32 Thoughts: Senators still have opportunity to realize Eugene Melnyk’s dreams

Kyle Bukauskas, Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman discuss what legacy Eugene Melnyk will leave behind in Ottawa, and wrap up the GM Meetings from Florida, discussing the specifics on next year's salary cap, the LTIR rules, and the no-trade clauses.

• Why players think Evgenii Dadonov has a lot of guts
• Post-season salary cap is hot topic, and Ken Holland has thoughts
• Sheldon Kennedy is feeling positive after meeting with NHL GMs

I don’t remember the exact date. I think it was April 24, 2010 — with Ottawa and Pittsburgh in Game 6 of an entertaining first-round series.

But I do remember the incident.

We were waiting to conduct a between-periods interview. Behind us, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was trying to get into his team’s dressing room. He wanted to address the players, implore them to victory. A team employee tried to talk him out of it. But Melnyk was adamant, moving toward the door.

Suddenly, the late GM Bryan Murray burst into the hallway, having taken the elevator down from the pressbox. He grabbed Melnyk, sighed when he saw the cameras, ushering away the owner. Totally wild scene.

Later, another employee said that moment revealed two things: how badly Melnyk wanted the Senators to win, and how Murray was the only person who could stop Melnyk in those moments.

“I think (Eugene is) beside Bryan Murray,” current GM Pierre Dorion perfectly eulogized on Tuesday. “They’re analyzing every trade, transaction, signing and draft pick we’ve made the last five years.”

Despite Melnyk’s complex hockey legacy in our national capital, Ottawa-based compatriot Kyle Bukauskas said Senators fans chose to remember the good in the immediate aftermath of his death. He saved the team in 2003, buying it (and its arena) when Canadian owners were drowning with the dollar worth 70 cents (U.S.). There were times people would say, “Well, he got a great deal,” and the counter would be, “Anyone could have had it, but no one else wanted it.”

When Hockey Night in Canada was still on CBC, we asked Melnyk one Saturday night to address a losing streak. He told us he believed in his group, that they could go all the way. The Senators finished something like 26th that year.

That’s the way it should have stayed, Melnyk riding the emotional rollercoaster with the fanbase. That’s a real connection. Ottawa was a true Twisted Colossus throughout his reign. After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, the Senators basically alternated between playoff team and non-playoff team for a decade. Then came Erik Karlsson at his absolute best, spearheading a marvellous run to Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final, a painful double-overtime loss to Pittsburgh.

It’s something I’ve thought about from time to time: who wins that Stanley Cup if it’s Nashville vs. Ottawa? Tough, tough call.

The Senators cratered after that run. Karlsson to San Jose. Mark Stone to Vegas.

And we gained greater knowledge of deep off-ice fissures in the foundation. For the second time, the franchise’s greatest player, Daniel Alfredsson, was alienated. Good employees were driven out, if not quitting in exasperation. Others stayed, despite stressful work life. A really fun weekend — the outdoor NHL 100 Classic — was tarnished by Melnyk's horribly ill-timed threats to move. That angered both the fans, and the NHL. Fourteen months later, plans for a downtown arena fell apart amidst duelling lawsuits and angry accusations.

Fans wished him to sell, and there was plenty of interest — but Melnyk refused. He made it very clear at Board of Governors meetings that he had no interest in doing so (although the NHL laughed off at least one lowball offer). The Senators were a huge part of his identity, and he repeatedly indicated he wished for daughters Anna and Olivia to take over.

“The franchise will run in the ordinary course,” Bettman said on Tuesday. “They have professional management. I’ve been in touch with the executor. Beyond that, all of the issues, in terms of what the future looks like? … Those are questions that will get dealt with over time, particularly by his daughters and by his executor.”

There was angst at a Wednesday morning La Presse story — quickly refuted by the Senators — about playing five games in Quebec City. We’re going to hear more rumours about potential sales, things of this nature. It’s not pretty, but nature abhors a vacuum.

The key thing to know is the NHL was very protective of Melnyk and the Senators. They’d warn not to predict the team was in any danger of moving. They pushed back against some tough stories. And they were well aware as, sadly, Melnyk’s health deteriorated over the past couple of weeks.

