The Senators on Monday, some 72 hours prior to dealing away star defenseman Erik Karlsson, dropped a late-night video, which more appropriately would have been released in proper comedic homage — as a “Saturday Night Live” sports shtick.
The video, aimed at enticing fans to grab firm a rail on the listing ship of an NHL franchise, had club owner Eugene Melnyk sitting for a one-on-one interview with . . . wait for it . . . Mark Borowiecki, the club’s 29-year-old defenseman who played his college hockey at Clarkson.
“Right now,” a somewhat lighthearted Melnyk said at one point in the bizarre fireside-like chat, “we’re kind of in the dumpster.”
Got that right, a blazing dumpster.
The Bruins’ version of such a farce would have Jeremy Jacobs in a sitdown conversation with, say, Kevan Miller or maybe Torey Krug. The hard-hitting Borowiecki (we’re talking about his on-ice skills and not his journalist acumen), is on the books for two more seasons at $1.2 million per. Reminder: Melnyk, as owner, writes those checks. True checkbook journalism. Ain’t that cozy?
Melnyk made clear in the video that the Senators, who plummeted to 23-48-11 last season, 30th in the Original 31, are going young — a path all the easier for clubs to pursue, and make public, in the wake of the Golden Knights’ unprecedented first-year success. The magic wand can work, particularly in a sport in which success often can be determined by the play of one player at one position (hint: he typically wears oversized pads, stands about 6 feet 4 inches in stocking feet, and rarely strays from the front of the net).
The Rangers, thankfully without the lame PR video, were equally bold last spring, prior to the trade deadline, when general manager Jeff Gorton announced via press release it was time to try a new approach, take the franchise in a different direction. Gorton then promptly unloaded veterans — including dishing Rick Nash to the Stanley Cup-lusting Bruins — and that, too, was a way of embracing the Vegas model. We’ll find out soon in 2018-19 if Gorton, who on Tuesday acquired Adam McQuaid from the Bruins, was correct in his calculations.
The hope and promise inherent in new kids is always an easy sell, unless, of course, the new kids prove themselves unworthy or unable of holding down NHL work. Then it’s an aggrieved fan base left to grouse about paying big league prices for minor league talent, and few NHL franchises outside of Montreal (today) and Toronto (not that long ago) can get away with that kind of business model (read: scam).
Word around Ottawa is that the Senators have seen their season-ticket base fall to approximately 4,000. That number will be challenged even more now with Karlsson shipped to the Sharks. They’ve already masked over some of the upper-bowl seating at the Canadian Tire Centre, a common ploy in the industry, helping to hide the fact that demand is falling short of supply. Minor league teams, sometimes with no option but to play in oversized buildings, sometimes go as far as selling only lower-bowl seating and hanging drapes to block out the entire upper bowl. Things aren’t that desperate in Ottawa. Yet.
Senators fans in 2018-19, said Melnyk, should expect 10 new faces on the roster, followed by five or six more newbies next year. That’s a motherlode of pixie dust. Typically, even Division 1 NCAA programs don’t approach that sort of wholesale turnover.
This could be good news for Brady Tkachuk, the ex-Boston University Terrier drafted No. 4 overall by the Senators in June. Melnyk’s math all but guarantees the rawboned left winger (31 points last season for the guys at the right end of Comm. Ave.) will play in the NHL this year or next. Do the math: With upward of 16 roster spots declared up for grabs, Tkachuk doesn’t have to beat out a veteran for a job. He only has to be one of the best kids in the freshman chorus.
“That’s what our rebuild is going to be,” said a smiling Melnyk.
Just as training camp opened on Thursday, the Senators finally came up with a long-anticipated deal for Karlsson, shipping him to the Sharks for three forwards and a defenseman, a couple of whom (Chris Tierney, C, and Dylan DeMelo, D) will plug right into the varsity lineup. The best player in the swap could be 19-year-old Joshua Norris, a University of Michigan center selected No. 19 by the Sharks in the 2017 draft. The Bruins that year opted for Urho Vaakanainen at No. 18. Norris will play this season as a sophomore at Ann Arbor, and then become a prime candidate to join Melnyk’s kiddie corps next September. Looking forward to Norris’s Q and A with ace reporter Borowiecki, provided the latter hasn’t been dealt.
Ottawa tried to move Karlsson, 28, at the trade deadline, and then again around the June draft, but felt they weren’t offered fair value. A little more than a year ago, with Karlsson zipping around the Bruins Orr-like in Round 1 of the playoffs, Ottawa (44-28-10 in the regular season) looked poised to be in the Cup hunt for years to come. Now the Senators are in a dramatic, risky reboot, with a roster full of faces that might not be known even to the analytics guys at the Hockey News.
