OTTAWA – The Ottawa Senators aren’t going to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, but general manager Bryan Murray isn’t going anywhere either.
In a hastily arranged news conference Friday, ahead of the Senators’ season finale in Boston on Saturday, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk announced a three-year contract extension for the 68-year-old Murray to stay on and finish the job of rebuilding the team.
“We’re looking forward to implementing his vision for the team, which is to bring it back to elite status,” Melnyk said. “I think we’re getting there. We’ve talked about it for a long time, this in not something that was done on the fly.”
The Senators are 32-39-10 this season and for a while were the worst team in the NHL before Murray, whose contract would have run out in the off-season, made several changes leading up to the trade deadline by shedding salaries and stockpiling draft picks.
With a lineup filled with American Hockey League call-ups, the play of the Senators has improved and the resulting resurgence helped convince Melnyk that Murray was on the right track.
“It probably would have been maybe a different decision on everybody’s part if things hadn’t have been somewhat brighter as we wound down the schedule,” Murray said.
“I see it as a little time required to finish what we’re trying to do. It’s not going to be an overnight fix, we know that, there’s a lot of work to do.
“I don’t think it was very hard to determine I wanted to continue.”
Melnyk met with the media earlier Friday morning and spoke in positive terms of the work done by the GM and coach Cory Clouston in helping to turn around the team’s fortunes recently, but was non-committal over their futures.
The team posed for its official team photo and as players held practice, Melnyk met with Murray.
So it came as something of a surprise then when another news conference was called to announce the extension before the team headed for the airport.
The Senators have just two playoff wins to show for the four seasons since Murray moved upstairs from coach to take over from the fired John Muckler in June 2007, shortly after the Senators’ one and only Stanley Cup final appearance.
They’ve been out of the post-season picture in the Eastern Conference for months and that led to speculation that Murray and Clouston, whose contract is also up after the season, would be fired earlier this year. That prompted Melnyk to come out publicly and say both men would see out the year.
The future of Clouston remains up in the air. Murray said he’ll meet with Melnyk shortly after the season and a decision will be made, so Saturday’s game could be Clouston’s last in charge.
“I can’t worry about it and think about those things,” Clouston said.
In Murray’s tenure as GM, he’s hired and fired John Paddock, Craig Hartsburg and Clouston.
Many believe that Dave Cameron, coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors—a team also owned by Melnyk—will be offered the job. Speaking on a Toronto radio station earlier this week, Melnyk spoke glowingly of Cameron’s work. Asked about it Friday, Melnyk would only say “there’s a lot of very good coaches in the league and he’s someone we definitely would consider.”
In the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, Murray was given the task of beginning to rebuild the team.
Given the depth of the moves he made, it appeared he’d at least be retained in an advisory role if a new GM did take over, but now he’ll be able to continue his work.
“I was really disappointed early in the year that we were playing the way we were playing. I didn’t think we were one of the worst five teams in the NHL,” he said. “Now we’re showing that we’re not that. Unfortunately, it’s late. I sure didn’t want to leave on a year that we had a performance like this.
“We’ve got a little ways to go, we know that, but I think the start has been a good one and as we go forward, we want to build on that.”
Murray dealt veterans Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Jarkko Ruutu and Alex Kovalev for draft picks, swapped goaltender Brian Elliott for Craig Anderson from Colorado and re-signed 33-year-old defenceman Chris Phillips to a US$9.25-million, three-year deal.
After Anderson, who would have been an unrestricted free agent this summer, got off to a strong start with his new team, he was rewarded with a $12.75-million, four-year deal.
“The zest and the vigour that went into just even rebuilding in the last couple of months was extremely impressive,” Melnyk said.
After being burned on a couple of big-name free-agent signings that haven’t panned out—a $10-million, two-year contract to Kovalev in 2009 and a $16.5-million, three-year contract for defenceman Sergei Gonchar—Murray said the Senators will cease with the “stop-gap” signings and turn their focus toward promoting from within while using smaller free-agent moves to fill in the holes.
As a result of all of the February trading, the Senators will have five picks in the upcoming NHL entry draft.
“It is probably going to be a game-changer for the team and I can’t think of anybody better to have in that spot than Bryan,” Melnyk said.
“A lot of people were screaming murder at the beginning of the year, ‘Make changes, make changes,’ and the stupidest thing you could have done was make a change one month before the trading deadline. You wanted somebody to know what our strengths and weaknesses are, so the continuity is absolutely important and the experience is priceless.
“He’s one heck of a wheeler dealer and I’ve seen him in action and I’d take him over anybody any time.”