Eugene Melnyk

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Can surprisingly scrappy Senators find right competing-rebuilding balance?

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When you’re trying to rebuild an NHL team, winning isn’t the only thing. Sometimes it’s the thing you want to occasionally avoid.

Such a thought comes to mind with the surprisingly scrappy Senators, who’ve rattled off wins in four of five games (and eight of 12) to build a respectable 10-11-1 record. Their 10 regulation/OT wins rank ahead of the Maple Leafs and Lightning, both stuck at nine.

Strong Sens Surge

The Senators have enjoyed particularly great work from a red-hot Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a rising Brady Tkachuk, a sneakily effective Anders Nilsson, and hungry players looking to prove themselves, such as Anthony Duclair.

Ottawa can really hang its hat on just how challenging this red-hot stretch should be on paper, with eight of their last 11 games coming on the road.

It all brings up a fascinating-if-awkward question: how much success would be too much success? What are the best ways to find the right balance between not (at least overtly) sabotaging immediate results in the interest of taking bigger swings in the future?

Consider this a suggested blueprint for 2019-20.

Don’t be shameless about killing the fun

In a great piece for The Athletic (sub required), Hailey Salvian notes that Mark Borowiecki said that the Senators “are getting pretty fired up” about defying the odds, and that “it’s definitely fun.”

It brings to mind a key point: there’s an art to “tanking” while not torching the confidence and habits of the players you want to keep around for the better days. When you look at teams that have been stuck in agonizingly long rebuild cycles such as the Buffalo Sabres, you’ll note players like Ryan O'Reilly burning out at the constant losing, and sometimes getting shipped out of town right when Buffalo might have been more situated to restore his love of the game.

Ideally, the Senators will start to build a structure for the future, while also losing enough to bank some big lottery odds. Judging by head coach D.J. Smith’s comments to Salvian, it seems like the organization is taking a sober approach.

“This is a process,” Smith said. “For us, whether its three years, four years, however long it takes for these kids to develop … But that’s been the best part, we are finding ways to win with the young guys and they are getting minutes and they are getting better.

“My job is to make them better by the end of the year, and if we can win some games along the way, it’s great.”

Building up assets to sell at a high price

Along with developing young players, Ottawa should focus on pumping up the value of non-essential pieces for lucrative trade returns.

If you look at the Senators’ near-comical salary structure at Cap Friendly, you’ll notice a ton of players on expiring contracts, with these standing out the most:

  • Jean-Gabriel Pageau: It’s easy to see why the Senators would want to keep JGP around for the long haul, but if I were Senators GM Pierre Dorion, I’d try to maximize the return for a 27-year-old player who’s on a career-best hot streak, with an unsustainable 24.5 shooting percentage acting as a red flag for his impressive 13-goal, 17-point start through 22 games.

While Pageau’s $3.1M AAV will shrink even more for a cap-challenged contender around deadline time, Dorion should consider selling him at his peak value (right now) if a desperate team would be interested.

If there’s angst about letting Pageau go … well, Ottawa could bring him back in free agency next summer.

  • Craig Anderson: The cynical rebuilding thing to do would be to keep Anderson (not playing well) and Nilsson (playing very well) in a platoon situation to lose more games. There’s a different bonus that could happen here, though: if Anderson plays at least competently, a team might look at him as a decent insurance policy, even at 38. Especially if Ottawa retained some of his $4.75M AAV … which isn’t a guarantee with Eugene Melnyk writing the checks, but still.
  • Anthony Duclair, Mikkel Boedker, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ron Hainsey, etc.: The Senators have a wide variety of expiring contracts for different tastes, in some cases with unclear injury situations (Namestnikov is on IR). If Ottawa can get value from trading any of them — even Duclair — they probably should.

***

For those grimacing at the notion of the Senators not putting their full weight behind a playoff push, consider a point Salivan made in passing: Ottawa had 21 points in 22 games last season, too.

The Senators’ greatest focus should be on the future, but they don’t need to totally look beyond the present to do so. Finding the right balance could really help in the construction of this rebuild.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: Lindholm on Viking clap; Malkin eyeing Saturday return

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Elias Lindholm on returning to Carolina for the first time since mocking the Hurricanes’ Viking clap after a February game: “I don’t know if I would have done it again. But it just happened. That time I got some heat for the fans in Carolina after the trade because I didn’t want to sign there. They booed twice during the game, and then I went up to Dougie (Hamilton) there and we were hitting each other with crosschecks here and there at the end of the game. I was kind of fired up and went with the flow.” [Sportsnet]

Evgeni Malkin returned to Penguins practice on Monday and hopes to be back in the lineup for their Saturday afternoon game against the Oilers. [Tribune-Review]

• Dennis Seidenberg has retired after 15 NHL seasons and is joining the Islanders as part of their player development staff. [Islanders]