But Melnyk, who angered the fan base midway through the season with lamebrained hints that he could move the franchise, is assuring everyone in town that all will be fine. Yep, the kids will be A-OK. And by the way, in an open letter to fans published in the Ottawa Sun and Ottawa Citizen on Sept. 11, he assured one and all that the franchise is going nowhere.
“Our Senators,” he promised, “are in Ottawa to stay.”
Yzerman makes difficult decision
Shocker this past week when Steve Yzerman, going public some five weeks after making up his mind, stepped down as GM of the Lightning and introduced trusted assistant Julien BriseBois to succeed him in the big chair. According to Stevie Y, 53, it was a quality-of-life decision, reached more than eight years after he took over control of the franchise. All the time on the job in Tampa, his wife and three daughters (now in northern US colleges) remained home in Michigan. Sunshine and warm temps offer only so much comfort.
“It’s been too difficult to do,” he acknowledged at Tuesday’s news conference. Speculation began immediately, and will persist throughout the season, that Yzerman will head back to Michigan in the offseason and take over the rebuild of the Red Wings prior to 2019-20.
Ken Holland, Detroit GM since 1997 and a three-time Cup winner in that role, will be 63 in November. He has an aging, underwhelming roster that doesn’t make long-faithful suburbanites eager to fill up the club’s magnificent new downtown building. It’s a franchise aching for a reboot.
Yzerman, brought in as GM and/or president, would not be an instant elixir for the Wings’ fortunes, but it is guaranteed he would reignite fan interest. He is second only to Gordie Howe among all-time revered Red Wings alums. And no disrespect to Holland, but Yzerman also has proven to have a sharp managerial eye, one that helped the Lightning reach four Eastern Conference finals and get one kick at the Cup that fell short (six games) to Chicago in 2015. He proved to be the same grinding perfectionist as a front office administrator as he was a center ice puck distributor.
With the astute BriseBois at his side, Yzerman also did a fine job of managing owner Jeff Vinik’s money and the salary cap. The Lightning have their two offensive superstars, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, each signed to long-term deals, as well as defenseman Victor Hedman, fresh off winning the Norris Trophy. They’ll enter the new season with a little more than $2.5 million in available cap space and will be among the 3-4 favorites to represent the East in the Cup Final. Tidy work.
Vinik, who has owned the Lightning since 2005, offered Yzerman a long-term extension, but the Hall of Fame center decided over the summer that it was best to bow out. He’ll serve out the final year of his deal as senior adviser to BriseBois, who not long ago was passed over for a promotion to Canadiens GM. “Eight years,” noted Yzerman, “went very quickly.”
Trade of McQuaid hard on ex-mates
The trade last Tuesday that had Adam McQuaid dealt to the Rangers left the Bruins with only five players remaining on the roster from the 2011 Cup win: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, and Zdeno Chara. Rask, of course, did not see any action in those playoffs, the job handled in full by Tim Thomas (Conn Smythe winner).
In New York, unlike in Boston, McQuaid is all but guaranteed at least 15 minutes a night, possibly more if he clinches a spot higher than the No. 3 pairing. Upon the trade, he was one of only four Blueshirt defensemen assured a roster spot, joining ex-BU Terrier Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, and Marc Staal.
With the Bruins, McQuaid would have started the season in a reserve role, likely with Matt Grzelcyk. Coach Bruce Cassidy and GM Don Sweeney reiterated last Tuesday, post-trade, that McQuaid grew antsy as a spare last season, particularly for a protracted stretch in the first half when Cassidy opted not to change his combos when the club got hot a month into the season.
“He went through a tough time in November and December,” noted Sweeney. “He was healthy, ready to return, and he wanted to play. It was a tough stretch.”
Universally embraced in the room, the earnest McQuaid carved out a niche as a smart, reliable presence in his own end and, though rare, could add a touch of offense. He won big points up and down the roster, first and foremost, because he was ever willing to drop gloves and defend teammates. In a league with fewer and fewer practitioners of the sweet science, “Quaider” not only could throw ’em, but he seemed to relish the role of big man on the watch.
“Great friend, great teammate,” said Rask. “It’s never easy, but . . . hopefully he’ll have a great remainder of his career. But our friendship will stick and that is something we’ll cherish.”
