TORONTO – There is a saying going around regarding people in glass houses, but forgive Eugene Melnyk if he can’t hear it over the clatter of all the stones he’s been stuffing in his pockets.
During a news-talk radio appearance on Ottawa’s CFRA 580 Friday morning (Listen in full here), the Ottawa Senators owner shifted focus from the topic of his own club’s rebuild to offer a not-so-friendly critique of a divisional rival.
“I’m from Toronto originally as well,” Melnyk told host Bill Carroll, an admitted Leafs fan. “I’ve spent the past 15, 16 years now owning the Sens, and I dropped that affiliation very quickly.
“Look, they’re stuck. They cannot — OK, I better not say what I was gonna say. They’re going to have a tough time winning a Stanley Cup without defence, because they’re hitting the cap. They can’t bring anybody new in. So, they’re stuck. And that’s where you have to be extremely careful.
“Mistakes were made. Somebody forgot about defence.”
What was he going to say but decided better?
As Melnyk seeks to construct his own championship-calibre roster through drafting and developing, his public criticism of his financially stout provincial rival — a highly unusual, ill-advised play — touched a nerve and may have thrown a tank of gasoline on the rather quiet fire that has become the Battle of Ontario, with one team ranked sixth overall and the other mired in last place.
“That’s funny,” said Leafs top defenceman Morgan Rielly, when a reporter relayed Melnyk’s comments. “I don’t really have any comment on that except it’s pretty funny.”
The Senators, it feels relevant to note, rank 31st overall in goals allowed (3.7 per game) and 31st in shots allowed (36.1 per game). They traded away two-time Norris winner Erik Karlsson, arguably the best defenceman in hockey, at training camp.
The Maple Leafs, for comparison, rank 16th in goals allowed (2.99) and 23rd in shots allowed (33).
The Sens did, however, trounce Toronto Saturday 6-2.
Toronto’s blue-line depth has fallen under increased scrutiny since last week when the Leafs surrendered 23 goals over an ugly four-game span as core D-men Travis Dermott (shoulder) and Jake Gardiner (back) rehabilitate their injuries.
“That’s just what [Melnyk] thinks. I don’t necessarily agree with that,” said long-serving Leaf Nazem Kadri, part of the NHL’s third-most productive offence.
“You’ve got to work with the people you have. We’ve been given the privilege to have that offence, to have that excitement. I think we’ve been pretty solid defensively except in that last little stretch we had — it was pretty brutal — but in the bigger picture, I think we can dial in on both ends of the ice.”
Kadri noted Dermott’s return to practice Friday (albeit in a red, non-contact sweater) and that in Tuesday’s loss to Nashville (20 shots allowed) and Wednesday’s victory in Buffalo (24 shots allowed), Toronto limited its opposition to fewer than 25 shots per game.
“Which is pretty exceptional compared to the offence that’s in the league,” Kadri said. “If we can continue that and put up three or four goals a game, I think we’ll be alright.”
To Melnyk’s point, the Maple Leafs have already committed $46.92 million (or a projected 57 per cent) in salary cap space to its forwards for 2019-20 — and that’s prior to signing RFAs Mitch Marner, Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson, all of whom are enjoying career seasons and will be due significant raises.
“I’m in this to win, and to win, you know what you have to do,” said Melnyk, referring to his own franchise. “You have to have a young, vibrant team, you have to have the superstars, and you’re gonna have to pay them. If you don’t pay them, somebody else will.”
With top-four defenders Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey both scheduled to walk, there is widely accepted sense that something has to give.
“We’ve got people questioning everything we do,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock, when asked about Melnyk’s commentary.
“The great thing about our organization is, we’ve got so much fan support because we’ve got all you guys questioning everything we do. I think you get paid to question everything we do. And you [the media] get paid to sell — I think that’s what your jobs are. So, whatever you gotta do, I don’t spend much time worrying about it.
“We’ve got an unbelievable owner here in Larry Tanenbaum, and we’re blessed to have him. How’s that?”
The Maple Leafs will travel to Ottawa on March 30 to play Melynk’s rebuilding Senators.