Bryan Murray, Part II

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My colleague Kent Wilson wrote an editorial piece last night on the subject of the extension general manager Bryan Murray has received from the Ottawa Senators.  He was not kind.

In the comments, however, the criticism was raised that while Kent was being harsh, he wasn’t providing enough data to back up his ferocity.  I was taken aback by the criticism because the decline of the Senators has been obvious, and Murray’s track record is spotty, at best.

After the jump, a look at Bryan Murray’s biggest decisions with the Senators.

The Big Trades

Murray’s made a few big moves via trade since taking over the top job in Ottawa.  The biggest are:

  • Dealt Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves to Carolina for Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore.  In exchange for one good rental and one bad rental, Murray gave up a consistent 40-point depth defenceman and an up-and-down youngster.  It wasn’t an awful trade, but it wasn’t a win either.
  • Dealt Andrej Meszaros to Tampa Bay for Filip Kuba, Alex Picard and a first round draft pick.  An unqualified win.  With the Tampa Bay organization in disarray, Murray made them pay dearly for a player they coveted.
  • Dealt Dean McAmmond and a first round pick to the N.Y. Islanders in exchange for Mike Comrie and Chris Campoli.  The most valuable asset dealt here was the first round pick.  A clear loss.
  • Dealt Antoine Vermette to Columbus for Pascal Leclaire and a second round pick.  Pascal Leclaire’s bloated contract, poor health and shaky track record gave him enough negative value to be worth a second round pick all on his own.  Why did the Senators need to deal Vermette?
  • Dealt Dany Heatley and a fifth round pick to San Jose for Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo and a second round pick.  The worst trade of Murray’s tenure as general manager.  Yes, Murray’s hands were tied, but this trade basically boils down to dealing Heatley for Michalek (as Cheechoo’s negative value at the time was on par with the draft picks, and the Senators are still paying his contract).  It would have been better to sit back and play hardball then trade down like that.
  • Dealt Mike Fisher to Nashville for a first round pick and a conditional third-round pick.  a decent return for a rebuilding team, which is what the Senators have become under Murray’s guidance.

The Big Signings (i.e. $1.0+ million per year for 2+ years)

  • Ray Emery: three years, $9.5 million (July 2007).
  • Mike Fisher: five years, $21 million (September 2007).
  • Jason Spezza: seven years, $49 million (November 2007).
  • Chris Kelly: four years, $8.5 million (June 2008).
  • Jarkko Ruutu: three years, $3.9 million (July 2008).
  • Jason Smith: two years, $5.2 million (July 2008).
  • Daniel Alfredsson: four years, $19.5 million (October 2008).
  • Filip Kuba: three years, $11.1 million (March 2009).
  • Chris Neil: four years, $8.0 million (July 2009).
  • Alexei Kovalev: two years, $10.0 million (July 2009).
  • Sergei Gonchar: three years, $16.5 million (July 2010).
  • Nick Foligno: two years, $2.4 million (July 2010).
  • Craig Anderson: four years, $12.75 million (March 2011).

That’s a sordid list.  Let’s start with the easy targets: massive dollars to depth players and mediocre goalies.  Murray has consistently signed goalies to big dollars despite warning signs: he signed Ray Emery after one good year, he acquired Pascal Leclaire despite his major health and performance issues (more on that in a moment), and now he’s signed the best of the bunch (Anderson) to a bloated contract despite the fact he’s coming off a bad year and the goaltending market is over-saturated.  He also gave bit pieces like Ruutu and Neil both term and dollars, despite the fact that they’re fourth-line players.

The big names haven’t worked out that well either.  Spezza’s health problems were a concern when his contract was signed, and they’ve gotten bad enough that the term looks to be a major issue.  Gonchar and Kovalev have been massive disappointments.  The Alfredsson signing was solid, though, and the Mike Fisher deal has worked out thanks to the increase in the salary cap.

Goaltenders

Watching the evolution of the Ottawa Senators goaltending under Murray is a painful exercise:

