It’s hard to label anything the nadir for a franchise that always somehow manages to sink even lower, but call this week’s trade deadline the cap of a lost decade. After moving forwards Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, the Ottawa Senators’ failures are laid bare. Gone are our three top scorers, who generated nearly half of the Sens’ points this year. Gone are the team’s top five scorers from last year—including Erik Karlsson, the beloved captain who dared to ask for his market value after dragging the Sens within a goal of the Stanley Cup finals in 2017.
2017! Just two years ago! Now we’ve got a handful of skilled-but-green teenagers whose development hangs in the balance of a shaky group of bottom-six veterans and 37-year-old goalie Craig Anderson. The team sat in the league’s basement with Stone, Duchene, and Dzingel. Now, that spot gets cozier as the Sens trudge through the next chapter of owner Eugene Melnyk’s reign of terror. All this without their first-round pick, given up to acquire Duchene last season. Yes, the Senators gave away their Jack Hughes lotto ticket for a one-year rental.
The trade deadline was a dark day for fans, but apparently not for general manager Pierre Dorion. “Today is probably one of the proudest days I’ve ever had as a General Manager in the NHL,” he said mere hours after trading Stone. In a truly bizarre interview that was, I suppose, meant to assure fans that two plus two does in fact equal five, Dorion attempted to spin the pissing away of generational talents over 10 years of mismanagement as something that never happened. The horde of furious fans? Never seen ’em. “When you talk about disconnect, I don’t see it…Over the last 12 months, I’ve had one person yell at me, so I don’t see the disconnect.” Ah. Only one person.
Rebuilds stink. But rebuilds are necessary. Fans here know and have accepted this in the past, as we suffered through expansion growing pains and a rebuild in 2011. But there’s something far more sinister, cynical, and hopeless about this teardown and the gaslighting from management. It goes beyond mere incompetence or a couple bad rolls of the dice. The Melnyk Horrorshow is a quagmire years in the making. Here’s just how messed up things are in Canada’s capital city.
Eugene Melnyk is the keystone of the Senators’ woes. To peer into the Melnyk’s mind, look no further. Or watch this creepy interview (Melnyk’s idea, apparently) with defenseman Mark Borowiecki, wherein Melnyk assured people that things are very fine, very normal, and certainly not dysfunctional. When the pharma CEO bought a near-bankrupt Sens club in 2003, fans were ecstatic. But shortly after Melnyk’s purchase, Biovail’s value tanked, which meant he had to finance the team with loans. To pay off these loans, he’s since taken out more loans, the latest round of credit coming from “a syndicate of financial institutions.”
When TSN’s Brent Wallace’s asked Melnyk about claims he hadn’t paid out staff bonuses, Melnyk reportedly told Wallace, “I’m going to bury you” and banned him from the team’s charter flight. When TSN’s Travis Yost, then writing for Hockey Buzz, began uncovering Melnyk’s spotty finances, his blogging accounts were mysteriously hacked by a Ukrainian IP address. When the Ottawa Citizen criticized Melnyk, an army of bots popped up spouting support for our Glorious owner and shaming a local newspaper. (Full disclosure, I worked briefly at the Citizen as a news intern.)
Melnyk is a bully of a Trumpian sort, just more bumbling and cash-poor. In December of 2017, Melnyk bragged he’d “cut everything to the bone,” then minutes later grumbled about attendance when the on-ice product was among the worst since our expansion year in 1993. He so badly bungled an interview at the NHL100 Classic, an otherwise joyous and celebratory event, Gary Bettman had to swoop in for damage control. That debacle incited open revolt in the fanbase, including a crowdfunded campaign to put “Melnyk Out” billboards around the city.
The first major evidence for fans that things had gone awry in our quaint capital was when the team couldn’t re-sign Daniel Alfredsson in 2013. Alfie is the team’s most celebrated player; he’s the first player of the modern team to have his jersey retired, and holds the Sens’ record for goals, assists, and points. A resident of Ottawa even after his career ended, he’s raised countless funds for charities here, too. Alfie is Ottawa royalty, but it’s a tough business, and he left for Detroit. It happens. However, the Euge ran out Alfie a second time, from a front office job. The circumstances of Alfie’s second departure aren’t exactly known, but Alfredsson did say “we hope to get a new owner.” (He later tried to claim his comments were off the record.)
Melnyk recently proclaimed he’ll spend to the roof… in 2021. A team that can spend to the salary cap doesn’t need to reassure people that they will spend to the cap. They’ll do it when the opportunity for success shows up, which this team should have done when we had Erik-freakin-Karlsson and Mark-freakin-Stone.
Eugene Melnyk is the clown prince of the NHL. An owner who regularly mortifies this team, this league, and this city. He is his own worst enemy, stumbling through disasters of his own making and, unable to let go of the team or provide the means to make it successful, allowed those disasters to spiral further out of control. And for reporting the bare facts of his ineptitude, he blames the media for why no one outside Sens management likes him.
