There is a popular Twitter account that goes by the handle -- ‘You Had One Job.’
That expression serves as a decent metaphor for the Ottawa Senators off-season. Their ‘one job’ was to get their franchise winger Brady Tkachuk signed to a contract that would make the player happy and Ottawa’s future as an organization feel secure.
It seemed a simple task. So simple that on May 19, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk confidently predicted on a Toronto podcast: “I don’t foresee a problem with signing Brady. I don’t.”
In that same interview, Melnyk made a statement that many viewed as alarming. He was talking about the team captaincy, and in particular the choice between Tkachuk and defenceman Thomas Chabot.
“Whoever it is, they’ve got to be around long term. That’s the key for us. You can’t have a captain there on a bridge contract. It’s not gonna happen. But he, along with Thomas Chabot, they’re both leaders. They’re both leaders in the dressing room, which is what you’re looking for.”
Four months and 18 days later, the Senators don’t appear to be any closer to signing Tkachuk than they were in the spring. In seven days, the Senators play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Ottawa’s home and season opener. Yikes.
That game should signal a rise of unprecedented anticipation ahead of the first regular season game at the Canadian Tire Centre in 18 months, a chance to emerge from the shadows of the COVID-19 lockdown to enjoy a hockey game with several thousand fellow-vaccinated friends -- and many blue-shirted rivals.
Instead, Ottawa’s fan base is mired in the muck of a stalled negotiation.
It shouldn’t be this hard. If Tkachuk and his camp are set on him signing a short-term deal, why hasn’t it been done? You can’t bully the player into signing long-term if he’s not ready. Besides, bullying a Tkachuk doesn’t tend to work out.
What’s the problem?
The problem is this:
Brady Tkachuk, like it or not, has become a litmus test of credibility for the franchise. Sign him to a long-term deal, put a ‘C’ on that No. 7 sweater and the club gets to trumpet a new era of stability and success -- see, we CAN keep our young stars in the fold, just as we promised we would.
A short-term deal is being viewed from within as a red flag of failure, a here-we-go-again refrain, as though it’s automatic that Tkachuk would take his first opportunity to follow Mark Stone out the door. The owner himself assigned a negative connotation to it by suggesting “you can’t have a captain on a bridge contract.” So, then what? Tkachuk gets punished by being denied the captaincy, and Chabot gets it by default?
That would diminish the new leader in the eyes of the fan base and the team itself.
It’s all become a disaster -- the worst fears of an already skittish fan base coming to fruition.
More than ever, the house is divided into what we might call three different camps of fans.
Faction One: The jaded, “told you so” group that does not believe in this ownership and never will.
Faction Two: The “player is greedy” group, a small but growing faction that is suddenly turning on a heart-and-soul winger who could do no wrong in his first three years here. It didn’t help when brother Matthew suggested his bro could be “pulling a classic Tkachuk” by learning to be “cutthroat” in negotiations. My prediction? Those chirping him now will be cheering him his first game back.
Faction Three: The “call me when it’s over” contingent that will remain under the covers, proverbial pillows pulled over their heads until the issue is resolved. They just want to enjoy some entertaining hockey without getting dragged into the ugly business side of the game. Is that too much to ask?
Until further notice, an upbeat training camp that started with the promise of a bigger, stronger Tim Stützle and a more comfortable Matt Murray in goal has taken a sharp downward turn.
From an innocent-looking hit on Dave Kampf of the Maple Leafs in Monday’s pre-season game, centre Colin White suffered a serious shoulder injury that could keep him out long term. While White has not lived up to his $4.75-million AAV deal, he is still a useful player who likely slotted in as third-line centre on a team not deep down the middle.
For now, journeyman centre Andrew Agozzino will get a look there, but the White injury combined with the ongoing Tkachuk impasse has cast a pall on what started out with a pretty impressive show of carrying on sans Tkachuk.
There was always the belief -- Brady will be here soon, the deal will get done.
Only now is the organization talking about preparing for the very real possibility that the Senators may have to start their season minus their most important player -- the one who drags his team into battle every night, to paraphrase head coach D.J. Smith.
“We’ve only got two exhibition games left so I’ve got to start preparing like he’s not going to be here,” Smith said, in advance of Thursday’s pre-season game in Montreal. “So that changes things. Obviously he’s a huge piece to our team, but that’s not my job, my job is to coach the guys that are here and when he gets here I’ll coach him. We’re going to put our best group out there and do everything we can as a group to win.”
Look for forwards Nick Paul and Alex Formenton to have elevated roles in the absence of Tkachuk and with the injury to White. Paul, nicknamed ‘Does it All,’ can slot in anywhere and be effective as a big strong presence on the wing or at centre. Formenton, one of the least known speedsters in the league, might not be as tough as Tkachuk but he has a reputation for being nasty with his stick, so he is no pushover. And he brings a different element as a breakaway threat. Still, he’s not Brady.
In the meantime, the Senators need to build a bridge of compromise between Ottawa and St. Louis, Mo., to get a deal done with their 22-year-old winger. ASAP. Short term, long term, mid-term, all deals have their pluses and minuses.
Instead of worrying about sending the wrong message with a bridge deal, the hockey club could set out to convince Tkachuk and the broader Ottawa community that they have what it takes to get up off the Cap Floor and get into the game of true Stanley Cup contention.