Senators staff lean on contract security while handling early-season crisis

Ottawa Senators head coach D.J. Smith and staff during a team practice. (Justin Tang/CP)

If you thought the Ottawa Senators and their staff had a lot to unpack after a week-long trip to Colorado and California, imagine the debris to sort through for those who cover the team.

Where to begin? With their anointed goalie saviour, Matt Murray, being put on waivers and dumped to the minors after playing just one game since returning from COVID-19? Consider, just for a second, that this two-time Stanley Cup champion was waived during a west-coast swing, and wasn’t even granted the dignity of waiting until the team returned home. They might as well have put a scarlet letter of shame on him. How frustrated must the organization be with Murray, 0-5 this season, to treat him like this? Murray was awarded a four-year, $25-million contract by general manager Pierre Dorion in October 2020.

I suppose we shouldn’t lose track of the five-game losing streak, which has kept the Senators stuck on a league-worst nine points since the Nov. 13 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Ottawa was granted a week off following that game to deal with 10 COVID cases on the roster). The Sens lost all four games on this recent road trip, getting outscored 21-10.

And then there are the sideshows. Captain Brady Tkachuk, who fights more than he should, in a vain attempt to fire up his teammates, got tangled up Saturday with family nemesis Brendan Lemieux and the Kings winger bit Tkachuk on the right hand not once, but twice. If a person is said to be once-bitten, twice shy, the twice-bitten, Tkachuk was anything but shy in his post-game comments Saturday night. He called Lemieux a “joke” and “gutless” and someone who doesn’t belong in the league.

(Lemieux, the son of notorious Claude, won’t be in the league for a while once his suspension gets set by the NHL’s department of safety).

Tkachuk wasn’t done there. He called Lemieux a “bad guy and a bad teammate.” Oh, and the crowning adjective -- “a brick head.” And with that, said he would have nothing further to say on the subject. At least he emptied the tank.

That Tkachuk could not be on the ice for most of the five minutes of power-play time Ottawa had late in the third period, trailing by a goal, was unfortunate. Tkachuk was serving two roughing minors while the referees threw the book at Lemieux. Crushingly, the Senators
couldn’t manage a goal in that five-minute advantage, when a goal, and earning at least one point on the road trip, would have been something to cling to.

Fan reaction in Ottawa coming off a 1-10-1 November is running the gamut from anger and frustration to despair and apathy, with a select few preaching patience with a young roster.

That fans were told during training camp that the “rebuild is over” helped “build” expectations that this could be a season in which the Senators at least threaten for a playoff spot. Even the most cautious members of the organization imagined the team hanging around in the Atlantic Division race until late in the second half, giving young players like Tim Stützle, Drake Batherson, Josh Norris, Tkachuk and others some experience playing in meaningful games.

Instead, as America cleans up after Thanksgiving feasts and Black Friday deals, the Senators are about as well cooked as last Thursday's turkeys south of the border. Traditionally, NHL teams take stock of their playoff chances at this point -- and for three of the seven Canadian teams: Ottawa, Vancouver and Montreal, the outlook is bleaker than bleak. Sports Club Stats rates the Senators’ and Canadiens’ playoff chances at less than one per cent. The Canucks are at a lofty 1.8 per cent.

The Canadiens just cleaned house on the weekend, firing general manager Marc Bergevin, assistant general manager Trevor Timmins and senior VP for public affairs and communications Paul Wilson. Timmins was a longtime Senators scout and the director of hockey operations in Ottawa before joining Montreal.

In Vancouver, talk swirls about potential changes at the GM or head coach level.

But in Ottawa, it is business as usual, or business as unusual, depending on one’s perspective. As the team owned by Eugene Melnkyk settles into a fifth straight year of finishing at or near the league basement, little has changed, nor will it for the time being.

So high are expectations in Montreal, a trip to the Stanley Cup final last summer was not enough to save Bergevin on the final year of his contract.

In contrast, GM Pierre Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith were both given contract extensions this fall, based on the promise of a strong finish last season by a young, developing team. Dorion’s deal will carry him through 2024-25, with a team option for another year.

Smith received a two-year extension through the 2023-24 season.

Coaches and managers with term do get fired, on occasion. In a sudden turn, Melnyk could sour on his current group. He could wonder what is going on with the pro side of hockey operations, as the majority of veteran acquisitions earn “bust” status.

Over the summer, Melnyk hired former broadcaster Pierre McGuire as senior VP of player development, a move that some saw as a potential threat to Dorion.

McGuire’s fingerprints were all over the Senators’ latest move, picking up centre Adam Gaudette, 25, off waivers from the Chicago Blackhawks. When he was a daily guest on Ottawa sports radio, McGuire often raved about Gaudette, who won the 2018 Hobey Baker Award out
of Northeastern University.

Let’s see what the near future holds, but for now things are status quo.

The Senators have a quiet start to the week before a flurry to end it. A home game against the Canucks Wednesday, followed by a quick trip to Raleigh to face the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday. The Colorado Avalanche are at the Canadian Tire Centre Saturday.

There should be some better news, finally, in the coming days. Ottawa’s top scorer, Batherson, returns from a long hiatus while dealing with Covid-19 and Gaudette will get a look. Goaltender Filip Gustavsson gets a chance to stabilize things in net.

Maybe the Senators can win a game and change the subject, even for a day.

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