Other than the spending-in-2021 gaffe, Melnyk has finally listened to his PR people and has mostly stayed the hell away from cameras recently. Enter Pierre Dorion. Melnyk’s trusty mouthpiece was an amateur scout in this organization who helped draft the key pieces of that 2011 rebuild. Karlsson, Stone, Dzingel, Mika Zibanejad, Mike Hoffman, and Robin Lehner all have his fingerprints in drafting them. It’s a brutal irony that Dorion’s legacy will be tainted in this city as the man who dumped these players for a series of mostly lesser pieces. Erik Brannstrom and Colin White, the most tangible fruit of these trades, may look great, but they’re also just promises replacing sure things we knew we could build around.
Why did the last rebuild fail? A series of 180-degree pivots in direction at the slightest hint of success or failure. The Sens did a little better than expected in 2012, so they engaged in transactions over a stretch to remain marginally competitive—good enough to occasionally squeak into the postseason without spending enough for true contention. Since 2008, the Senators have more or less alternated missing and making the playoffs. While that mediocre limbo is perhaps preferable to the decade in the wilderness a franchise like Carolina has suffered, it’s also prevented the Senators from building anything sustainable.
Bobby Ryan’s albatross contract was signed in 2014 as an effort to appease fans who mourned Alfie. Meanwhile Alex Kovalev, Ales Hemsky, Pascal Leclaire, Cory Conacher, Ben Bishop, David Legwand, Sergei Gonchar and more were shoveled in and out during the decade of up-and-down. And remember trading away captain and all-star center Jason Spezza? The pieces we got in return have completely evaporated, save Nick Paul, whose presence on the big club has been limited. None of those duct-tape transactions worked out for the Sens, who still pay Ryan a hefty $7.25 million cap hit to play on the third line. Then-GM Bryan Murray worked magic with what little he had to keep the team semi-competitive so Melnyk could bilk fans for playoff tickets for runs that went nowhere.
In 2015, when Murray retired, Dorion took the reins and went all-in. It resulted in a conference final appearance, and then back to the basement the following season. Rather than a bounce-back, things this year have only gotten more bleak. The stars have bolted, leaving management with their pants hanging at their knees, desperate to sell us on a rebuild with money that will appear out of thin air while pretending the Lost Decade never happened.
There are some great prospects and a bevy of draft picks thanks to this week’s firesale. But Dorion getting us these picks and prospects is like your roommate baking a batch of homemade cookies after vomiting all over your living room the night before. Thanks for the macaroons, Pierre. But you puked on the antique coffee table and my mom’s heirloom rug. And you’re smiling through the stench of booze, McDonald’s, and regurgitated stomach acid. Flashing prospects and picks at us like shiny keys to a toddler doesn’t answer for the rotten failure of the past decade. They tout fourth-liner Zack Smith as a key veteran for this rebuild after trying to waive him at the beginning of the season (there were no takers). Management is telling us to trust them with the rebuild when they’ve done nothing to show they should be trusted with a pet rock.
Since 2007, Ottawa has been a coach’s kryptonite, cycling through eight bench bosses without any kind of consistent success. On Monday, Dorion offered an apology/vote of confidence to head coach Guy Boucher, saying “I’ve probably made his job pretty difficult the last few weeks, and we’re going to support him.” On Thursday, Dorion said a decision on Boucher’s future would be made in the offseason. On Friday, the Senators fired Boucher.
We’re told to believe in a planned rebuild when this organization’s M.O. has been to flat-out lie and do anything but stick to a plan. Barring the trade for Duchene, the trade for Kyle Turris(made by Murray), and maybe the trade for Derick Brassard (which was made in part to keep costs down), the impetus of every major move from this franchise has been to put out fires and offset previous mistakes—mistakes primarily motivated by short-term financial benefit. No matter who played for the Sens, no matter who’s coached this team, nothing has gone right. So who’s been at the helm through all of this? And now, we’re told to have faith in an organization where everyone—the players, the execs, the fans—are gone, except the owner and management who got us in this mess to begin with.
This is bigger than sports. Melnyk has also set back one of the biggest proposed construction projects in the history of Ottawa. For over 50 years, the City of Ottawa has sat on LeBreton Flats, a strip of unused land that’s a mere stone’s throw away from our downtown core. The proposal to build a state-of-the-art arena at LeBreton by the Sens and the Trinity Development Group were dashed Wednesday, after Melnyk and Trinity’s partnership was deemed irreconcilable a day before the expiration of the already-extended deadline to reach an agreement. And everyone involved has pointed fingers at Melnyk for the deal going kaput. This multi-billion dollar project could have gone a long way to revitalizing downtown. Unlike Canadian Tire Centre, which sits near the boonies by some used parking lots surrounded by a field. And it will take years to get us close to another development deal.
The Senators organization is an important economic engine to this city, but it also plays a key role in Ottawa’s identity. The Sens are a small market-team stuck between two giants—the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens—and Ottawa is a smaller city geographically stuck between the two cultural capitals of our country: Toronto and Montreal. (Sorry, Vancouver and Calgary, you’re both great.) This city and the Sens are both underdogs, and people here truly relate to and care about this team. But we are being given more reason every passing day to give up.
Nick Dunne is a freelance writer from Ottawa currently on the pub sport beat. He is also done with all this.