I do believe they have a vision of a strong organization in a beautiful, new downtown arena.

That process is underway, again. Bids were due Feb. 28. Although it is still a confidential process, it’s widely believed the Senators are pursuing it. Meanwhile, fans put their faith in a strong collection of young, talented players.

Nothing ever happens the way we expect. The Melnyk era began with great promise. There’s still the opportunity to accomplish those dreams.

32 Thoughts

1. One thing I wish I would have been more clear about last weekend: the NHL will not initiate any sanctions against Ottawa for the Evgenii Dadonov trade snafu. However, there is a mechanism in the NHL bylaws where one organization has the opportunity to air valid grievances against another with relief granted, if deemed appropriate. It’s up to Vegas.

2. One more note on Dadonov. Several players went the extra mile to express admiration for everything he did last week: standing up for his rights under intense pressure – when the easy move would have been to back down – delivering on the ice with five points in two games, in victories the Golden Knights desperately needed. His peers certainly noticed.

3. Let’s empty the notebook from the GM meetings. You could tell how much they enjoyed being around each other for the first time in two years. Sadly, Melnyk’s death overshadowed everything else, not that there was anything supremely newsworthy. There was a show of hands on how many managers really felt something needs to be done with a salary cap for the playoffs. Enough hands were raised that the NHL promised to discuss it with the NHLPA, but it’s also pretty clear the league isn’t enthused about “giving up” something to change the CBA. One GM laughed last summer that none of this would be an issue if Nikita Kucherov hadn’t openly bragged about it in the aftermath of Tampa winning the Cup in 2021, and still has the same opinion. Lesson: If you don’t sell “$18M over the cap” T-shirts when you win it all, this all goes away.

4. Edmonton’s Ken Holland was the manager who asked for the post-season cap conversation. He told a fantastic story about the creation of the system in 2005. “They were explaining how it was going to work,” he said. “Remember in 2002, (Detroit) played Carolina for the Stanley Cup. I brought up the series before Carolina played us: It was against Toronto, and the Maple Leafs had something like 10 players injured. How would they have a competitive roster if there was a cap? There was silence on the other end of the phone.” Holland is right about that spring. Only seven Toronto skaters played all 20 of its postseason games, and the Maple Leafs used 26 overall. “The next time we spoke, the cap idea was gone,” he added. “So the original plan was to have a cap in the playoffs.”

5. Holland raised some interesting points when we discussed his thinking. He talked about signing Henrik Zetterberg to a back-diving 12-year, $73-million contract in January 2009. Legal at the time, it became illegal when the next CBA was negotiated, in 2013. His point was, feelings change, and there’s nothing wrong with seeing how everyone’s ideas evolve. He likes the idea of a “hybrid” set-up, where you can carry as many bodies as you want, but can only dress a 20-player game roster that’s cap compliant. It makes a lot of sense on its face, but one thing NHL director of hockey ops Colin Campbell really does well is challenge you to think about “unintended consequences.” When replay was coming in, I was an absolute supporter. He warned that certain things would happen we weren’t going to like, and was absolutely right. So, I try to predict what could go wrong. Here’s my concern with that “hybrid idea”: teams and fans are going to go ballistic when they lose a Game 7 or the Stanley Cup with a good player on the sidelines because of it — a player acquired under perfectly legitimate conditions. (As Gord Stellick pointed out, that’s a tough one for a fan paying $1,000 for their playoff night out.) Imagine being the player who votes for a CBA amendment to allow that.

6. Obviously, Vegas is under scrutiny because of all their injuries. Commissioner Gary Bettman said, “Based on what I know about it to this point, yes” he’s satisfied the Golden Knights are in compliance. GM Kelly McCrimmon, asked if the NHL or any other teams had complained to him about their cap usage, replied, “Not once. In any way, shape or form.”

7. One GM suggested privately that players such as Ryan Kesler, Bryan Little and Shea Weber should not be available for trade. If he gets injured for you, you can use for LTIR, but no one else. However, there are others who completely disagree.

8. For all the talk about playoff LTIR, several executives wondered why there isn’t more discussion about the “four-recall rule” after the trade deadline. Until your AHL team is eliminated, you can make only four call-ups (with exceptions for emergency conditions). “That’s where you can really get stuck in case of injuries,” one said, “especially if you’re playing someone whose AHL team is out and yours isn’t.” That’s also a CBA issue.

