Even by Eugene Melnyk standards, the owner of the Ottawa Senators had a lot to say on a 40-minute podcast with former Fan 590 hosts Bob McCown and John Shannon.
We always learn something when Melnyk goes on a Toronto show. This time we learned that Melnyk:
• hopes to build a new arena in Kanata (with Gatineau as his second choice) over the next five to ten years; that he has no concern about getting winger Brady Tkachuk signed to a fair deal and that his next captain must be signed to a long-term deal.
• is outraged over tax breaks for Porsche dealers in Ottawa, is furious with the Ontario government for lack of a coherent plan to open things up as COVID-19 cases fall, and that there will be no "prima donnas" playing for any hockey team coached by D.J. Smith.
Off the top of the show, Melnyk was illuminating when he talked about the de-briefing with head coach D.J. Smith after the Senators finished their 56-game schedule in the temporary North Division.
Need for a centre and a D-man
Melnyk says that when he asked Smith about his player needs for next season, they involved a defensive defenceman and a veteran, No. 1 centre -- to fill the gap until all of Ottawa’s prospects are ready.
According to the owner, Smith said to him, “look, we are set for the next 10 years with the team we have, except there’s a couple of young ones that need to grow up fairly quickly.
“We’ve got some gaps. For example, we need a very good defensive defenceman, as a starter ... and we need an almost veteran-type, first-line centre.”
For the record, rookie Josh Norris had a breakout season as a Calder Trophy candidate and is pencilled in as the Senators No. 1 centre of the future, but it’s worth noting that general manager Pierre Dorion traded for veteran Derek Stepan just before the 2020-21 season, to bolster his strength down the middle. Stepan suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in late February.
On the blue line, Melnyk cited Ottawa’s 2020 fifth-overall draft pick, Jake Sanderson of the University of North Dakota, and said the prospect is “going to be an absolute rock star,” but noted that he will not be with the Senators at least until his next school year is completed. As an 18-year-old, Sanderson also needs time to develop.
Tkachuk deal ‘no problem’
A lot of Senators fans are awaiting word of a full and lasting contract for the team's young tour de force, Brady Tkachuk, a pending restricted free agent. Not to worry, says the owner, to whom it was suggested this could be a tough negotiation.
“It’s not hard if you both agree,” Melnyk said. “I think we’re on the same planet with Brady’s agents and him. We think, and we really believe, that he’s a leader of the team and is pivotal for us. But these things come down to sometimes things that you can’t even understand.”
The reference here is to some players in the past wanting out of Ottawa, despite a good contract offer.
“It’s not money, it’s something in their heads that somehow they want to do something else,” Melnyk said. “But that’s not the case with Brady ... I don’t foresee a problem with signing Brady. I don’t.”
Melnyk stopped short of naming Tkachuk the team’s next captain, but did enlighten us on something that has been widely speculated -- the organization does not want the next captain leaving the team after serving out a short contract.
“They’ve got to be around for the long term,” Melnyk said. “You can’t have a captain on a bridge contract. It’s just not going to happen.”
The owner says that both Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot, who is on a long-term deal, are “leaders in the room. And that’s what you are looking for.”
Leadership isn’t proven until it is shown deep in the playoffs, Melnyk says.
Asked if he thinks a captain is still relevant in today’s NHL, Melnyk said:
“I think the reverse is more true. You name the wrong one, and you’re screwed. You’re absolutely screwed.”
Following that came a dissertation on how a captain can’t be “flimsy,” and in a critical point in a playoff game must “go crazy” if there’s a bad call.
“You need somebody that stands up,” Melnyk said. “And everybody understands that this guy is about to unleash. And you should be worried about that guy. And I just think you need that leadership in the room.”
Building with youth
Melnyk believes the Senators can begin to contend as early as next season, and loves the youth core.
“This is a great, great collection of players,” Melnyk said. “This is a group that is a coach’s dream. They push each other. Now, they’re young, they all have the same dream. And they’re all pulling. They cajole with each other. They can get nasty with each other, if they have to, but they don’t. They're friends.
“They’re all after the same thing and there’s none of this prima donna stuff. D.J. will get rid of these guys so fast it would make your head spin.”
Rebuild ‘I told you so’
Melnyk shared with McCown and Shannon the great pride he takes in the progress of a rebuild he undertook with GM Dorion a few years ago. He said it was difficult to see his name on #melnykout billboards, but feels redeemed by the progress of his young players.
(To be fair, the billboard campaign had less to do with the product on the ice and more about the owner’s threat at the 2017 NHL 100 Outdoor Classic to move the franchise if fans didn’t buy more tickets, along with management misfires that included three different CEOs in a span of 14 months).
