When Pierre Dorion was hired as the Senators general manager on April 10, 2016 he immediately thanked the man upstairs.
Bryan Murray, that is.
On that same day, Murray, sick with stage 4 colon cancer and wanting to spend more time with his family, reluctantly left the GM position and took on an advisory role. Little more than a year later, Murray died, the first of a string of bad news events for the Senators.
What followed would be a 30th place finish in 2017-18 and a dressing room divided, partly due to a cyber-bullying situation between star players Mike Hoffman, Erik Karlsson and their partners. This story broke during the summer of 2018, an off-season that would also see charges of harassment against assistant general manager Randy Lee, and his eventual resignation. Now, on the heels of a collapse of a RendezVous LeBreton deal that could have moved the franchise to a new arena in central Ottawa, the Senators are destined for another lowly finish amid screams of a full-on rebuild.
All of this happened under the watch of the thinnest hockey operations department in the NHL. At the time of his promotion, Dorion had been one of two assistant GMs, along with Lee. Dorion was not replaced. Peter MacTavish eventually replaced Lee. Neither was Murray, the former GM, former head coach, replaced in his role as senior advisor to hockey operations.
A little more than 1 1/2 years after Murray’s death, the Senators are finally getting around to hiring a president of hockey operations, a story broken by Elliotte Friedman on “Hockey Night In Canada.” In his 31 Thoughts column, Friedman added “it sounds like the NHL is involved in the process.”
In fact, the very idea of hiring a president of hockey ops in Ottawa seems to have come from the NHL head office, which is hoping to add some stability to a troubling franchise situation.
In their subsequent statement, the Senators declared they intend to “fill the void left by the late Bryan Murray,” and that the Senators have become an “attractive destination for hockey executives” because they have as many as 17 potential draft picks in the top three rounds of the next three entry drafts.
Hmmmm. OK. Let’s pretend, for a moment, there will be a lineup at the door to recruit more young prospects for the Senators, although the prospect of a Stanley Cup contender is realistically years away.
It’s certainly a sound idea to have a hockey operations president in the mix – nearly every NHL team has one. But given the developments in the Senators front office in recent seasons, we would suggest that in the upcoming interviews, potential candidates for the job will have at least as many questions for owner Eugene Melnyk and the NHL head office as the NHL head office and Melnyk would have for them.
Here’s a few questions the president-to-be might want answered:
Why has there been so much turnover of management personnel?
Those scoring at home will know the Senators have burned through executives and managers at a rate California wild fire fighters could appreciate. Cyril Leeder, former CEO, alternate governor and franchise co-founder, his replacement, Tom Anselmi, chief financial officer Ken Taylor, next CFO Stephen Brooks, chief marketing officer Peter O’Leary, senior counsel Wendy Kelley, broadcast VP Jim Steel, director of human resources Sandi Horner – and many others – either left or were fired by Melnyk in the past two years. Nicolas Ruszkowski, as chief operating officer, and Aimee Deziel, chief marketing officer, are the latest into the breach, trying to put a positive spin on what has been another bizarre season. An incoming president on the hockey side will want to know why the front office environment has been so toxic, and wonder why there is realistic hope for stability.
It’s the autonomy, stupid. Will the prez preside?
In professional sport, it has become almost cliche that a solid operation has an owner who owns but delegates, lets the GM be a GM, lets the coach, coach etc. In Ottawa, Melnyk has repeatedly meddled, sounding off on decisions by his managers and coaches (who can forget how he buried former loyal soldier Dave Cameron for his “stupidity” (Melnyk’s word) in starting rookie goaltender Matt O’Connor in the 2015-16 home opener. Cameron once did Melnyk a huge favour by leaving an AHL head coaching job to return to St. Mike’s to coach Melnyk’s former OHL team. His eventual reward – getting ripped and then fired from the Ottawa job. Any new president will need assurance of autonomy, an ability to make decisions that won’t be second-guessed, in public or in private. Better get this one in writing.
Buffer role, too?
Those who covered the Senators during the Bryan Murray era know that one of his unstated job descriptions was to keep Melnyk at bay. It was Murray who answered the owner’s calls when a game went sideways, Murray who ran interference for his hockey staff and players. Murray who let the owner sound off. With the veteran, savvy hockey man gone, it was left to Dorion, a young GM (43 when hired), to hear directly from the owner. Dorion not only lost his mentor and sounding board — in Murray, he lost the man who could assuage the mercurial owner. It will be vital for the new president to have the respect and admiration of Melnyk, as Melnyk had in spades for Murray.
How will the hierarchy play out?
Presumably, Melnyk hires the new president of hockey operations, who will have authority over the GM Dorion. We presume, again, that Dorion will retain the ability to hire the new head coach, replacing recently ousted Guy Boucher. That hire would come after a consultation with the new president, much as Murray was kept informed on the interviews that led to Boucher’s hire by Dorion, but allowed Dorion final say. All of this needs to be clarified during the president of hockey ops interview process.
What’s the long-range plan?
It’s fine for Melnyk to boast about having a slew of pimple-faced kids on the horizon by virtue of a large number of draft picks from 2017-19, the Senators don’t even own their own lottery pick this June. And there is no star veteran left on the roster, now that Karlsson, Stone, Duchene and Dzingel have left. What remains are journeymen, castoffs via trade and a blue-chip youngsters in Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and Erik Brannstrom. While Melnyk has vowed to spend “close to the cap” as the team matures from 2021-2025, there has to be a clearer picture of how and when this team can become a legitimate contender. Some of Ottawa’s draft assets should be flipped to bring in players that can help immediately. And will the organization commit to its homegrown stars? Melnyk says they will. Proof is required, starting with a Chabot contract.
Is the future in Kanata?
Along with the hockey story, the new president needs to be apprised of the big picture situation concerning the Senators. For the past three years, the hockey club has hitched its future to a new and exciting venture in LeBreton Flats, a revenue-creating new arena in central Ottawa that would be an easy walk or transit ride away. The Senators bet on this horse, dissing the current Kanata location, and they were fully backed by the tiny, perfect NHL commissioner. “A new downtown arena is vitally important to the long-term future, stability and competitiveness of the Senators,” said Gary Bettman in the fall of 2017. Now, the downtown project has collapsed and Melnyk has implied he will retrench in Kanata, perhaps even expand the current facility. All this while attendance, and especially season-ticket sales, are in decline. Even though the incoming president of hockey ops will be largely consumed by hockey business, not real estate or arena location, he will have to know how the broader business model will impact hockey budgets and the overall perception of the franchise.
Is there a sanity clause if I lose my mind in the first three months on the job?
Doesn’t hurt to ask.