New York Islanders v Ottawa Senators

One of the more important life lessons I learned in college, besides the value of a clean shower when living in a house with nine other dudes, was to never conduct your grocery shopping on an empty stomach after getting money from your parents. You will spend wildly on a lot of things you don’t need, like banana nut cake and Waffle Crisp cereal, then regret it three hours after you get home.

When it comes to the NHL free-agency period, it’s pretty obvious which teams learned that lesson and which teams bought 11 boxes of Twinkies because they were starving and those sugary calories were too good to ignore.

The most important part of being a team with an abundance of salary-cap space is having a realistic view of the quality of your team and the players you would potentially sign. That’s even more true during the 2013 offseason, in which the free-agent pool is as shallow as the inflatable tub you purchased at Target for your backyard barbecue this weekend. Teams with money to spend are in a dangerous position, as GMs’ decisions in the coming days can wreak havoc on their clubs for years to come.

Sometimes GMs are at the end of their rope and have to spend wildly on free agents in an effort to save their jobs. Sometimes GMs are in hockey-mad markets and feel the pressure to make a move in order to satiate people who have no understanding of cap management or advanced statistics. Sometimes GMs flat-out don’t know what they’re doing. Sometimes GMs have so many holes in their roster that they have to overpay for a third-line left wing and second-pairing defenseman.

But sometimes, you get Bryan Murray and the Ottawa Senators in 2011.

The 2010-11 Senators finished 13th in the Eastern Conference with 72 points and missed the postseason for the second time in three years. After reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, the Senators had just two postseason wins in four seasons. Murray purged his roster during the 2010-11 season, shipping out Mike Fisher, Chris Campoli, Alex Kovalev, Jarko Ruutu and Chris Kelly, so it was clear the direction the Senators were headed.

No fan likes to hear “rebuild” – heck, Doug Wilson in San Jose has invented “reset and refresh” as a way of getting around saying the r-word – but no fan in a Canadian market wants to sit through a rebuild. It conjures images of three- or four- or five-year stretches without success. Yet with the way Murray tore down his roster, that’s exactly what Ottawa fans were rightfully expecting.

Yet in July 2011, