OTTAWA – Sometimes, the words unspoken scream loudest.
In Monday night’s oddly timed and awkwardly executed “Between Two Blazing Ferns” episode with interviewer/player/good sport Mark Borowiecki, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk’s state of the union address, while intended to be encouraging, was by turns vague, confounding, and consistently awkward.
The promises of roster and character overhaul, a youth-fuelled rebuild, and a forthcoming “watershed year for us” raised more questions than they answered.
In the five-minute clip, Melnyk’s issues a reassurance that he’s not going to move a franchise he himself threatened to move (“The franchise is not going anywhere. That’s, like, totally solid,” he says, convincing someone, maybe), he boasts about being “loaded up” with draft picks while failing to mention 2019’s first-rounder Ottawa surrendered to Colorado on the day they traded away top-line centre Kyle Turris to Nashville, and he says 10 new players will be on the club’s roster next month, “15, maybe 16” by 2019-20.
In his consequent open letter to the club’s shrinking faithful, the Barbados billionaire admitted the 2017-18 Sens, who won all of 28 games, “were horrible,” but that they will embrace the underdog role and regain the hearts of the Ottawa citizens.
Not once in either release does Melnyk mention the words Erik or Karlsson — an insult to his fan base’s intelligence.
We’re not here to pile on or beat a dead horse. Sens fans are smart and loyal and don’t deserve the last 12 months. And, for what it’s worth, we don’t believe Ottawa will finish at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, let alone the league, standings.
But lottery balls can bounce funny ways, and Jack Hughes is the real deal.
Big picture: We can’t recall an NHL training camp opening under such a maelstrom of uncertainty.
“It’s cool right now to dump on this team, right? That’s the cool thing to do online. I get it,” Borowiecki told reporters at Wednesday’s team charity golf tournament. “It’s been a trying year for everyone.”
Borowiecki is an affable veteran and an Ottawa native, a straight shooter who simply said yes to his employer’s request to help with the video. The defenceman admits he sat quiet as a dressing room of guys who’d come within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final splintered into cliques, the ugliest rift filtering into a lawyers’ offices.
“Shame on me for doing that,” Borowiecki said of his silence last winter. “People think we’re in there running around clawing each other’s our eyes out? That’s just not true.”
OK, then. Let’s dig into some truth as the remaining Sens dig into some necessary team-building.
• Karlsson himself did participate in the organization’s golf tourney, making it one step farther than Max Pacioretty, but declined to speak. The captain has also resisted responding to questions about his future with the club multiple times over the summer as GM Pierre Dorion continues to find fair return on a trade.
“Erik has every right to explore whatever option he wants,” Borowiecki said. “If Erik feels the best route for him to go somewhere else, explore free agency, good on him. He has every right to do that.”
• Of the 2017-18 Senators’ top six point-scorers, two have already been traded for futures (Mike Hoffman, Derick Brassard) and not one is signed beyond this coming season. The seventh-highest scorer, Bobby Ryan, is being shopped in a potential Karlsson deal because of his not-so-friendly $7.25-million cap hit.
• It was only a few months ago that Mark Stone told me he wished “to be part of the solution in Ottawa, not part of the problem.” On Wednesday, the 2019 UFA said, “For now, I’m here.” Although a multi-year deal was discussed, that’s been shoved to the back burner until Jan. 1 or later.
• No. 1 centre Matt Duchene (UFA 2019) was originally enthused by last season’s trade from Colorado to Ottawa. Recently, he’s said he’s curious to see how things shake out for Karlsson and Stone before committing long-term.
Wednesday, Duchene announced the Sens will use their collective chip on the shoulder for good.
“I know probably from the outside it looks like a disaster,” Duchene said. “On the inside, it’s very different. I love our locker room, I love our guys. We all get along very well.
“If there’s anything we can do, we can be a little louder in terms of, like, bringing each other together and maybe spending a bit more time together on and off the ice. But we’re all really tight, so that should be easy.”
• Opting for arbitration this summer, top-four defenceman Cody Ceci was handed a one-year deal at millions less than he asked for and did not enjoy the process.
• Top goaltender Craig Anderson has denied making a trade request. He’s also said this: “I’m too old for drama, and I don’t want anything to do with drama. Hopefully, we’ve resolved all that. Ottawa, I’ve been there for eight years now, and that’s my home. I’ve got no interest in going anywhere else as long as we can clean up what was going on this summer.”
• The Sens bought out Alex Burrows and will pay $1.75 million of Dion Phaneuf’s salary for each of the next three seasons.
• Icon Daniel Alfredsson and short-lived CEO Tom Anselmi left abruptly after short stints in the office.
• Randy Lee stepped down from his assistant GM post in late August amidst harassment charges, to which he’s pleading not guilty. GM Pierre Dorion is currently without an assistant GM.
• Perhaps most concerning, especially to Melnyk, attendance is falling off a cliff. As recently as five years ago, Ottawa was a top-six NHL box-office draw. Imagine: In 2013, the Sens drew an average of 19,408 fans per game, just 18(!) shy of Toronto. Ottawa now ranks 24th in the category, averaging 15,829 per game last season, and is in danger of tumbling further.
To combat that, the Sens dropped rink parking in Kanata to 12 bucks and unveiled a family ticket priced at $35 that includes a $10 food and beverage coupon.
The hope here: Drama over, rebuild on.
“Rebuilds can take two months, 10 months, it can take three years,” said Stone, likely the best player standing when the puck drops.
“Whoever’s in that locker room when we start on Oct. 4, we’re gonna try to win.”