• Are we witnessing Jonathan Drouin’s breakout year? [Habs Eyes on the Prize]

• Former Sabres head coach and current Coyotes assistant Phil Housley is happy for the team’s success this season, but isn’t looking into the past. [Buffalo Hockey Beat]

Connor Carrick of the Devils will be out 4-6 weeks with a broken finger. [Devils]

Logan Couture on the Sharks’ scoring issues: “That’s been a story this season, we aren’t finishing. I can’t be sitting at one goal right now. (Hertl) is at three, Timo’s at two. We’ve got to score some more goals. We’re at 12 games in and I can’t be sitting at one goal.” [NBC Sports Bay Area]

• Paralyzed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, Ryan Straschnitzk is heading to Thailand later this week for surgery that could help restore some of his movement. [Airdrie Today via CP]

• Would Eugene Melnyk ever sell the Senators? [Spector’s Hockey]

• An early season examination of the Panthers. [Panthers Parkway]

• Duante Abercrombie is taking the next step toward his NHL coaching dream with an assistant gig with NCAA Division III Stevenson University. [NHL.com]

• A look at some of the big summer moves that have yet to pay off. [Featurd]

• Joel Farabee has been impressing his Flyers teammates since being recalled from the AHL. [Inquirer]

• Goalies are the focus in this week’s fantasy hockey report. [RotoWorld]

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Senators GM must manage rebuild — and Melnyk

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

Ottawa handing Colin White a six-year, $28.5 million contract was more than just conveniently timed for Senators Day here at PHT. It was also a pivotal moment for a big Senators X-factor: GM Pierre Dorion.

To be more specific, this team’s future hinges on how Dorion manages the Senators’ rebuild … and in what might be an even bigger challenge: managing owner Eugene Melnyk.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

You don’t have to be an accountant to notice that, at least in the short term, the vast majority of the Senators’ moves have been about saving money. It’s to the point that people are already joking that White will be long gone from Ottawa before his actual salary peaks at $6.25M in 2024-25:

But that really was an eye-opening signing because it shows that Dorion can occasionally convince Melnyk to fork over dough for “core players.”

It will be interesting, then, to see how the rest of that core develops, as there are some other potentially pivotal contracts to sign, and Dorion will eventually need to add pieces, whether that means NHL-ready players through trades and free agency, or additional prospects through the volume of draft picks the team has (painfully) accumulated by trading away the likes of Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, and Matt Duchene.

Consider Thomas Chabot the next pressing test case. He’s entering the last year of his rookie contract, so will Ottawa get that done briskly, or will that situation linger ominously? There’s nightmare scenarios where another team poaches Chabot with an offer sheet, knowing that Melnyk seems allergic to signing bonuses.

Dorion truly needs Melnyk on board in cases like these, especially since more are on the horizon, notably with Brady Tkachuk‘s entry-level contract expiring after 2020-21.

There are a ton of factors that could sway things as time goes on, from Seattle’s expansion draft to possibly even a new CBA forming as the Senators’ rebuild goes along. Such thoughts might complicate things if Melnyk believes that a new CBA would be kinder to his wallet.

But, even in the shorter term, Dorion could make some interesting moves if he’s creative — and in cases like retaining salary to get trades done, if he can get Melnyk to buy in.

I’ve already argued that the Senators should embrace short-term pain for long-term gains, not unlike the Hurricanes absorbing Patrick Marleau’s buyout to land a first-round pick. That’s not to say Ottawa needs to clone such moves detail by detail; instead, the point is that Dorion should be creative, and also embrace the likely reality that this team is unlikely to be any good this season, so they might as well build for the future.

That’s where the 2019-20 season presents interesting opportunities.

Craig Anderson seems long in the tooth, but he’s surprised us before with seemingly random near-elite years, and what better time for the 38-year-old to pull another rabbit out of a hat than this one, where he’s in the last season of a deal that carries a $4.75M cap hit?

That sounds like a hefty sum today, but it would be manageable for a contender around trade deadline time, where they could “rent” Anderson. Maybe Ottawa would take on a contract a contender doesn’t want (perhaps Anderson to the Calgary Flames in a deal that involves Cam Talbot and Michael Frolik, if Talbot doesn’t work out) for the price of picks and prospects?

Ottawa doesn’t have marquee trade bait like they did with Karlsson, Duchene, and Stone last year, but you can land nice assets for mid-level players, too, from Anderson to someone like Chris Tierney.

There’s only so much Dorion can do about Melnyk’s penny-pinching ways, whether the Senators owner is truly just being “cost-conscious” now only to eventually spend when it’s time to contend, or if that “unparalleled success” talk was merely just talk.

But as we’ve seen with teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, you can build something pretty special even while dealing with budget constraints. You need some creativity from a GM, and an owner who will spend money when it counts.

