of possibilities, and few things they won’t consider.

11. Last week, I reported that Los Angeles wanted to see how things changed after hiring Willie Desjardins and trading Tanner Pearson for Carl Hagelin. That patience has expired.

12. Last Saturday on Headlines, Chris Johnston reported Toronto’s belief that William Nylander would be interested in a six-year deal at around $6.9 million per season. My best intel says that is not (yet) on the table, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be by 5:00 pm ET Dec. 1, when this phase of the dispute mercifully comes to its end.

I think the two sides are around $300,000/year apart. The problem is that both Toronto and Nylander think they’ve significantly moved off their original positions, so they get to a point where they don’t want to go further and dig in again. That might not sound like a lot, but Edmonton fans will remember Ryan Smyth was traded in 2007 when talks collapsed with both sides $100,000 apart.

13. A few things on Nylander: Toronto has told teams it will not take on salary that disrupts its future cap situation, making a trade unlikely — although some have tried. I’ve also searched for three-way possibilities, and am under the impression that’s an unlikely path. Their preferred option is still to sign him.

As for the negotiations, as someone who’s fought hard in his own discussions, I’d be a hypocrite to criticize Nylander. Many of you won’t sympathize, but the stress on everyone involved has been intense. Toronto knows Nylander makes it a better team, but the Maple Leafs must hold the line with major negotiations to come.

Other teams want them to be tough, since many are facing showdowns with their own restricted free agents. Those players (and their agents) want Nylander to scratch for every cent. He’s the one sitting out, which isn’t fun. And, even though I do think he’s the type to walk, it is definitely not the preferred option. Neither he nor Toronto wins if that happens. I hope that, at the end, he makes his own choice, not anyone else’s. He’s 22. It’s his life.

14. Last weekend’s most exciting moment was Patrik Laine’s five-goal outburst in St. Louis. The fifth came with 18:44 to go, and the only disappointment was Paul Maurice didn’t force Laine to stay on the ice the rest of the game to chase Joe Malone’s record seven.

Laine, like Alexander Ovechkin, is lethal on the one-timer from the off-wing on the power play, but only one of his five was the usual. Four were even-strength (he had six in 21 games beforehand). Laine scores most of the time from the left side of the ice; three of these were middle-to-right. Two were one-time blasts from feeds below the goal line, one was a three-on-one, the other immediately after a turnover deep in St. Louis territory.

The Blues were disgusted with themselves, Joel Edmundson saying, “We let one guy score five goals. We shouldn’t be letting a team score five goals, let alone one guy.” Last year, word on Laine was he wanted to shoot from two areas: the Ovechkin spot, and the middle of the ice at even-strength. Diversification would help, even for someone of his talent, but you can’t expect those types of opportunities too often. That was a rough night for St. Louis.

15. The Jets have an interesting pattern. Saturday’s win made them 11-1-1 against teams below them in the standings. Against those tied or ahead, they are 2-6-1.

16. Ken Hitchcock made it clear he wished for Jesse Puljujarvi to be called up from AHL Bakersfield. That won’t be the last time he has an important voice in Edmonton’s personnel decisions.

17. It’s been just three games for the Oilers, but we’ve already seen one very consistent change with Hitchcock’s history: shot totals decrease. Prior to his hiring, Edmonton games featured 61.75 shots on goal and 88.8 overall attempts. Those have dropped to 55.6 and 86.67, respectively.

18. Hours before Boston’s 4-2 loss in Toronto on Monday, Bruins GM Don Sweeney confirmed he’s looking for help. “Up front, certainly.” he said.

19. Sweeney’s club has been decimated by injuries. Kevan Miller spent the night in a Toronto hospital after being hit in the throat by a puck. It was his fifth game back after being out 13. Torey Krug and John Moore also are back after missing time. Cornerstones Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara remain sidelined — joining Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Urho Vaakanainen.

“We don’t know what our team really looks like,” Sweeney said. “If there’s good news, it’s that some other guys have had to drive the bus…given us an idea of what they can do. (Coaches) Bruce Cassidy and Kevin Dean were part of our development plan, so they knew what we had.”

Who has impressed you? “(Jeremy) Lauzon. Small sample size, but he’s done well. Matt Grzelcyk. He’s come a long way…earned a higher profile, played almost 25 minutes (last Friday against Pittsburgh). Joakim Nordstrom, he’s our Swiss Army Knife up front.”

20. One of the things I asked Sweeney is if he ever worries that Bergeron’s body will give out. He’s going right to the Hall of Fame, but you wonder if it’s sooner rather than later because the 33-year-old’s been through some traumatic injuries.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I’m downplaying anything, but I don’t worry as much because it’s not concussion-related,” the GM answered. “If anything, sometimes we have to make him wait, because Patrice tries so hard to get back. He’s wired differently…all about winning, everything he does, you name it. It’s all about winning.”

