Eugene Melnyk’s plan for Senators brings cynicism and doubt

Morgan Rielly scored the go-ahead goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their victory over the Ottawa Senators.

The year is 2021 and Ottawa is suddenly a scorching hot hockey market.

The erstwhile phenom Thomas Chabot has just been signed to a bonus-laden, max-term contract and all the Senators’ pending unrestricted free agents have committed to stay with this contending team. Meanwhile, the scent of fresh U.S. currency is wafting under the noses of elite NHL free agents and their representatives.

This pie-in-the-sky concept of Ottawa as a destination franchise, a hockey Shangri-La for the game’s stars, stems from the comments made by owner Eugene Melnyk in Toronto Tuesday.

Of course, the pearls from the Senators owner get dropped in Toronto.

Speaking to a group of team sponsors and partners, Melnyk’s first public comments in ages were packaged and delivered as a PR missive, bizarrely, after the first period of Wednesday’s hockey game between the Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs. Melnyk was in attendance.

The release lauds the contributions of some $105 million by Melnyk’s Senators to the Ottawa community, and then adds:

"Mr. Melnyk also confirmed during the presentation that on the hockey side of the business, the expectation is that the Senators rebuilding plan will take another season or two from now, but when his general manager confirms that the Senators have all the pieces of the foundation in place …

"The Senators will be all-in again for a five-year run of unparalleled success – where the team will plan to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021-2025," Melnyk is said to have said.

He reiterated (the statement is paraphrasing now) that the "Senators current rebuild is a blueprint on how to bring the Stanley Cup home to its rightful place in Ottawa."

First question: does the rebuild blueprint include trading away the 2019 first-round pick in a go-for-it move just 15 months ago? Two, how do we distinguish a rebuild from penny pinching?

We’d love to report that the response to this news of the Senators identifying their Stanley Cup window was spontaneous dancing in the streets of Kanata and the Byward Market.

Alas, 15-plus years of Melnyk ownership comes with a certain degree of cynicism and doubt. Promises of glory have been heard before, along with a vow to move downtown, and then a flip-flop on that to suggest maybe the Sens would just stay in Kanata. Or move elsewhere, if fans aren’t going to support the bloody team.

The reaction online to Melnyk’s comments was swift and decisive – generally seen as more fake news from the Senators’ fearless leader.

A sampling of comments from fans and bloggers:

"The Senators clearly don’t understand that TRUST is the issue and the easiest way to build that trust is to repeatedly do what you say you are going to do. Not press releases. Few believe the GM or the owner. It’s so weak. Basic PR."

"I don’t believe a word he says …"

"He’s like Donald Trump …"

"On top of the obvious issue of where the money comes from, you can’t just flip a compete switch at a designated time. You have to invest along the way. Keep good players. Bring in competent coaches. Invest in scouting/player development. Hire an actual front office."

Yes, it is widely known in hockey and in Ottawa that the Senators run a bare-bones operation. The Leafs probably spend more on front office salaries than the Senators do on players. The Senators officially have a payroll of $72.5 million, but some of that is accounted for in insurance payments to long-term injured players Clarke MacArthur and Marian Gaborik.

The timing of the Melnyk offensive seems obvious considering the Senators are in the midst of last-ditch negotiations with pending free agents Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, prior to the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline. This was a PR offensive.

During the Sens-Leafs broadcast, the Sportsnet panel was swift to assess Melnyk’s pitch. Elliotte Friedman tied it to the current pursuit of pending Duchene, Stone and Dzingel. Doug MacLean said Melnyk has a credibility issue. Brian Burke, the long-time NHL executive and now analyst, was his usual blunt self:

"They’re not going to be able to come through on this pledge without a new building," Burke said, referencing the bid to develop LeBreton Flats. The proposal has been approved, then abandoned, and is now the subject of mediation.

"That building is 48 months away, minimum, even if everything starts to move quickly," Burke added. "I’m not sure it’s going to happen in the next six, seven years.

"So, they can say what they want, they’re a revenue-sharing team now, they’ll have a hard time spending near the cap with the revenue gap between their old building in Kanata and what they need downtown."

If there’s a glimmer of bright news to be read into any of this, clearly Melnyk is at least trying to keep one or more of these free agents, with a promise of a brighter financial future here. Not that these players or their representatives are going to be convinced by rhetoric; they already have a handle on what is going on behind the scenes in Ottawa.

Maybe it shows his optimism that LeBreton Flats is going to be developed, and that there will be more revenues to support a payroll, and potentially other ownership partners.

Maybe Melnyk will sell the team before it hits this supposed winning window of 2021-25, and his promise to spend will be carried out by new ownership.

Now, that is the kind of news that would get people dancing in the streets of Ottawa.

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