Is Dorion up to the task? So far, the results have been mixed, but how he handles this situation (now, and in the future) is an enormous X-factor for the Senators.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Eugene Melnyk needs Ottawa to rally around Senators

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

Every day this month, PHT has been rolling out these “under pressure” posts about each organization in the NHL. Sometimes the person under pressure is a player, a general manager or a head coach. Very rarely do we have an owner that fits that category, but that’s the case with the Senators.

Eugene Melnyk has to be feeling the heat. He can’t lose his job, but he can continue to lose a fan base that’s dwindling quickly and that’s a scary proposition. This team is going to go through a very long and painful rebuild and Melnyk needs to make sure that he keeps the fans engaged and close to this team.

As of right now, he’s public enemy number one. Things have been bad for a while, but they got uglier when Melnyk said he was open to moving the team back in Dec. 2017. That clearly didn’t sit well with the people of Ottawa and although he tried to do damage control after the fact, the damage was already done.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-factor]

It’s also no secret that Melnyk isn’t willing to spend the money to make this team as competitive as it can be. That’s affected his relationships with many key figures in the organization including Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone and former captain Daniel Alfredsson, who are all no longer with the team.

Every time the Sens make a move, the hockey world’s reaction is to look for the ways in which they’re saving dollars. Yes, it’s fine for him to be looking to save money. After all, the Sens are a small-market team, but it can’t be the priority every time you make a trade.

It’s mind-boggling to think how far the Senators have fallen over the last few years. In the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Ottawa took the Pittsburgh Penguins to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. The final game of the series went to double overtime before the Pens won, but Ottawa was a goal away from the Stanley Cup Final. Two years later, Karlsson’s gone, Stone’s gone and the team is beginning a major rebuild. Melnyk has no choice to but to shoulder a lot of the blame.

General manager Pierre Dorion is the one making the moves, but Melnyk is pulling the strings. If Melnyk wants this story to end in a positive way, his attitude has to change in a hurry.

The other big issue is that he failed to secure a downtown location for a new arena to be built in Ottawa. The sting of trading away two fan-favorites would’ve been lessened had he found a way to get a new arena project going in the LeBreton Flats area, but that all fell apart during the last hockey season.

Can he get public opinion back on his side? It sure seems like that’s impossible at this point. But will he be forced to sell the team? That’s the interesting question.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

It’s Ottawa Senators Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Ottawa Senators.

2018-19
29-47-6, 64 points (eighth in the Atlantic Division, 16th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN:
Nikita Zaitsev
Connor Brown
Michael Carcone
Ron Hainsey
Tyler Ennis
Artem Anisimov
Ryan Callahan (LTIR)

OUT
Brian Gibboons
Oscar Lindberg
Zack Smith
Cody Ceci
Ben Harpur
Aaron Luchuk

RE-SIGNED:
Josh Norris
Anders Nilsson
Anthony Duclair

2018-19 Summary

Last season was an eventful one for the Senators organization. Not only did they finish last in their division, conference and the entire league, they also traded away their best forward, Mark Stone, and their franchise defenseman, Erik Karlsson. That’s rough.

Despite the fact that they traded Karlsson in September, the team got off to a decent start. They weren’t lighting the league on fire, but they had a respectable firsts two months of the season. Things turned after they dropped a pair of games to the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 4 and 6. In the 10 games following those two losses, the Sens came away with just two victories.

Things ended up getting so bad for Ottawa that they finished in the basement of the NHL. The second-to-last team in the league was the Los Angeles Kings and they finished seven points ahead of the Senators. That’s a significant gap. The big issue, was that the Sens didn’t have their own first-round draft pick because they traded it the Colorado Avalanche for Matt Duchene.

Everyone in the NHL knows that the biggest issue right now is the owner. Eugene Melnyk doesn’t appear to be interested in spending the money to keep his star players in the fold and the fact that he’s turning off the fan base in the process isn’t helping either. Whether or not he’s capable of surrounding his team with the tools to succeed remains to be seen.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-factor]

The Sens have a lot of good young prospects, but they’re in the middle of a rebuild that should take quite some time. Former Toronto Maple Leafs assistant coach D.J. Smith was hired to be the head coach this off-season and it’ll be up to him to get this group of youngsters ready to perform on the ice.

“Now it’s about trying to push kids to realize their potential,” Smith said, per NHL.com. “There is nothing more satisfying than to watch a guy push himself past the limit and become better than even he thought he could be. It’s in most kids; you just have to find a way to get it out of them. It’s something I really enjoy.

“We’re in a division (Atlantic) with some of the best offenses in the League — the Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s going to take time, but we’ll learn to get better together. We’re only going to get better by learning to play against teams like that.”

Cutting the goals against will be one of Smith’s biggest challenges. The Sens were the only team in the league that allowed more than 300 goals (302) last season.

Building this team from the ground up isn’t going to be easy and it’s going to take time, but Smith has to get them to take a positive step or two this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.