When Pat Quinn was the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs – seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? – one of the things he banged the drum about every time a coach got fired was the need for a coaches’ union.
Pretty tough to argue with that logic when it comes to the Ottawa Senators firing Craig Hartsburg just 48 games into his tenure in Canada’s capital. If there were a coaches’ union, you can bet it would be processing the paperwork right now for a grievance against the Senators for firing their coach without just cause.
What the Senators did today is what drives coaches bonkers and it should. But what it will also do is drive any prime coaching candidates away from Ottawa if they have a choice between the Senators and almost any other organization in the league.
Is there anyone out there who believes that any of the stink from this mess in Ottawa should be sticking to Hartsburg at the moment? Hartsburg is a quality coach who has succeeded at every level of hockey and it’s amazing that over the course of 48 games, he somehow worked in a way that merited him being fired.
The problems in Ottawa go way beyond who’s standing behind the bench. It’s clear the Senators fired the wrong person today. What owner Eugene Melnyk would have done if he had any ability to admit his mistakes would have been to fire GM Bryan Murray. Or at the very least, he could have fired Hartsburg, put Murray back behind the bench where he’s much better suited and waited until the summer to replace Murray as GM.
Murray is a terrific coach and might even be a decent GM, but the fact is no objective hockey observer could possibly come to any other conclusion than pointing out that everything Murray has touched in a managerial capacity has turned to lead. And much of the blame for that has to go right to Melnyk, who allowed Murray to prevail in a power struggle between Murray and former GM John Muckler after the Senators advanced to the Stanley Cup final.
And how ridiculous does it seem now that much of the reason for Muckler’s firing was based on the fact that he was unwilling to overpay the Florida Panthers for Gary Roberts at the trade deadline in 2007? Though Muckler was not without his skeletons, either. He was the one who signed Martin Gerber to a four-year deal and allowed Zdeno Chara to leave as an unrestricted free agent in 2006, instead hitching his hopes to Wade Redden.
And now Redden is gone as well, thanks to Murray. It’s amazing a team that has had the likes of Chara, Redden and Joe Corvo at different times is now searching for a puck-moving defenseman. It’s also searching for a goaltender that can play with some semblance of consistency at the NHL level and some players who can provide a modicum of secondary scoring after Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, who are the only engines on one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league.
When it comes down to it, it wasn’t Hartsburg’s idea to give Ray Emery a three-year deal based on one decent season instead of letting him go to arbitration, then paying him for the next four years not to play goal for them. It wasn’t Hartsburg’s idea to sign Heatley to a six-year deal worth $45 million, Spezza to a seven-year contract worth $49 million, Alfredsson to a four-year deal that amounts to $21.6 million ($19.5 million in contract and a $2.1 million bonus for not playing out his option) and Mike Fisher to a five-year deal worth $21 million.
It wasn’t Hartsburg who made Murray address the Senators’ perceived lack of grit by signing an ineffective Jason Smith on defense and an erratic Jarkko Ruutu at forward. Is it Hartsburg’s fault that Fisher has worn down and can’t possibly meet the expectations of his contract? Is Hartsburg to be blamed because Antoine Vermette has fallen off the face of the earth?
The Senators are in deep trouble here. They’ve wildly misjudged their personnel and have given far too much money to players who cannot possibly be the heartbeat of their team (Spezza, Heatley) and one who can’t do it all by himself, especially at his age (Alfredsson).
Beyond top prospect Erik Karlsson and goalie Brian Elliott, the Senators’ constant production of top young players has slowed to a trickle. The fact that Heatley, Spezza, Alfredsson and Fisher take up more than $23 million in cap space proves that after making the Stanley Cup final, they failed to learn from the mistakes the Tampa Bay Lightning made after winning the Stanley Cup.
And by the way things are going, it looks like the Pittsburgh Penguins, who made the final last season, could be next in line as NHL salary cap casualties.
The good GMs in this league have figured out that you can’t throw all your cap room at a couple of players. The Senators, under Murray, have yet to grasp that concept.
And in the end, a good man and a good coach ended up paying for the mistakes of those who operate above him.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell’s Cuts, appears Mondays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.