OTTAWA – Mike Commodore won a Stanley Cup in Carolina and got to the final with Calgary. What he saw in Ottawa after arriving in a mid-season trade he won’t soon forget.
“I got to be honest with you, aside from the year I was in the minors, this was probably my toughest experience as a pro,” Commodore said as the Senators cleaned out their lockers Thursday. “Coming into a first-place team that I didn’t realize was struggling . . . we just never got it together.”
No, they didn’t. After a 15-2 start this season that had Senators fans counting on another trip to the Stanley Cup final, Ottawa’s hockey club crumbled in sensational fashion, winning only 18 of its final 48 games after Jan. 1 – including a four-game sweep in the first round of the playoffs to Pittsburgh.
“We were waiting to wake up one morning and suddenly things were going to turn around,” said defenceman Wade Redden. “That’s not how it works. It takes a price to be paid and sacrifice by everyone. It’s evident in the way we went out that there wasn’t a demand on how things have to be on the ice. It showed.”
Redden is among several faces not expected back in the Senators fold next season as GM Bryan Murray either tweaks or remakes a roster that just one year ago was the envy of the Eastern Conference.
“There’s going to be some change. There has to be,” Murray said Wednesday night after Game 4.
The GM meets the media on Friday along with owner Eugene Melnyk and president Roy Mlakar.
On Thursday, it was the players facing the music. Chief among them was Ray Emery, the controversial goaltender who may have played his last game in Ottawa. He’s got two more years and US$6.75 left on his contract. Murray may choose to buy him out and eliminate what became a distraction this season after Emery twice arrived late for practice and some believe also dogged it at times in practice.
“I don’t think I was a model citizen but in no way did I not encourage my teammates or take away from what they were trying to do,” said Emery. “Other than those stories, which if I could take them back I would, maybe they were distracting but these are professional guys playing through a lot and I don’t think a newspaper story is going to hurt his play. …
“I probably got in more trouble last year but when you’re winning everybody is still on your side,” he added.
Emery admitted he should have handled things differently earlier in the season when he was upset at losing the starting role to Martin Gerber.
“I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to,” said Emery. “They were kind of coming to me, upset with me, and I was pissed off. I thought, you take a team to the finals, you’re the guy until you play bad enough not to be that guy. And I shouldn’t have treated it that way. I’ve worked for everything I got and I should have just worked to get back there. I didn’t, I approached it the wrong way and it just snowballed.
“They got mad at me and I was playing once every two weeks and I really can’t play that way. I was just like a time bomb.”
Emery started only one game after Murray took over behind the bench for fired head coach John Paddock in late February.
“He fired the coach and he would have fired me if he could have,” said Emery.
At the other side of the dressing room, Redden sounded like a man who was saying goodbye after 11 seasons with the only NHL club he’s ever played for. He’s an unrestricted free agent July 1 and perhaps both sides need a fresh start.
“Times change and organizations change and players shift around quite a bit. That’s the nature of it,” said Redden.
Jason Spezza expected to be in Ottawa for a long time after signing a $49-million, seven-year contract extension last fall, a deal which kicks in next season. Now some angry radio callers in Ottawa are urging Murray to deal the enigmatic but immensely talented centre after his one-assist performance in the first round of the playoffs. Spezza’s no-trade clause doesn’t kick in until July 2009.
“Anybody can get traded at any time, but I don’t think you can be looking over your shoulder all summer worrying about it,” said Spezza. “I’m going to train this summer and focus on making the Ottawa Senators a Cup contender again.
“I signed here for seven years because I want to be here and I think they want to have me here. If one bad playoff spurs trade rumours, then so be it. But I’d like to think I’m here for the long haul and I want to have success here.”
Spezza, it was revealed Thursday, played with a Grade 1 medial collateral ligament sprain in his left knee, an injury he picked up in Game 2. But he didn’t use that as an excuse.
“I know I will be a better player next year,” Spezza said.
Just a few stalls down, linemate Dany Heatley was at a loss to explain his failure to produce in the playoffs, also just collecting one assist. His $45-million, six-year extension goes into effect next season while his no-trade clause is activated this July 1.
“When things go like they did, you’re going to take heat and we understand that. We have to learn,” said Heatley.
But he disagrees with those who believe Murray must completely rebuild the team.
“Blow it up? No,” said Heatley. “We have the same nucleus, same group of guys that went to the Stanley Cup final last year. For whatever reason this year didn’t go the way we wanted to and we have to step back this summer and come to camp next September ready to play our best.”
Veteran defenceman Chris Phillips, who was solid as usual in the playoffs, echoed Heatley’s comment. Keep this group another chance.
“The talent here is unbelievable,” he said. “This is a great group of guys. There’s always going to be changes but to blow it up and start over? That’s just pretty irrational.”
Captain Daniel Alfredsson, who made a courageous comeback in Game 3 while still not healed from a torn MCL, also likes the group but does want to see one or two changes.
“We’re not that different from the team that went really far last year,” said Alfredsson. “We need to improve on our defensive play. You look around the league and watch the other games during the playoffs, goals are hard to come by. And we haven’t done a good job defending. And puck movement and puck control has been an issue for us as well.”
Will Cory Stillman be back? The veteran winger will be an unrestricted free agent July 1 but wants to stay on. He played with a Grade 2 MCL sprain in his right knee and scored two goals in the series.
“(Murray) says we will talk,” said Stillman, acquired with Commodore from Carolina. “So I guess that’s a positive that there’s a chance I might be coming back. I would like to. I waived the no-trade clause to come here.
“It’s always fun to win a Cup but I think it would be a different level if you win one in Canada. And I think as a Canadian kid that’s what you want to do.”
Whether this is a Cup contender next season depends greatly on the decisions taken over the next few months.