At the recent GM meetings, Bryan Murray’s 29 colleagues broke tradition by honoring him, despite the fact he hasn’t retired and has no immediate plans to do so. They’ll have another opportunity to make it official when Murray receives the NHL GM of the Year Award at the league’s awards ceremony in Las Vegas in June.
Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little, but you’d have to think Murray is a shoo-in for the honor this year.
The first reason is rather obvious: Murray is battling a terminal case of Stage 4 colon cancer. He is 72 years old and the disease has spread to his liver and his lungs. In a cruel irony, the Senators also broke the news Tuesday that assistant coach Mark Reeds had died of cancer at the age of 55. This insidious disease has hit the Senators hard - it also took longtime assistant coach Roger Neilson - and even though Murray winning GM of the Year wouldn’t change that situation, it would give the organization and Murray something to look back fondly upon.
The second is even more obvious: he absolutely deserves the award.
It would be a wonderful gesture for Murray’s fellow GMs to award Murray given all he has contributed to the game over the years and the fact that since his diagnosis, he has been a vocal advocate for colonoscopies. But when you look at what he has done with this year’s Ottawa Senators, there would be no shame in giving Murray the award this season even if he were healthy.
Back in December, the Senators were 11-11-5 and were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. Players were grumbling about coach Paul MacLean and a defensive system that was resulting in them giving up more than 34 shots per game. But MacLean was 18 months removed from winning the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach. Murray could have stuck by MacLean despite the protestations from the players and continued the season as a contender for the draft lottery.
Instead, Murray made the bold move of firing MacLean and replacing him with Dave Cameron, who has since led the Senators to a record of 32-15-8, cut the Senators shots per game down by three and increased their shots on goal by almost four. The Senators, thanks to a 23-4-4 finish to the season, grabbed the first wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference and the attention of fans everywhere.
Contrast that with a move the Toronto Maple Leafs made about a month later. Former Leafs GM David Nonis fired Randy Carlyle on Jan. 6, despite the fact his team was 21-16-3 and in possession of the wildcard spot the Senators would ultimately take. Carlyle was replaced by Peter Horachek and the results were an unmitigated disaster, with the Leafs going 9-28-5 under their new coach and both men losing their jobs.
You could argue, of course, that the Senators rise through the Eastern Conference had more to do with the heroics of a 27-year-old minor league goalie named Andrew Hammond and the emergence of rookies Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Curtis Lazar as it did the work of Cameron. And you might be right about that.
Even if that’s the case, Murray oversees the hockey department who took all four of those players in the draft and it was Murray’s decision to loan Lazar to the Canadian team for the World Junior Championship that gave Lazar the playing time and confidence to come back and be a key contributor in Ottawa. Lazar ended up being named captain of the Canadian team and had an enormous impact on the team that won its country’s first gold medal in the event in six years.
There are a lot of other men worthy of winning the award, namely Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning, David Poile of the Nashville Predators, rookie GM Jim Benning of the Vancouver Canucks and Glen Sather of the New York Rangers, Brian MacLellan of the Washington Capitals, Garth Snow of the New York Islanders. All deserving candidates, but barring anything unforeseen, they’ll all have an opportunity to win this award again. Murray likely will not.
(Voting for the GM of the Year Award takes place after the second round of the playoffs and is done by all 30 GMs, five other NHL executives and five members of the media. Your trusty correspondent is not one of those voters.)
And the best part of it is that it doesn’t have to be a show of sympathy and compassion or a reward for career achievement to one of the most honest and pleasant people working in hockey. He actually deserves it.