OTTAWA – Less than two days after the Ottawa Senators were swept out of the playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins, general manager Bryan Murray has already begun compiling his off-season to-do list.
Among his priorities are hiring a coach to take over for him behind the bench, finding a new home for goaltender Ray Emery and adding a couple of key players to prevent a repeat of a disastrous season.
Murray was joined by owner Eugene Melnyk and team president Roy Mlakar on Friday at an end-of-season news conference at Scotiabank Place, where the Senators became the first team to be eliminated from the playoffs earlier this week.
While the hands-on Melnyk described the loss as “devastating” as a fan and “disappointing” as an owner, he offered Murray his full backing – in words as well as financially – even though Ottawa suffered its earliest exit in the 11 straight seasons it’s qualified for the post-season.
“I understand the salary cap will be going up, and that’s funds for Bryan to spend as he sees fit,” said Melnyk, who will give Murray free reign over personnel changes, beginning with the hiring of a new face behind the bench for the second straight summer.
“First of all, my plan is to start looking for a coach immediately,” said Murray. “We will do our best to find out the right guy.”
Last year, when Murray left the bench to take over for fired GM John Muckler, he promoted assistant John Paddock to be head coach.
But after the team’s 15-2 start and subsequent freefall, Paddock was let go in February and replaced by Murray the rest of the way.
And after Paddock’s much-publicized clashes with goaltender Ray Emery and tales – whether they’re to be believed or not – of dressing-room discord, Murray is keen on bringing in a strong personality.
“I think we need someone that will demand accountability, discipline, and obviously a good direction in technical skill, that is willing to do the right thing with players at the right time, which specifically means that if you aren’t playing well, you may have to sit on the sidelines for a day or two,” he said. “I think that’s what I saw more than anything this year.
“Many things happened that allowed the players to slide in the way they behaved and played and we didn’t make enough corrections at the right time.”
The names of rumoured candidates include everyone from Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock to former NHL coaches Pat Burns and Pat Quinn to junior coach Patrick Roy.
Murray admitted that Babcock, who’s future in Detroit is likely to be determined by the team’s playoff fortunes this year, does fit the bill, but “I think there are other people like that,” he said.
The salary cap was part of the reason Murray let defenceman Tom Preissing walk last summer and dealt another blue-liner, Joe Corvo, during the season. However, a lack of mobile defencemen contributed to Ottawa’s demise and adding one is at the top of his wish list in the coming months.
“I’d like to get a skilled defenceman that can help get the puck going a little better,” he said.
That, and pursuing another player who can help relieve the offensive load put on Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza.
“I think we need somehow or another to make a trade or free-agent signing of a second-line type of player,” he added.
Whoever gets the coaching job likely won’t have to deal with some of the same headaches Paddock had.
The Senators had 11 players on their playoff roster who are scheduled to become either restricted or unrestricted free agents on July 1 so turnover is expected.
In the case of Emery, Murray said his preference will be to try and trade the 25-year-old netminder and get something in return rather than just buying out the remaining two years on his contract.
Either way, he doesn’t plan on keeping him around.
“I told him yesterday, the plan right now would be to investigate possible options for him,” said Murray. “I hope there’s a team out there that will give him a look and talk to us about him.”
Ottawa might find any takers hard to come by. On Friday, Murray was asked to comment on reports that the behaviour of some of the Senators off the ice was becoming detrimental to the team.
Murray admitted that one unnamed player was indeed at issue and it doesn’t take much to make the connection.
“A couple of stories I was told, certainly I think you know who it is,” he said. “Beyond that I don’t know where that came from, what stories or who else is supposedly involved. I know the one individual that we’ve talked about a fair amount.
“Their lifestyle is a big part of it and I’ve talked to the players on a regular basis that your behaviour, your comments to the press, your comments about teammates, your attitude around the city, is a reflection on us and we want good people here and that’s what we’re going to try to achieve this summer and going forward.”
While Spezza and Heatley are coming under plenty of fire from the fans and media over a dismal playoff showing in which they each had just one assist in four playoff games, they don’t appear to be on the move.
Both players signed new deals in the fall – Spezza for $49 million over the next seven years and Heatley at $45 million over six years – and it’s been speculated that the Senators may want to try and move them now before those contracts kick in.
While Murray addressed their poor playoff with both players, it’s not expected that they’ll be among the exodus.
“We made a commitment to them in the fall, we made a commitment to them to go forward with them as the people who are part of the core of this hockey team, and that is the plan at the moment,” said Murray.