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21. Boston does one thing differently than any other visitor to Toronto. When Chara is playing, he gets a goaltender-sized stall; a little honour for him. Tuukka Rask gets the second, while his backup combines two regular-sized ones. With the captain out of action, Rask was in his regular spot (although not the evening’s starter) and Jaroslav Halak got the double. I was surprised they didn’t go the regular route, but the Bruins stayed consistent, awarding the unique perk to 877-game veteran David Backes. Neat detail.

22. Two weeks ago, Erik Karlsson and San Jose hosted Toronto. It was his 20th game of the season; he entered with no goals and eight assists. You’d have to go back to his rookie year of 2009-10 to find a slower start. Back then, his first goal came in Game 21, his ninth point in Game 38.

Only once since had it taken him more than nine games to score (15 in 2015-16) and never had it taken more than 11 to get his ninth point. Karlsson is heating up, with two goals and seven points in the five games beginning with the one against the Maple Leafs. But the Sharks are still finding themselves, especially with a 6-0 beatdown to surging Vegas on Saturday.

23. Brayden Point’s 17 goals are two behind Laine and David Pastrnak for the league lead. His 31 points are seven back of Mikko Rantanen. Offence gets you the 8,000 square-foot house, the 1,200-horsepower engine, the supermodel wife and the upcoming contract. But the Lightning, who campaigned for Point to win the Selke Trophy in 2017-18, have not changed their opinion on the matter.

There was a weird four-game stretch from Nov. 8-15 (Islanders, Ottawa, Buffalo, Pittsburgh) where Tampa was outscored 7-0 with Point on the ice at five-on-five. In his other 20 games, the Lightning have either outscored their opponent (12 times) or been even (eight) during his five-on-five play — and it has swung to eight goals for, two against with Point on the ice in the four games since Pittsburgh. It’s not like he avoids everyone else’s best.

24. Point said the Lightning focussed on “lots of little things” during last season’s exit meeting. Can you give an example? “Sure. Faceoffs. I need to work on those.” He’s at 47.1 per cent, and working with assistant coach Jeff Halpern, whose career percentage was 53.8. (Only twice in 17 seasons did Halpern fall to a failing grade.)

On a line with Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, Point is becoming one of the league’s best players. It’s not the first time he’s played with Kucherov, but he feels much more comfortable doing so, as opposed to earlier in his career. “I have a better idea of how to handle that now, what he’s looking for and how to play with him.”

25. Point says he’s not interested in any specific goals: “I don’t worry about that. I just go out and try to play.” Too bad. I was hoping he’d say he wanted another shot at Connor McDavid in the All-Star Weekend fastest skater competition. He laughed. “I have to get there first.” Yeah, I don’t think he has to worry.

26. If you like scoring, go see Ottawa. The average Senators game features 7.88 goals, by far the most in the league. (Florida is second at 6.86.) Craig Anderson is playing out of his mind, but the team is allowing 4.33 goals per game, on pace for the highest total since San Jose’s 4.35 in 1995-96. They’ll really have to work to challenge the record of 7.38, set by the 1919-20 Quebec Bulldogs — featuring Brian Burke on the blue line.

The good news is their 3.54 goals per game is third-best, behind only Tampa Bay (3.79) and Colorado (3.74). Three weeks into the season, Anaheim was challenging 1974-75 expansion Washington for most shots allowed per game in history (38.3). The Ducks are now at 35.6. The Senators, however, are now tied with the Capitals’ 44-year-old record. Ottawa plays high-event games.

27. With Buffalo climbing near the top of the league and Rasmus Dahlin beginning to sprout his wings, the Sabres are very much a possibility for a fall trip to Sweden.

28. Reminder: this could be the final week of a Seattle-less National Hockey League. The Board of Governors meet next Monday and Tuesday in Georgia, with the expectation that city will be awarded the 32nd franchise. Will be interesting to see if a firm debut season is set, with more and more belief it won’t be until 2021-22.

29. Regular readers of the blog know I believe in the Nov. 1 playoff stat, but many also subscribe to the American Thanksgiving Theory — that teams in playoff position rarely drop out if in a post-season spot once we devour the turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie. It should be remembered, however, that five teams beat the odds in 2017-18: Anaheim, Boston, Colorado, Minnesota and Philadelphia.

30. Does AHL Toronto only play Belleville and Cleveland?

31. Saturday is not just deadline day for Nylander, but also for CHL “Exceptional Status” applications. Those who apply go through a process that will allow (or deny) them the opportunity to play major junior at age 15. It was created to admit John Tavares in 2005, later expanding to Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, Sean Day and Joseph Veleno.

It is widely believed that Shane Wright, who turns 15 on Jan. 5, will apply. Wright plays in Toronto for the Midget AAA powerhouse Don Mills Flyers. The lower-end Ontario teams (Flint, Kingston) would love to get their hands on him. No doubt it is similar for WHL Swift Current, Regina and Kootenay with Matthew Savoie of Northern Alberta X-Treme in Edmonton. He turns 15 on New Year’s Day. We’ll know this weekend.

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