Saturday, September 10, 2005

Words from the boss

GM John Muckler is all over this morning's Ottawa Sun.

On all the changes that have been made to the roster since April of 2004, when the Sens were eliminated by the Maple Leafs:

"I could have done nothing and maybe we would have had another 100-point season, but we wouldn't have been successful in the playoffs," said Muckler. "The fans here aren't going to settle for that and we're not going to settle for that either. We're all about winning a Stanley Cup here. That's our only goal.

"If you don't win a Stanley Cup, there is no sense in going back with the same old group of guys. You have to make changes and you can't be afraid to make changes in this job. If you make changes, though, you have to do it for the right reasons and I believe that's what we did here."

One of the aspects I loved about Muckler becoming GM years ago, ending the revolving door circus that was the top hockey position with this team, was that he wasn't afraid to say the goal was to win. Previous bosses, Marshall Johnston especially, seemed to tip toe around that fact, and would always go back to the fact that, because this is a small market, the goal is to compete.

In a sense, that was smart, because it kept expectations low. Muckler, for all the criticism he takes, isn't afraid to put himself out there. I am a believer that to win you must first have a winning attitude and Muckler has been the first to try and implement it.

Regarding the numerous moves, there is a school of thought out there that disagrees with his philosophy, and looks to building rather than retooling. Adding pieces rather than switching them up. And prevayers of this ideology have been critical of Muckler for all he's done.

However, the team has done that already. It was time for moves.

Firing Jacques Martin was long overdue, and that's coming from someone who defended the coach many times when others were calling for his head. There's no disputing that he was a major part of this team's rise from basement dwellers to NHL elite, but he could never take them over the hump when it mattered. Jacques was an important piece of the franchise's development, but it was time for someone else to take over. I'm certain he'll have a ton of success in Florida, doing for them what he did here, but this team needed a fresh voice.

Radek Bonk was sometimes unfairly blamed for the team's misfortunes, but he didn't carry the load that was expected of him, both based on his salary and the line he played on. In Montreal, he'll likely make a great third line checking forward behind Saku Koivu and Mike Ribiero, and if they want to pay a guy $2.5 million for that role then good on them, but in Ottawa, he was expected to contribute offensively, and he never reliably could. His numbers may suggest that he did, but that was largely because he was playing with great players, mainly Marian Hossa.

Patrick Lalime also had to go. Not because he was a bad goalie, because for the majority of his time in Ottawa he was quite good. But if this team had gone back to him in goal, the city would've stayed away. That's how anti-Lalime fans were after last season. Is it fair? Probably not. He was not the lone reason they lost the series to the Leafs. The biggest factor was the team's inability to put pucks in the net. They outplayed the Leafs all series, yet couldn't score. Is it because they were bad or Ed Belfour was good? The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But still, that series should have never gone to a game 7. Lalime did lose them that single game though, and as a result, became the scapegoat for the entire playoff meltdown.

Trading Marian Hossa ruffled a lot of feathers, and once the initial euphoria of getting a player like Dany Heatley wore off, many Sens fans began to realize they were without their most consistent goal scorer. It stings. Some were turned off by Muckler's "spin" post-trade that the Hossa trade had to do with switching team chemistry, assuming that he meant Hossa was the cause of their failures. I didn't see it that way. I understood Muckler as saying, the team as a whole was to blame, but in order to send the message that things have changed (as well as the message that the team won't be held up for more money than they can pay), something had to be done.

The salary cap implications of trading Hossa have been discussed to death, but the simpliest way to look at it is to say that by moving Hossa we now can keep the others. Meaning, would you rather have Hossa, Greg de Vries, and Wade Redden or Zdeno Chara or would you rather have Heatley, Chara, AND Redden? The answer, to me anyway, seems obvious.

On Dominik Hasek:

""I know the biggest question is in goal and I have no concerns about it at all," said Muckler. "What I like about Dominik Hasek is this guy is a winner. When I spoke with him, I could see he still had the passion to play the game and he wants to come in here and prove everybody wrong. He wants to come in here and win a Stanley Cup. This guy has been an elite player and I don't think you ever lose your skills. Mentally, I know he's prepared for this challenge." Backup Ray Emery, who will be making his NHL debut, is going to play a role, but he's not coming off a standout season in Binghamton. "We're going to use both goalkeepers ... You have to have both if you're going to win a Stanley Cup," said Muckler.

I wish I was as confident as he seems to be. I'd love to give him the benefit of the doubt, based on his extensive history with Hasek, but regardless, the idea of a 40-year-old who has played less than 20 pro games in 40 months being the team's starting goalie does scare me just a little. I realize, this isn't just any goalie, it's maybe the most dominant netminder of the last 20 years. I'm just a tad nervous, ok?

As for Emery, it seems like they've taken the approach of sink or swim for him. He's had the label of the team's franchise goalie for years now, and having had significant experience, both positive and negative, in the AHL, I guess they think it's time to put him to the test. If he can't hack it, cut bait and put one of the other promising young goalies, whether it's Kelly Guard or Jeff Glass, into that spot to groom him as the next in line.

I can understand their mindset, but again, given that our starter has some understandable (to everyone else but the GM, it seems) question marks, it's not unfair to suggest that maybe a back-up with some solid NHL experience would've been a wise move.

Letting Martin Prusek go for nothing puzzled many, especially when we now hear Doug McLean say that he will challenge Mark Denis for the starters job in Columbus. However, he wasn't much of a step up from Emery, and due to both inconsistent play and a endless stream of injuries, never proved himself to be worthy of a starter job. Besides, did we really want both of our goaltenders to use that same scary unorthodox style?

