Every fanbase endures its share of hardships, but it’s safe to say Ottawa Senators supporters have had to face enough for all 31 NHL teams combined as the franchise embarks on an aggressive rebuild.
Ask owner Eugene Melnyk and general manager Pierre Dorion, and it’s clear they’ve got a plan for this team. The prospect pool is deep, draft picks are plentiful (let’s not talk about that potential No. 1 overall, though…), and Melnyk has said he’s ready to spend some money in an effort to get back to contender status.
But with a teardown still fresh, a blunderous season fizzling to an end and a fanbase that’s not afraid to air its grievances on Hockey Twitter and across billboards, Melnyk was asked about one of the more urgent items that should top his to-do list: winning back fans who are upset about the state of the team.
“I think the key for us is, first of all, to identify who is a Senators fan or not,” Melnyk said during an appearance on Prime Time Sports Thursday evening. “We tripped up one of these guys, or somebody did, and it turned out it was some little 12-year-old in Toronto that was upset with the Senators in general. I’m a high-profile person that is an easy a target, so let them do what they want to do. I basically ignore 99 per cent of it.
“For our fans that are real fans, we’re doing the best we can. All we can do is keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’ve had a great record for the past 15, 16 years,” continued Melnyk, who purchased the team in 2003. “We’ve gone to the Stanley Cup Finals, we’ve gone to Conference Finals, we’ve had All-Star Games, we’ve had drafts, we’ve had outdoor games, we’re doing everything — more than most franchises, as far as what we do for our fans.”
“Usually people get upset with a general manager with the kind of record we’ve had, or with coaches. But in what we did, as far as calling for a full rebuild, it is highly unusual — in any sport — because a general manager would not necessarily do that. He can’t. He has to come to his owner and say, ‘By the way, what I’ve been doing for the past five years, I’ve wasted all this money trying to build something, I did not succeed, and we have to do a complete rebuild,'” Melnyk said. “Now, imagine an owner listening to that and saying, ‘What have you been doing for five years?’ In this case, it’s the best thing for us to do. We had a good team, but… you don’t get participation badges in the NHL — you either win or you don’t.”
It was less than two years ago that the Senators came just one goal away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Bad luck with injuries contributed to last season’s struggles, and when the club dealt captain Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks to start the 2018-19 campaign it was clear the rebuild was a reality. The Senators have posted a record of 25-42-6 this year, which has them sitting in last place in the league.
Melnyk went on to outline his philosophy for the road ahead:
“To win a Stanley Cup, I believe you have to have four or five superstar types all around the same young age — in their mid-20s, at the most — and a very, very hot top-flight goalie,” Melnyk explained. “You need veterans, and we have several of them left, and will continue to have.”
Melnyk and Dorion have repeatedly praised veterans (and homegrown players) like Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mark Borowiecki, and Cody Ceci as the leaders of the locker room. Brady Tkachuk has been a bright spot on the NHL roster, as have Thomas Chabot and Colin White, and Melnyk made it clear there’s plenty more promise currently developing with the AHL affiliate in Belleville — think Drake Batherson and Logan Brown, to name a few.
The owner also pointed out that the club currently possesses 17 draft picks within the first three rounds over the next three years — picks that can also “be traded up for all sorts of things including other prospects,” he noted.
“The whole objective is, three years out, that we have a true Stanley Cup contender and that we don’t have the gaps that some people have, some teams have, and that we stay within the cap,” he continued. “We know what the cap is going to be, but my worry is that we’re going to be bumping into that if you have five or six real stars that you’re going to be paying $10 million to. So it’s a matter of looking forward to do that.”
Melnyk was also asked about one of the club’s recent head-scratchers: the decision to cut ties with head coach Guy Boucher just days after handing the bench boss a public vote of confidence.
Melnyk said the decision was Dorion’s to make, and that he himself “only found out about the firing an hour before,” but stood by the decision:
“We did it for him as well as for us and the players. It was very difficult for him to coach knowing that he’s there for a very short period of time,” Melnyk explained, adding that they knew Boucher would not be re-signed. “And for the players, they want to be able to start believing in a coach or just basically saying, ‘look, we’ve got a guy who’s going to take us through the end of the year but there’s no ill will anywhere around.
“The other thing, for the coach, if you think about it, it allows him now to be on the market rather than waiting until mid-April,” Melnyk continued. “Right now people may have plans to be talking to him as soon as the season’s over. So that’s what Pierre told me was the best way to go about it, and the decision was made and we made the decision and we’re moving forward.”