9. There was talk about giving officials the option to erase any major that is reviewed, and found to be an improper call. Right now, a major can be reduced to two minutes, but not entirely eliminated. That isn’t changing — for now — and one of the concerns is what was seen at the NCAA level. It led to more reviews and longer games. The NHL doesn’t want things going past two hours and 30 minutes (unless a playoff overtime). More delays and fans sitting around? No way, not wanted.

10. Readers generally like hearing these kinds of numbers, and thank you to NHL.com's Dan Rosen for helping with them. Hockey is better when there’s no defence, and this is a unique year in the sense that goal scoring is rising during the season. At the one-quarter mark, we were at 5.9 goals per game. Now, we’re at 6.2, which would be the largest such increase in 30 years. This is a rare trend for the league, and entertaining. We are also seeing a greater percentage of goals scored at even-strength than we’re used to — 78 per cent, which would be second-highest since 1967-68 expansion. (Highest was 79 per cent, in 1972-73.) This is going to be controversial among the fan base. Some of you are going to like it, some of you aren’t. I’ve said many times that I’d like to see the star players get the benefit of an extra call or two per game, but there are a lot of people inside the sport who disagree. In 2005-06, the Year of the Great Crackdown, 61 per cent of goals were at even-strength, 34 per cent on the man-advantage. (Now it is 78 and 20.) That wasn’t overly popular inside the sport. My bet is they like 78 much more than 61, but I’m not sure where the sweet spot should be. I’m willing to hear your theories.

11. Since the last GM meeting (March 2020), the NHL conducted 500,000 COVID tests, with 901 players on the COVID list (21 coaches this season alone). There were 2,133 games played, 53 per cent of them without fans — which sucked. There were 160 postponed games. You’d have to go back 65 years to count up that many postponed games before COVID.

12. It was good to see Sheldon Kennedy feeling positive about where the NHL is headed regarding training for a respectful workplace. Winnipeg is the first team to complete the training, with the other six Canadian teams scheduled to finish by June 30. The American teams will take longer, because different states have different rules. The updated package for them will be finalized by end of August, with those teams required to complete their training by end of October.

13. “This is about good business,” Kennedy said. “If we want to advance the culture ... this is about practice, not perfection.” One of the things that struck him is that everyone has to take a survey at the start of their training. I haven’t seen the specific questions, but, as Kennedy explained it, you’re asked about certain situations and have to retake the survey at the end of the sessions. He can tell by the results that those answering the questions are learning what is — and isn’t — acceptable in their environment. The NHL indicated it will publicize the data when training is complete.

14. I saw all of your Chris Rock jokes about the NHL Awards being hosted in the city where Games 3 and 4 of the Stanley Cup Final are to be played.

15. Couldn’t see much of Toronto-Boston on Tuesday night because of travel, but certainly was aware of the fallout from Taylor Hall-Ilya Lyubushkin. Sent about 50 texts asking people what they thought, actually was surprised at how many felt it was nothing more than a minor penalty. Suffice it to say Toronto disagreed. Auston Matthews and Jason Spezza were suspended for retaliatory actions, as was Dylan Larkin for punching Mathieu Joseph (then of Tampa) after Joseph hit him into the boards from behind.

16. Buffalo has told goalie Craig Anderson it would like to have him back next season. The Sabres are willing to wait on his timetable — see how he feels after the season — but he knows the red carpet is rolled out for a return.

17. The Sabres have done an excellent job identifying two young goaltending talents, but are waiting to find out if they can sign either one. They should know in the next day or so if Northeastern’s Devon Levi is joining the Sabres or going back to college. He was acquired in the Sam Reinhart trade, and his rights belong to Buffalo for two more years. The other is Michigan’s Erik Portillo, drafted 67th in 2019. He’s with the Wolverines at the Frozen Four, so we won’t know until after — but Portillo is one year from unrestricted free agency.

18. Nashville was one of the teams interested in Phil Kessel.

19. Holland said his plan remains to figure out Jay Woodcroft’s future at the end of the season. The interim coach needs a new contract. The Oilers are 14-7-2 under him.

