Friday, November 14, 2008

A defence of Bryan Murray

This article would have been a lot easier to write if the Senators didn't lose to the last-placed team in the NHL last night. But they did, and there's nothing I can do about it now. On a three game losing streak, everyone in the city is wondering what is wrong with this team. Some are saying it's the players, while others think its management--notably general manager Bryan Murray. He has undeniably put his mark on this team, but I would argue that the results on the ice aren't enitrely, or even mostly, because of mistakes Murray has made. Rather, he's made commitments to players who aren't fulfilling their ends of the commitments.

Murray has, certainly, made some mistakes. The Ray Emery contract turned out to be a mistake, even though it seemed like a bargain when it was signed. Failing to find a top-flite defenceman to replace Wade Redden was a mistake, even though his hands were tied with the salary cap. Failing to fill out the top-six forwards, and allowing Cory Stillman and Mike Comrie to walk for nothing, were mistakes. It doesn't look like Luke Richardson is an NHL defenceman anymore, and even had a hard time at points last season. It's not certain yet, but the no-trade clauses for Chris Phillips, Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Mike Fisher, and Daniel Alfredsson might turn out to be debilitating if it turns out they're not working out. And the financial terms of the Fisher contract are debatable. But every GM has to make some mistakes; Murray has made a number of good transactions, too.

In terms of free agency, Murray tried to fix some things in the off-season. In signing Jason Smith, he tried to solve some of the defensive woes of last season with a proven veteran playoff warrior with leadership qualities. He re-signed Shean Donovan, possibly the best player for the Sens in the playoffs, to a reduced and very reasonable contract. He rightfully allowed Randy Robitaille to walk after wrongfully signing him last season. He didn't get into the bidding war for Mike Commodore. Even though we miss his skating and passing, Wade Redden isn't a $6.5M defenceman, especially not for six years, and Murray recognized that.

In trades, Murray converted some unhappy or failed assets into new ones. Joe Corvo demanded a trade, and was packaged with the not-as-expected Patrick Eaves for Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore--many pundits suggested Ottawa won the trade. Although Brian McGrattan didn't express any unhappiness, he couldn't have been happy with his role, and wasn't utilized; he was converted into a draft pick and isn't even getting ice time with the Phoenix Coyotes. Promising prospect Alex Nikulin was turned into a serviceable AHL defenceman, while Larry Nycholat and his one-way contract (signed by John Muckler) was swapped for Ryan Shannon, who has offensive flair and a more flexible two-way deal. Given Andrej Meszaros' contract demands, and Ottawa's payment structure, Murray dealt him for what's turned out to be a tremendous surprise in Filip Kuba, a promising (if unproven) prospect in Alex Picard, and a first-round draft pick for 2009--it remains to be seen how Meszaros develops, but I would say Ottawa has the upper hand on this trade so far.

In goal, Murray's had a difficult situation that would have been much easier if Ray Emery has simply fulfilled the contract Murray signed him to, or if Martin Gerber had fulfilled the contract that Muckler signed him to. Instead, Ottawa was faced with two unhappy and questionable goaltenders to start this season, neither of whom were tradeable. One had to be bought out, and it was likely more owner Eugene Melnyk's decision: Emery's contract was cheaper to buy out than Gerber's, and Gerber had a better season last year. With Melnyk unwilling (with good reason) to eat Gerbe's contract in the minors, Murray signed the cheapest goaltender with a reputation of team-first approach and solid, if not stellar, play: Alex Auld. Of the off-season free-agent acquisitions, Auld might be the best one so far, and is likely playing better than Cristobal Huet or Olaf Kolzig, two other (and much more expensive) free agent goaltenders from last off-season, would be.

When Murray became general manager, the Senators' farm system was rather depleted. After years of relying on younger players on rookie or second contracts as the bulk of the Senators offence (for example, Alexei Yashin, Martin Havlat, Marian Hossa), the Senators had developed a great team which wasn't privy to the high draft picks that built the team's core. On top of that, those players who were drafted, or picks which could have been used, were traded in deadline-deals that usually flopped. It's no secret that in the Binghamton Senators' past four seasons, excluding the lockout season where the team had a cornucopia of NHL players on the roster, the B-Sens have been, well, bad: Finishes of fourth (2003-04), fifth (2005-06), seventh (2006-07), and sixth (2007-08) in the East Division, with a record of 126-151-46 overall, one lost playoff round and four seasons out of the playoffs. The cupboard was rather bare when Murray came in, and that was one of the priorities he's established in his actions. Rather than trading prospects or picks, Murray decided to use them to re-build the team's prospect system.

What does this do for the team? In the short term, it means there are no deadline deals for the big names available. It also means that the team can develop its own skilled players, though. Under a salary cap, it's important to develop your own players and take advantage of their relatively low-priced and possibly high-productivity rookie contracts, especially when they're complemented by players like Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, and Anton Volchenkov. It takes more than two drafts to rebuild depth, but players like Jim O'Brien, Louie Caporusso, Ben Blood, Erik Karlsson, Pat Wiercoch, and Zack Smith--all picks from Murray's first two drafts--are a good place to start.

What does it mean for Murray? It means he's made a lot of moves, and some have been the wrong ones. Some remain to be seen, though, while others were proven to be solid deals. More importantly, though, a lot of the squad that Murray led to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals remains intact, it's mostly the work ethic and team-first approach that has changed. Three coaching changes haven't improved the problem; will a change in general manager be any different?
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