But the 73-year-old general manager didn’t and with the Senators advancing to the Eastern Conference final with a win over the New Jersey Devils Saturday, it appears his reluctance to do so has paid off.
“It would have been very easy to break up the hockey club and start over in October or November and December when we were playing badly and getting the criticism,” Muckler said Sunday. “But I always felt that it was a pretty good team.”
After ousting Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the opening round and making equally short work of Martin Brodeur and the Devils, it turns out he was right all along.
It’s just the second time in the Senators’ modern history that they’ve made the conference final. As recently as January, they were in doubt to even make the playoffs let alone get this far after several of Muckler’s off-season moves appeared to be bigger busts than boons.
Muckler elected to let Zdeno Chara, Dominik Hasek and Brian Pothier walk away to free agency and dealt away Martin Havlat and Bryan Smolinski. To replace them, he splashed out more than US$20 million to sign goaltender Martin Gerber and Joe Corvo to multi-year deals and imported journeyman Dean McAmmond and defenceman Tom Preissing.
When the Senators struggled to get to .500 by Christmas, those decisions were among the reasons most often cited by fans and the media for the stumble.
The criticism didn’t stop there for the native of Midland, Ont. He was also picked apart for the moves he didn’t make. Apart from the acquisition of Mike Comrie in January, his only other pick-ups, Lawrence Nycholat and Oleg Saprykin, weren’t expected to have more than bit parts.
But Muckler insisted he liked the make-up of the team all along. His faith has been rewarded.
“As a general manager, you have to do what you think is right, but you’re not going to be right all the time and if you’re wrong, you’re criticized,” he said. “You get your reward being right and that (reward) is watching your team grow.”
The Senators have indeed grown and Muckler credits coach Bryan Murray and his staff and the players themselves with the development.
Anton Volchenkov took advantage of increased ice time to help make up for the loss of Chara, while Murray found a fit for players like Corvo and Preissing.
“We were confident that all of them were going to be good players for us,” Muckler said.
You don’t have to go any further than centre Jason Spezza to see the change. The 23-year-old has always been chided for being poor defensively, but he’s been given the green light in these playoffs to play head-to-head against the opponent’s top-scoring lines and is often on the ice protecting the lead in the final moments of a game.
“He’s improved considerably and I think that’s through maturity and also wanting and having the knowledge of how to play under a team concept,” Muckler said. “It’s a process that every young player has to go through.”
Overall, the Senators are no longer the freewheeling bunch that failed to deliver on its promise a year ago. This edition of the Senators is tighter in its own end, tougher and harder-working – the qualities often touted as being the keys to playoff success.
“Our coaches really changed the system we had,” said Muckler, who thought that the Senators were able to beat the Devils at their own disciplined and tight-checking game.
“We did it better than they did it last night,” he said of Ottawa’s 3-2 win Saturday.
Despite their achievement, Muckler, who has won the Stanley Cup in various capacities on five occasions, says the Senators are only halfway to the goal they started with this year.
He says he feels vindicated, but not satisfied.
“We’ve had a certain amount of success, yes, but this is not what we came to training camp for, to get this far.”