20. Had a few sources in the Boston area say they are very curious to see what Jayden Struble decides. Montreal’s 2019 second-rounder has one more year at Northeastern until unrestricted free agency. Guillaume Lefrancois of La Presse reported there is some agreement going back to school would be good for Struble, but others suspect the defender would like to begin his pro career.

21. Detroit, Minnesota and Philadelphia are believed to be among the heaviest pursuers for free-agent Ben Meyers at the University of Minnesota. Still has a Frozen Four to play, though.

22. Last weekend featured the final home games for the U.S. National Development Team before the Under-18 World Championships next month in Germany. Among GMs in attendance: Chuck Fletcher (Philadelphia), Ron Francis (Seattle), Pat Verbeek (Anaheim).

23. Really enjoyed the CHL Top Prospects game last week in Kitchener, Ont. Got to meet a nice young minor hockey player — Taezen Donaghy from the New Hamburg Huskies. (New Hamburg is about a 25-minute drive from the rink.) There is something intense and raw about watching one prospect (OHL Kingston’s Shane Wright) go on a breakaway against another (WHL Prince George goalie Tyler Brennan) while their parents are sitting beside each other. A respectful silence between them, while their insides are undoubtedly screaming for each boy’s success.

24. It’s not announced yet, but several CHL teams are indicating a ban will be enforced against selecting Russians and Belorussians in the upcoming import draft. Existing prospects will be grandfathered, allowed to return next year.

25. Clayton Keller is 50th in the NHL in points per game (0.95), just two points off his career high 65 from 2017-18. Unfortunately, it looks like his season came to an end Wednesday after going feet-first into the boards on an awkward, non-dirty play. It’s a shame, especially since his mother was in attendance when it occurred. “We're all sad to see him not just getting hurt but being in pain like that,” head coach Andre Tourigny said postgame. “The game is completely irrelevant.” The last time I had a chance to talk to Keller, he was reading the Mamba Mentality. Looking forward to seeing him back — and better than ever — next season.

26. Sounds like the concern about Nathan MacKinnon is a finger. He skated on his own Wednesday. He’ll probably cut it off and score 15 playoff goals without it.

27. Leon Draisaitl and Auston Matthews (49), Chris Kreider (46), Alex Ovechkin (42) and Kyle Connor (41) all have a shot at 50 goals. The NHL hasn’t had three 50-goal scorers in one season since 2009-10 (Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Ovechkin). We haven’t had more than that since 2005-06 (Jonathan Cheechoo, Jaromir Jagr, Ilya Kovalchuk, Ovechkin and Dany Heatley).

28. Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie asked Claude Giroux about all the adjustments you have to make on a new team. “That’s a long list,” Giroux replied. One thing definitely noticed, the Panthers force him to play at a higher pace than the Flyers did, simply because of the urgency of preparing for the playoffs.

29. Sean Reynolds had a couple of good questions for Patrik Laine upon his return to Winnipeg. Who is the best No. 29 in Blue Jackets’ history? You or your head coach, Brad Larsen? “I don’t want to piss him off, so I’ll say (him),” the sharpshooter replied. Laine versus Connor Hellebuyck on a breakaway, who wins? “I’ll take that bet any day of the week, I’ll bet on myself,” was the answer. Good stuff.

30. Earlier this month, NFL wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended the entire 2022 season for gambling on games. In the aftermath, the NHL sent out a reminder memo that betting on any NHL game “Is absolutely prohibited, even in jurisdictions where sports betting is legal.” The policy applies to all GMs, coaches, players, officials, league and club executives, and all other league and club employees. (I didn’t realize it extended to that many people.) Violation of the rule could result in expulsion, suspension, cancellation of a contract or fines.

31. I think Auston Matthews re-signs in Toronto — as long as he believes in the direction of the team.

32. Jari Byrski has taught skills to NHLers and minor hockey players for decades — a resume that includes Brent Burns, Alex Pietrangelo, Jason Spezza and Steven Stamkos. Now, he’s attempting another assist, helping 67 young Ukrainian players and their traveling companions (138 people total) stranded in Sanok, Poland since the start of the invasion. Link to his GoFundMe can be found here.

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