Monday, April 6, 2009

If Not Murray, Then Who?

People clamoring for the head of Bryan Murray need to take a step back, a deep breath, and then ask yourself the question: if not Murray, then who is a legitimate candidate to GM the Ottawa Senators next season? Let's face it, there are not a lot of proven options out there. You're looking at Pat Quinn, and that's about it.

Murray has been head honcho for only two full seasons now. This is hardly enough time for an NHL GM to be evaluated, but let's do so for the sake of the argument. We'll start with the trades Murray has made since becoming GM.

February 11, 2008 - Traded Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves to the Carolina Hurricanes for Mike Commodore and Cory Stillman. This is a trade that continues to haunt the Senators' fan base. Has there been a game since this trade that Corvo has failed to make the scoresheet against Ottawa? If there has, I can't remember it. And Patrick Eaves was considered a bright prospect for Ottawa and has continued to play well in Carolina since the trade. In return we got Commodore, who seemed to be playing under the cloud of a never-ending brain fart during his brief tenure as a Senator, and Cory Stillman, who was counting the days until he could sign elsewhere as a free agent. Not a great trade by any measuring stick.

February 26, 2008 - Traded a sixth-round draft pick in 2008 (#169, Ben Smith) to the Chicago Blackhawks for Martin Lapointe. A prospect for a rental player until season's end. Let's face it, Lapointe's best days were behind him already. This was a trade to provide depth heading into the playoffs. As it turned out, Lapointe did not play that badly, 6 points in 18 regular season games, but he vanished in the playoffs (along with the rest of the team) in the sweep loss to Pittsburgh.

August 29, 2008 - Traded Andrej Meszaros to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for Filip Kuba, Alexandre Picard and San Jose's first-round draft pick (previously acquired) in 2009. This trade was a winner for the Sens. Kuba is a much better defenceman than Meszaros, even if he plays even less physically than "Mezz" did (which I didn't think was possible). Picard added depth, and the draft pick was gravy.

September 2, 2008 - Traded Lawrence Nycholat to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Ryan Shannon. Without doubt a good trade for the Sens. Shannon has looked awesome at times, and is young with a lot of upside. His game kicked up a notch with Clouston behind the bench. Nycholat was not going to crack the Sens' top-7 D anytime soon.

February 20, 2009 - Traded Dean McAmmond and San Jose's first-round draft pick to the New York Islanders in exchange for Mike Comrie and Chris Campoli. Remember that draft pick we got in the Meszaros trade? Bundling that with McAmmond for Comrie and Campoli is a great deal for Ottawa, particularly if Comrie re-signs, and there are strong indications he will. McAmmond was unhappy with his ice time in Ottawa, and Comrie is a great fit in Ottawa. Campoli has been a pleasant surprise in the mix, adding some much-needed offence from the blue line. All of a sudden, the Sens have a lot of assets at D.

March 4, 2009 - Traded Antoine Vermette to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Pascal Leclaire and a draft pick. Vermette for Leclaire straight-up would have been a good deal for Ottawa. Getting the draft pick thrown in was just a bonus.

After a couple of false starts, Murray's last five trades (including the one that allowed Ottawa to improve its 1st round draft position) have been solid winners for the Sens.

Moving onto the draft, in the last draft it is widely acknowledged that moving up two spots and drafting Erik Karlsson 15th overall was an absolute steal by the Senators. Karlsson was the dominant defenceman at this year's World Junior Hockey championship, and should be a staple on the Senators blue line as soon as he is ready for prime time. After the previous season where it appeared the Senators had no depth on the farm team, the Binghamton Senators are now heading to the AHL playoffs, with significant contributions from Zack Smith and Jim O'Brien, both draft picks of Bryan and Tim Murray.

As far as free agent signings go, it's a mixed bag. Jarko Ruutu has been popular with fans. Jesse Winchester has probably exceeded any reasonable expectations as an undrafted free agent. Alex Auld has had an up-and-down season, as has Brendan Bell. Jason Smith has not had a season to remember, but who has, other than Brian Elliott?

Murray has led both the Panthers and Ducks to the Stanley Cup finals as GM. He brought the Senators there as head coach. He is still one of the best hockey minds out there, and he has barely begun to put his plans for Ottawa into effect.

Now the inevitable argument is "Yeah, he has traded and drafter well, but he has also overpaid the core guys." No he hasn't. Those core guys earned those salaries by the numbers they had put up in previous seasons. He could not have predicted the complete disaster that the Hartsburg era would be in terms of the productivity of his top players, but this was symptomatic of a team playing with no clear direction or game plan. The same nay-sayers will say "Yeah, but he's had to fire two coaches in two years." A valid point, although John Paddock had a decent record until he forgot that he was coach and was supposed to put players (Emery) in their places. Hartsburg... well I never liked the hiring of Hartsburg from the start. Coaches who are successful in the junior ranks do not always find success in the pro leagues, although Peter Deboer has done a heckuva job in Florida. But at the end of the day, Bryan and Tim Murray also hired Cory Clouston, and all Clouston has done since being hired to coach in Binghamton and since his promotion to the big club is get his players playing. The success comes as a result of good preparation, and the preparation comes from the coaching.

If Eugene Melnyk hits the panic button and fires Murray, then what? The best potential GM available is Pat Quinn. Pat Quinn has not exactly had a love affairs with the Senators organization over the years. And then who would be his coach? Or would he pull double-duty like in his final seasons in Toronto? There simply is not a bevy of quality coaches and GMs out there this off-season. And let's face it, there are a lot of franchises out there that are in much worse shape than the Senators. Why create chaos when it's not necessary?

Yes, this is the first season in a dozen years where the Sens have failed to make it to the post-season dance, but they did not miss out by much, especially with a horrid start. Had they even been .500 at the time Harstburg was fired, they would be in, and they most likely will make it back in next year. It's probably a good thing in the long run that the core group of players feels what it's like to miss the playoffs. Maybe then they will not take it for granted. One would hope that, in any case. But firing Bryan Murray? Not the smartest move that could be made at this point in time.
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