“It was not easy,” Melnyk said. “When you drive into town, there’s a billboard telling you to get lost. I mean, it’s tough. Melnyk. Out. There’s no other way to say it. Get out.
“The press wasn’t happy. They had a free-for-all, slamming me. I couldn’t even imagine doing this in Toronto with the press there. You know, things got a little out of hand at one point, but it’s nice to see -- I’m not an ‘I told you so’ person, but I told you so.
“Just give it time. We’ve got to do this. Over time, we will rebuild.”
Melnyk claims he went over the rebuild plan position by position, including what style this rebuilding team would play.
‘We got killed in goal’
As pleased as Melnyk was with the late-season surge by his young team, he wasn’t above piling on the Senators' goaltending problems, featuring the early struggles of new No. 1 Matt Murray.
“The only place where we failed this year ... was in goal,” Melnyk said. “We got killed in goal. And you bring in a top, top guy (Murray). Now, he's improved himself a lot. And we’re hoping Murray steps up next year, we need him to.”
Murray finished the season strong, with three wins in his last five starts, including two shutouts.
Filling in the gaps between Murray injuries and a reset under new goalie coach Zac Bierk were what Melnyk calls “five little guys. Like young kids.”
This is an apparent reference to prospects Joey Daccord and Filip Gustavsson. And possibly to Marcus Hogberg, although he didn’t play all that well. Anton Forsberg also played for the Senators and earned a new contract, but Forsberg is no kid at 28.
New arena in Kanata or Gatineau
Once again, Melnyk pronounced the former plans for a downtown arena in LeBreton Flats dead and gone.
“That was a bad dream that ended up in court,” Melnyk said.
He did speak of vague plans for a new arena, either in Kanata, Ont., near where the Canadian Tire Centre sits, or in Gatineau, Que.
“I have about 70 acres of land around our arena in Kanata and in the 16 years that I’ve owned the team (it will be 18 years in August), Ottawa has grown westward, towards Kanata. That 26-minute drive, that felt like forever, is no longer a big deal.”
The current Senators arena was completed in 1996, and just passed its 25th birthday. Melnyk says that while it has a few good years left, the CTC is aging and eventually will become too expensive to maintain. He says he just had an $11-million bill for a new HVAC ventilation system, to make the air circulation better as we come out of a pandemic.
And yet, while Melnyk spoke of this Kanata idea being the most likely (“I’m 75 per cent to 85 per cent staying in Kanata”), he mentioned a Plan B -- Gatineau. Specifically the Hull portion of Gatineau, just across from the centre of Ottawa.
“There’s some beautiful land, with some beautiful backdrops of Parliament Hill from there. It is closer to downtown. But I’m still committed to Kanata. I’m looking at sometime in the next three to five years, committing to one (plan) or the other. I’m going to have to build a new arena.
“I need a new arena in about seven years from now. Five to ten. I think that is more of a reality than LeBreton ever was. Either we build another stadium, out in Kanata on property we own, or there’s a great deal that comes from the other side of the river.”
Melnyk believes the trend is going to be toward smaller arenas, and away from the 19,000-21,000 models like the CTC or Bell Centre.
“I really believe the next arenas that are going to be built may be the same size as the current arenas, but they’ll only hold 12,000 seats. I think the days of cramming 19,000 people into a building -- I don’t know if that is going to stick around.
“I’m more of a believer of the almost Winnipeg model, or less, where you have the sellout, slightly higher pricing, but you’re jammed.”
The Jets’ MTS Arena has a capacity of just over 16,000.
The key to any proposed Kanata arena, Melnyk adds, is the realization of a Phase 3 extension of Ottawa’s LRT line to the western suburb.
Melnyk alluded to issues he has with the city of Ottawa, and touched them up for a recent news story in which the city has given a massive million tax break to a Porsche dealership in Vanier.
“Here I am, paying through the nose in taxes out there (in Kanata) and they just gave a Porsche dealer a $2.6-million (up to $2.9 million, according to reports) tax break. They say it’s because of the economic benefits. What economic benefit? He’s selling [expletive] Porches! You know, give me a break. Give me the tax break.”
Wants a plan from Ontario
The Senators would love to announce that they can have fans in the building next fall, and how many.
But Melnyk says it is going to take some time to get a directive from the province of Ontario concerning its reopening plan. Some of those details were announced on Thursday in a three-step plan.
Melnyk said he is looking for “a straight answer on what it is going to take for us to allow a safe number of fans in our building.
“If somebody simply said we’re looking for ten straight days of under 600 (COVID-19 cases), then we can do this. That’s what I’m after. I can’t run a business of our size that’s dependent on the audience, and on spectators coming into our building, without understanding the dynamic of what’s going on externally that affects 'X.' And I’m going to demand that.”