On the question marks regarding the centre position:

"Spezza has got to have a breakout year," said Muckler. "This is his fourth year (as a) pro ... it's time to get it done. He's been up and down, but he's had a chance to be the main guy in Binghamton and he had a good year. He has to be able to show that he can get it done at this level." People around the league wonder if the Senators have the necessary depth in the middle. But Muckler is convinced Bryan Smolinski can fill the No. 2 centre spot. "Smolinski has the talent to be a No. 2 centre, he just has to do it on a consistent basis. I don't think there's any question about talent," said Muckler. There is no question Mike Fisher brings grit to the No. 3 position while Chris Kelly is going to get a chance to be the No. 4. That could mean Antoine Vermette gets moved to the left wing in camp, but those decisions will be left to Murray.

Again, I would be more comfortable if they would've went out and got someone else to play the second line center role instead of Bryan Smolinski, who's been anything but the consistent player Muckler feels he needs to be since coming over. It's certainly time for Smolinski to put up or shut up. After acquiring him at the 2003 trade deadline, they gave him a four-year deal in an offseason where, going into the last year of the CBA, the rest of the league was signing one year contracts. They gave him a vote of confidence, and in the season that followed, he failed to live up. If you believe reports, the team tried to move him recently, to no avail, so he should take that as a sign and step up or ship out.

As for Spezza, I'm 100% fine with him as the #1 center. He's proven, to me anyway, that he's worth giving that opportunity too.

On new coach Bryan Murray:

"I've known Bryan Murray for a long time and the one thing I know is that he can make this team mentally stronger," said Muckler. "He is a guy who is only going to accept winning. I like his attitude and his style of coaching and he loves to coach. He's dedicated and determined. A coach can't make a bad team into a good team, but he can make a good team into a better team."

While I felt like it was time to bring in a new coach, I'm not as confident as Muckler that Bryan Murray is the answer. Murray has said all the right things since being hired, talking about how this team needs to toughen up, etc., but I wonder how much of that is him, knowing the rap on the team locally being that he's from the area, playing the masses. He's positioned himself wonderfully as the anti-Jacques, however, saying something in the media and actually doing it are two entirely different things.

On the team being able to keep the pieces together:

"We're going to try to keep our better players, but the reality is under a cap system we're not going to be able to keep all our better players," admitted Muckler. "That's not realistic unless you get a lot of co-operation from the players. People are going to have to accept that there are going to be changes."

The key part of that quote to look at is "unless you get a lot of co-operation from the players". Marian Hossa was not willing to do so, and as a result, he's on an inferior team. He put money over playing on the Sens. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, and he was certainly entitled to do so, but you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Based on the fact the team approached Hossa, Redden, and Chara about taking identical contracts, Ottawa looks to be trying to implement a structure similar to the New England Patriots, except the Senators don't have the Super Bowl championships. We'll see how it works out.

On the question marks surrounding Dany Heatley's health:

"I certainly believe he's going to help this team win and I liked the excitement that surrounded this move," said Muckler. "He's a skilled player. I know people are talking about his knee surgery, but if you have surgery on your (anterior cruciate ligament), you need a full year to recover. I was once told that you're never going to get a top player when he's at the top of his game, but you should remember what he was at the top of his game. I'm sure this deal is going to turn out to be good."

So he's aware Heatley may not be the player he was in Atlanta? Well that's reassuring. Everyone seems to have an opinion on Heatley's health, but I truly have no clue. Every pundit who has painted the doom and gloom pictures about his eye and his knee are doctors who haven't examined Heatley. Maybe I'm being naive in assuming that the Senators made sure these issues were addressed before trading for him.


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At 11:00 AM, Anonymous David said...

Two points.

1. Lalime was never that great in Ottawa. The team in front of him made him look better than he was. His save % over the 5 years in Ottawa was .905, .914, .903, .911, .905. .914 is a good save % but not a great one, .903 and .905 are very sub par for a #1 goalie being depended on to 60 game games a year plus playoffs.

2. Don't underestimate Atlanta. If they can sign Kovalchuk they will have a good, possibly very good, team. They have ample offensive ability, good (but mostly unknown) defense and I love Kari Lehtonen in net (I'm betting on him to win the rookie of the year).

At 11:46 AM, Blogger just'cuz said...

Not having the time or monetary resources to go out and follow Spezza, Hasek and Heatley, or any of the available unsigned players, I'll have to trust Mr. Muckler's expertise.

My concern is behind the bench; I'm not convinced that Bryan Murray was a better choice than coach Maurice (Toronto AHL team) or Barry Smith or Joel Quenneville (available at the time). Coach Paddock will be great for the development of Spezza, Heatley, Fisher, Vermette and Eaves. But I don't know that coach Murray can motivate the team enough to win the Stanley Cup.

At 11:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was glad they moved Prusek. His stats are a bit deceiving because of the competition he faced, and he could never seem to play two games in a row without injury. Agreeing with you, could I take watching two goalie flop around randomly on the ice? More important, thinking Hasek is here for only one season, looking to next year they have to have someone ready to move into the number one slot. I can't imagine Prusek as a number one (good luck Columbus!). Emery gets a 20-game try-out this year for that spot next season.

One interesting thing -- imagine if the Sesn had beat the Leafs in game#7. Would Lalime/Bonk/Martin still be here is they playoff had been more successful?

At 4:02 PM, Blogger CMcMurtry said...

One interesting thing -- imagine if the Sesn had beat the Leafs in game#7. Would Lalime/Bonk/Martin still be here is they playoff had been more successful?

Bonk likely would've been gone, unless he had a surprising about face the next series. Lalime and Martin probably would've stuck around, though if it would've been a second round exit instead of a first, Martin's standing would be at the very least shaky.


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