Blame falls on Mel­nyk’s shoul­ders

Fort McMurray Today - - SPORTS - SCOTT STINSON

Eugene Mel­nyk in­vited a group of Ottawa re­porters to the Cana­dian Tire Cen­tre as a pub­lic-re­la­tions of­fen­sive on Wed­nes­day, and as re­counted hi­lar­i­ously by col­league Kelly Egan, the Se­na­tors owner took a call af­ter about 15 min­utes and left the room. He did not re­turn. I like to imag­ine that it was Gary Bettman on the other end of the phone call, plead­ing with Mel­nyk to stop talk­ing.

The owner was well into sell­ing his vi­sion of a new era in Se­na­tors hockey by that point, and there’s a good chance it set off AWHOOGA AWHOOGA bomb-shel­ter klax­ons in the NHL of­fices. With the baf­fling video in­ter­view that the Sens re­leased late Tues­day night, Mel­nyk had al­ready sig­nalled that his team was about to un­dergo a down-to-the-studs as­set sale of heroic pro­por­tions. That video was ac­com­pa­nied by ad­ver­tise­ments tout­ing a sim­i­lar mes­sage: The Se­na­tors, con­fer­ence fi­nal­ists just two sea­sons ago, are about to get very young and very cheap. And also park­ing at the arena will be dis­counted.

Left un­said by Mel­nyk and co­horts in all of the #Ot­tawaRis­ing cheer­lead­ing was the ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion that all-world de­fence­man Erik Karls­son was not long for the Se­na­tors. Fans who had been hold­ing out hope for years that the team might fig­ure out a way for the two-time Nor­ris Tro­phy win­ner to stay in Ottawa af­ter his con­tract ex­pired at the end of this sea­son were es­sen­tially told there was no chance of that, not when the owner was mat­terof-factly ex­plain­ing that he ex­pects al­most half the ros­ter to be rook­ies this year.

And so, it has come to pass. Karls­son to San Jose, for a pack­age of prospects and picks.

Much will be said and writ­ten about the re­turn in the deal while not­ing, cor­rectly, that gen­eral man­ager Pierre Do­rion had lit­tle lever­age, since it has been an open se­cret for months that Karls­son was avail­able to any­one with a de­cent of­fer.

I’ll leave it to oth­ers to an­a­lyze the finer points of the trade. What stands out, and what has been the ob­vi­ous im­pend­ing re­sult as the Se­na­tors slow-marched to this con­clu­sion, is that the team has traded a fran­chise icon, at 28 years old, for what­ever it could sal­vage. That al­most never hap­pens in the Na­tional Hockey League, and the fact that it did is an in­dict­ment of the fran­chise, and of Mel­nyk him­self.

The NHL’s salary-cap sys­tem means that teams al­ways have a chance to wrap up their stars with long-term deals be­fore they reach un­re­stricted free agency. Of the top 16 con­tracts by to­tal value among NHL de­fence­men, only one of them in­volved a player de­camp­ing for an­other team as a free agent, and that was Ryan Suter, re­turn­ing home to play in Min­nesota. The Se­na­tors have had ages to en­sure that Karls­son didn’t get to the point where they would lose him for noth­ing, and they failed to get it done.

Only the big Swede knows ex­actly why things got to the point where the Se­na­tors felt they had to trade him, but it’s not hard to come up with a list of what would have been con­tribut­ing fac­tors. Me­lynk has man­aged to alien­ate Daniel Al­freds­son twice, as a player and as a front of­fice ad­vi­sor, with the not-so-big Swede de­part­ing the fran­chise both times. The owner has also com­plained about los­ing money in Ottawa when­ever the sub­ject of con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions with a star player is raised. The Se­na­tors have never been a team that spends close to the salary cap un­der his own­er­ship, and Mel­nyk makes no ef­fort to pre­tend that will change. When Karls­son him­self called the Se­na­tors a “bud­get team” a cou­ple of years ago, he knew what he was talk­ing about.

When he isn’t run­ning off fan favourites, Mel­nyk has man­aged to roil what was one a loyal base in other ways, whether it was cashier­ing the for­mer team pres­i­dent, jack­ing up park­ing rates at the arena in Kanata dur­ing the play­offs, or mak­ing re­lo­ca­tion threats and then act­ing sur­prised that any­one takes those threats se­ri­ously. When the team was tak­ing part in the league’s cen­ten­nial-cel­e­bra­tion out­door game last De­cem­ber, Mel­nyk man­aged to take the rare happy mo­ment in a lost sea­son and dump all over it. He mused about mov­ing the team, and in an un­der­rated part of that tele­vi­sion in­ter­view, even griped about whether the plans for a new down­town arena were worth see­ing through. That came as he was in the mid­dle of try­ing to fi­nal­ize a pro­posal with the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Com­mis­sion for that down­town arena. It has not gone un­no­ticed among politi­cians in the Ottawa area that even as Mel­nyk bar­gains with them in (al­legedly) good faith over the arena plans, he drops hints that the team still has other, un­named op­tions.

That arena deal is still a long way from fi­nal­ized, only now Mel­nyk will be sell­ing it — and try­ing to get what­ever pub­lic sub­sidy he can squeeze out of var­i­ous lev­els of gov­ern­ment — while op­er­at­ing a team that has gone straight into re­build mode. And traded away its first-round pick for 2019 last sea­son.

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