  • Ray Emery, 2006-08: the incumbent starter was given half a season after going to the Stanley Cup Finals, and things went badly.  He was the focus of myriad negative off-ice stories, and slumped over 31 games on the ice.  The combination led the Senators to flush him, and Emery has since a) played very, very well in Russia, b) been injured in Philly and is now c) playing very well in Anaheim.  he was replaced as starter by…
  • Martin Gerber, 2006-09: Emery’s back-up inherited the starting mantle by default and was decent if unspectacular during both 2007-08 and the Senators’ four-game exit in the post-season that year (he generally doesn’t get credit for a very respectable 0.912 SV% while the team collapsed in front of him in that playoff series).  He had a little over a dozen bad games in 2008-09 and was subsequently punted to the Leafs (where he posted respectable backup numbers) and then drummed out of the league.  He’s since played very well in the KHL and AHL, while his starting job was assumed by…
  • Alex Auld, 2008-09: Auld, a capable back-up, posted a starter-worthy 0.911 SV% for the Senators in 2008-09 but was let go in favour of youngster
  • Brian Elliott, 2007-11: Elliott was the Senators ‘goalie of the future’ for a long time and should have been given a few years as the back-up, the way the Senators planned.  Unfortunately, he was thrown into the starter’s role while before he had a chance to prove he deserved it because he was better than the planned starter.  Still, he wasn’t very good, and was sent away.  That planned starter?  None other than…
  • Pascal Leclaire, 2009-11: I’m not sure there’s ever been a player that has made so much money thanks to 35 good games.  Why do I say 35?  Well, Leclaire had been a good, if injury-prone AHL starter, and a middling (and still injury-prone) NHL goaltender up until 2007-08.  Than he went on a 35-game run to start the season, posting a 0.928 save percentage going into the all-star break.  He was brutal afterward, with a 0.900 SV%, but his end-of-year number (0.919) still looked good. In 12 games in a (you guessed it, injury-shortened) season the next year his save percentage was 0.867.  Signed to a bloated contract, the Columbus Blue Jackets somehow managed to convince Ottawa to not only take him, but also part with Antoine Vermette, all in exchange for just a second-round pick.  Bryan Murray promptly pencilled him in as starter, while on TSN Pierre McGuire proclaimed him the best goaltender in “franchise history.”  He’s been a train wreck since, too bad and too hurt to trade, which is why Murray had to send away Elliott in exchange for…
  • Craig Anderson, Present: Murray signed a good, solid goaltender having a bad year to the same contract that goalie would have gotten if he were having a good year.

Still, the Anderson signing represents an improvement: it is the first time since Bryan Murray dumped Ray Emery that he hasn’t stuck an NHL back-up in the starting role.

Coaching

Bryan Murray was the head coach when he took over the team in the summer of 2007.  Although he had gotten Stanley Cup Finalist-calibre coaching from himself, he needed someone else to take over because he had a new job.  He started by hiring John Paddock, his former assistant and previously the head coach of Ottawa’s farm team.  Paddock had two championships in the AHL, and he had worked with Murray for two years.  The team responded brilliantly at first, jumping to he top of the league.  That success was Paddock’s undoing – a 7-12-2 slump over his final 21 games led to his firing.  Murray took over for the final 21 games of the season, guiding the team to a 10-9-2 record followed by a first round exit.

Former NHL coach Craig Hartsburg was hired in the summer to take over.  His record in Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL was good, and he had two medals with the Canadian World Junior team, but after a 17-24-7 start Murray fired him and replaced him with Cory Clouston, the head coach of Ottawa’s farm team.

Clouston went 19-11-4 to close out the season, and followed that up with a 44-32-6 record and first round playoff exit the following year.  He’s also been the hand behind the tiller this season as the Senators plunged to the bottom of the league.

Conclusion

Murray’s record is less grotesque than chequered.  He consistently fails to understand goaltender value, and consistently relies on players with big red warning signs in that position.  He overvalues tough depth players.  He treats his coaches as disposable.  He overpays in both years and dollars for free agents.

Yet, aside from the awful mess in the crease, perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of a clear sense of direction.  Murray essentially took over a contending team and instead of managing it opted to become a curator, replacing parts as needed or swapping a sprocket for a thingamabob in the hopes of finding that magic chemistry that would make everything okay once again.

That’s not the way to build a contender: contenders don’t stay contenders by being placed in a plastic bubble with a DO NOT TOUCH sign in front of them, they stay contenders by constantly seeking to get better.  It’s why Mike Gillis replaced Dave Nonis in Vancouver – Nonis couldn’t get past the Naslund/Bertuzzi core that he inherited from Brian Burke.  It’s why the Red Wings have survived the departure of Fedorov and Yzerman and Shanahan and all the rest.

To Murray’s credit, he has changed course to a degree, but unfortunately the players he chose to revitalize the team (Gonchar and Kovalev) haven’t worked out.  Now the Senators have to start from scratch; they’ve been torn down and guided to the basement, and it’s time to rebuild them from the ground up, with a few holdovers.  It seems a logical time to change managers – the team now needs to switch direction from destruction to rebuilding.

What I don’t understand is why Eugene Melnyk is trusting the man who took the Senators from the top of the league to the bottom to rebuild them.  It’s easier to stay on top than to get on top, and Murray’s already failed at the former task.