The Rebuild

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This is a long post folks, so strap in and enjoy.

I’ve been beating the drum for 2011 rebuild comparisons for quite some time (not because I predicted a rebuild, but because of the rhetoric I was hearing on TSN 1200); in that spirit the mighty Nichols has begun the colonoscopy of that comparison in his usual bold letters. The focus of his latest piece is much broader than that (I was looking at the prospects themselves–specifically the hype generated about them), but he rightly takes to task the ridiculous idea Gord Wilson was floating that the current prospect pool is comparable to that of the 1990s. Nichols succinctly dissects how quickly Melnyk and Bryan Murray gave up on a full rebuild to chase the dream of a Cup (or, more accurately, playoff gates for the cash-strapped owner). He hits the nail on the head when he says:

there is always going to be this nagging suspicion that the Senators will change course as quickly as it did following the Duchene trade and perhaps most importantly, there is also the question of why fans should trust the owner and front office that put this organization in this position to begin with.

Unfortunately, the path to contention isn’t simply a matter of which team accrues the most talent at the top of the draft. Organizations like Buffalo and Edmonton are illustrative of the problems that can be created by poor asset management. Teams can’t simply rely on early first round picks, there needs to be an emphasis on analytics, scouting, recognizing the signs of when it’s time to sell high on players (or walk away) and cap management. 

Preach brother, preach. I’m not sure if it’s ironic or sad that both Edmonton and Buffalo are/have been headed by former members of the Senators org (Peter Chiarelli, who left during the Muckler regime, and Tim Murray).


Speaking of the rebuild process, I’ve mentioned I don’t believe the plan to rebuild goes back to February, but Dorion is sticking to the narrative, repeating that timeframe and saying the only indecision was which piece to move–deciding on Karlsson after contract negotiations weren’t progressing as hoped. Like Nichols, I don’t buy this story at all–the offer made to EK wasn’t at market value and as the Don himself reports:

He [Karlsson] believed, or was led to believe, that Eugene Melnyk was close to selling the team. He was told that his good friend, Daniel Alfredsson, would become the Senators’ president. And he was banking on being presented a contract offer to keep him in Ottawa colours for at least another eight years, followed by one more that would make him a Senator for life.

Nichols points out the org is attempting to place the blame on Karlsson rather than themselves (just as the org did with Daniel Alfredsson). I think Nichols is absolutely right that the intent in hiding the rebuilding plan was to protect the flagging season ticket base, since on the trade front being open about it would make much more sense.

Why do I believe the rebuild hadn’t been decided in February? The most obvious reason: you don’t trade for Matt Duchene in November and just give up on everything three months later (Dorion’s ego is much too big for that kind of cold rationalism). Beyond that, if that decision had been made then we would have seen more trades characteristic of that process–not just big names, but bit parts that have some appeal to contenders that are of no use to a rebuilding team. We already know how the org behaves in a rebuild because we saw it in 2011–moving out favourites like Chris KellyMike Fisher, etc–trading away popular character pieces. That’s not what Dorion did–he moved a couple of fat contracts (Phaneuf and Brassard) and spare parts. The moves were applying a new coat of paint rather than stripping down the engine for a rebuild. The other indicator that the decision hadn’t been made was that they made no moves either leading up to the draft or at the draft itself (save the Hoffman deal, which was forced by the public relations disaster). Given that, if I’m right, why are we getting a rebuild now?

The Melnykian dictum since his SEC issues forced him out of Biovail (2007) has been make the playoffs–fulfill that short-term need and don’t worry about the future. Eugene needs the money from playoff gates to prop up his other activities (Travis Yost doesn’t get enough credit for bringing his financial struggles into the public eye). This is part of the reason why the 2011 rebuild quickly turned into a soft reboot and that we’ve heard that sentiment any time the Sens have had a subpar season up until now (chatter about how quickly a team can turn things around–Todd White was spouting that off today, for instance). What’s changed?

Melnyk can’t afford the lineup he has that’s meant to generate playoff gates. The weight of the internal budget means that the org’s string of short-term fixes (Bobby Ryan in 2013, Derick Brassard in 2016, Duchene in November, etc) aren’t feasible anymore. They also can’t rely on a hometown discount or try and deflate Karlsson‘s price with surrogates in the media whining about his ‘deficiencies’–two Norris trophies and a broad consensus that he’s a generational talent meant he was about to get paid.