Another example, said Rask, of “the circle of life in this sport . . . your career is not going to be too long and there’s always going to be young guys moving in. At one point we’re going to have to move on, that’s just how it goes. But it’s tough to see your teammates go.”
“Part of the business,” noted a somber Chara. “He’s that type of a guy and player that he will have success, no matter where he’s going to be. It’s hard to see a good friend be gone. But he’s not out of our lives. He’ll still be in touch, still a friend . . . it’s just an unfortunate part of the business.”
Prediction: McQuaid, 31, one day finds his way back to Causeway Street in an administrative role, perhaps in scouting or player development. He’ll likely play at least a couple of more NHL seasons, but he has the demeanor and respect to make him a strong candidate. He would be a particularly good fit with the off-ice team Sweeney has assembled.
Deal for Pacioretty is finally done
The Canadiens finally ended the Max Pacioretty saga, dishing their captain of the last three years to Vegas and netting top prospect Nick Suzuki in the swap. Hardly a showstopper of a trade, but a shrewder move than the one that saw the Habs dish P.K. Subban to Nashville for an older (now 33, and oft-injured) Shea Weber.
Suzuki, a 19-year-old center, was one of three first-round picks the Golden Knights made in their inaugural 2017 draft. They took Cody Glass, C, at No. 6, Suzuki at No. 13, and defenseman Erik Brannstrom at No. 15.
“Skilled kid,” said Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin of Suzuki. “Great mind for the game.”
Suzuki averaged 44 goals and 98 points the past two seasons at OHL Owen Sound. He’ll be the focal point of the Habs’ rebuild (one Bergevin won’t formally acknowledge), along with Finnish center Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who had yet to celebrate his 18th birthday when the Canadiens made him the No. 3 pick in June’s draft.
The Habs also acquired Tomas Tatar in the swap. Tatar, who looked so promising in Detroit before the Wings dished him to the Knights for first-, second-, and third-round picks, became a spare part in the playoffs. He has three years left at a $4.8 million cap hit. Not huge money, but he’ll need to deliver at least 40 points to justify the dough. That looks like a real stretch. He lost all his pop in Vegas.
Knights GM George McPhee quickly came to a four-year $28 million extension with Pacioretty, a deal that won’t kick in until next season, when he is 30 years old.
Hindered by injury, his production dipped last season (37 points), but he should deliver approximately 30-30—60, perhaps even a little better, for a Vegas team that now should be even more capable of spreading the offense out over more lines.
First Bruins-Rangers matchup of the season: Saturday, Jan. 19, 7 p.m. at TD Garden. McQuaid goes 1-1—2 and Ryan Spooner pots his career-high 20th of the season . . . With this past week’s 9/11 tributes, found myself recalling the warmth, humor, and generosity of spirit of Ace Bailey, the ex-Bruins forward killed in one of the hijacked flights. Acer would have turned 70 in June and just now would be wrapping up the party in time to start training camp . . . Veterans Daniel Winnik and Lee Stempniak have joined the Bruins for their North American training camp and one or both could be in the lineup Sunday for the 1 p.m. exhibition tilt vs. the Capitals. Winnik, with 798 NHL games on his résumé, has played for eight NHL teams. Stempniak, with 909 games, has played for 10 NHL teams, including his short stay (19 games) with the Bruins in 2015-16 . . . Per a judge’s order in Minnesota, the NHL has entered mediation with attorneys representing 100-plus ex-players in a concussion lawsuit. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to an Associated Press reporter this past week in Buffalo: “We also think the lawsuit doesn’t have merit.” If there were a blue line labeled “right side of history,” Bettman and the Lords of the Boards would be offside by at least two strides . . . With the $2.75 million cap relief the Bruins picked up in the McQuaid swap, they are right on the cusp of being able to handle the $6 million owed Columbus superstar Artemi Panarin this year. They also have the young roster assets and prospects to woo Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen into making a deal. The question becomes: Would Panarin sign in Boston long term and would the Bruins pony up the $8 million a year to keep him happy? As for compensation, Columbus might want both Jake DeBrusk and Ryan Donato. Painful, but big deals most always include some hurt. Panarin, 26, has averaged nearly 80 points over his three NHL seasons, virtually in lockstep with fellow left winger Brad Marchand.
The league’s executive committee will meet with Seattle investors Oct. 2 for more vetting of the proposed NHL expansion franchise there. Formal OK now would not come until the league’s next Board of Governors meeting in December. Investors remain hopeful about an October 2020 startup date, but 2021 looks more realistic.