The above theory could still fit the February timeline, so what’s my objection to it? I think Melnyk (and probably Dorion) couldn’t accept that the team that nearly made it to the Cup final just a year ago wouldn’t make another deep run. While the rationalists among us understood how fluky that feat was, the org itself was happily drinking its own Koolaid. All that talk we heard in February about them trying to attach Ryan to a Karlsson trade wasn’t just hot air–it was a transparent attempt to free up the money required to re-sign the other stars who could drag Dorion’s collection of detritus (Tom Pyatt et al) back into the playoffs. The org was desperate to maintain the model of mediocrity they’ve repeated ever since they lost the 2007 Cup final. To be blunt, I think Dorion is lying about when the decision to trade EK was made–if he could have moved him in February along with Ryan he would have.

So what happened? The deadline proved no one would swallow the poison pill of Ryan‘s contract, but this wasn’t enough for a philosophical change. It took the Hoffman situation, with the usual unimpressive return, followed by an inability at the draft to get what they wanted for Karlsson. They were left looking down the barrel of a terrible roster with no easy/quick fix.

Dorion and Melnyk were in a no-win situation of their own devising. EK would be moved for a bag of magic beans (how do you let yourself get fleeced by the same guy twice?)–that was apparent long before the trade was made–leaving the org with very few tangible assets. One of the worst teams in the league was going to be much, much worse–there was no high end free agent to sign (internal budget), no first round pick (recklessly traded away), and the prospect cupboard lacked the star power to garner a good return (no Jonathan Dahlen or Shane Bowers or Jakob Silverberg etc). In essence the team painted itself into a corner such that they had no choice but to rebuild.

To summarize: the decision to move Karlsson was made no later than February, but the decision to rebuild didn’t firm up until after the draft in June. All their decisions make sense within that framework.

The Rebuild Comparison (2011 and 2018)

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I’m going to be fairly reductive in this rather than comprehensive because I’m making a pretty basic point. To narrow it down I want to focus on the prospects at the time, following the criteria I outlined in my prospect rankings a couple of weeks ago (excluding players with 50+ NHL games, 4+ AHL seasons, and those on AHL-contracts). I think it would be fairly simple to point out the established pieces in place in 2011 (established NHLers) were a better group than those who exist now (EK, Alfie, and Spezza vs Stone/Duchene), but for a rebuild I think that’s less relevant which is why I’m looking at the prospects.

2011 Prospect Pool

2011 Draft  (all who have or will play 200+ games are highlighted; this still with the org are in blue)
Mika Zibanejad
Stefan Noesen
Matt Puempel
Shane Prince
Jean-Gabriel Pageau
Fredrik Claesson
Darren Kramer
Max McCormick
Jordan Fransoo
Ryan Dzingel

Top-tier: Mark StoneJared Cowen, Jakob Silverberg, Robin LehnerMike HoffmanPatrick Wiercioch, Andre Petersson, Derek Grant, Jim O’Brien, Stephane Da Costa, Bobby Butler, David Rundblad, Nikita Filatov
Also-ran: Jakub Culek, Marcus Sorensen, Bryce Aneloski, Chris Wideman, Jeff Costello, Corey Cowick, Brad Peltz, Mike Sdao, Mark Borowiecki, Emil Sandin, Louie Caporusso, Ben Blood, Eric Gryba, Kaspars Daugavins, Erik Condra, Cody Bass, Colin Greening, Craig Schira, Pat Cannone, David Dziurzynski

The two-part division may seem arbitrary, but it’s based on thoughts at the time and a synergy of the conventional opinion (you can check out Corey PronmanHockey Futures (John Henkelman), McKeen’sThe Hockey News and Hockey Prospectus‘ lists from back in the day)–briefly:

1. Rundblad
2. Zibanejad
3. Filatov
4. Da Costa
5. Cowen
6. Silfverberg
7. Wiercioch
Lehner (fourth-best goaltending prospect in the league)

1. David Rundblad
2. Mika Zibanejad
3. Nikita Filatov
4. Jared Cowen
5. Robin Lehner
6. Jakob Silfverberg
7. Patrick Wiercioch
8. Stefan Noesen
9. Colin Greening
10. Matt Puempel

1. David Rundblad
2. Jared Cowen
3. Mika Zibanejad
4. Robin Lehner
5. Jakob Silfverberg
6. Matt Puempel
7. Nikita Filatov
8. Bobby Butler
9. Patrick Wiercioch
10. Colin Greening

Hockey Prospectus
1) David Rundblad
2) Mika Zibanejad
3) Nikita Filatov
4) Stephane Da Costa
5) Jared Cowen
6) Jakob Silfverberg
7) Patrick Wiercioch
8) Derek Grant
9) Matt Puempel
10) Robin Lehner

We have the benefit of hindsight and can say players like Rundblad and Filatov were overvalued, but my point isn’t who did or didn’t turn out but the caliber of prospects the org had (as in their value as assets around the league). Guys like Rundblad and Cowen were thought of as top defensemen; Lehner was an elite goaltending prospect (he’d just won the Calder Cup as a teenager); players like ZibanejadSilfverberg, and Da Costa were projected as top-six forwards or better. When I went through the 2018 prospects there was no elite goaltender, no first-line forwards, and no top-pairing defensemen. Zero. That doesn’t mean no one will become that kind of player, but it does mean the prospect pool of today doesn’t measure up to the last rebuild (which itself doesn’t hold a candle to the early days of Ottawa in the 1990s, as Nichols goes over in his post).

My point isn’t to demean current prospects–there are a lot of players to like–but they are all complimentary players–guys who round out top-flight talent which the team largely lacks. My intention, frankly, is perspective. The absurd hype I’m hearing needs context–fans need to be realistic about what they have and where the org currently stands. Losing out on that first overall pick (likely this year) means there’s no elite relief in sight until the 2020 draft rolls around. That means it’s time to buckle up and prepare for the long haul of losing.

Public Relations

One of the funnier/sadder things about the org is how out of touch they are with the fanbase. There are a small number of hardcore folks who buy-in with the team no matter what, but by and large Melnyk and Dorion habitually put their foot in their mouths when attempting to discern the mood of the public.

Ruszkowski’s comments only serve to alienate [upset fans] and reinforce the idea that the front office is comprised of like-minded individuals who serve their boss for better or worse. (Mostly worse.)

I absolutely agree with this and it’s interesting to me that comments like this are so rarely heard anywhere else. It’s been clear for quite some time that the org is a poster child for confirmation bias and I have no idea what (if anything) can shake them from it. Dorion’s response to unhappy fans is to talk about parking improvements and concession prices, which is so tone deaf I’m at a loss to make a coherent response to it–how could either matter if those fans simply don’t show up? The org is in no position to turn its nose up at any part of the fanbase and advertising defense-first hockey doesn’t lend itself to an entertaining product. Melnyk has long assumed eroding attendance was due to performance, not him, and I doubt he’d allow any subordinate to suggest otherwise.

Summary and What to Do

I’m making four basic points:
1) The organization is being disingenuous (or, at worst, lying) about how we arrived at the rebuild
2) The org has demonstrated neither the patience, will, or understanding to conduct a proper rebuild
3) The org is clueless about its own fanbase
4) We begin the rebuild in much worse shape than the aborted 2011 rebuild

None of this comes as a surprise other than the decision to rebuild itself. I wasn’t sure Melnyk would ever allow it given his financial difficulties, but there really isn’t a choice now that they’ve traded away their only superstar.

So what, as fans, are we to do? My approach won’t change. I’m still a Sens fan, but I gave up on this incarnation of the org quite some time ago, which is one of the reasons most of my coverage is on prospects and the AHL team–I can enjoy them regardless of the Luddites in charge. In that respect I’m quite keen on Belleville’s upcoming season (depending, a little, on how many prospects are rammed into the NHL lineup). In respect to the NHL side of things: until there is change at the top it’s just not realistic to expect the nonsense to stop. Removing Pierre Dorion wouldn’t change things because Melnyk would simply hire someone just like him. Melnyk has to go before the Ottawa Senators can truly evolve and compete.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)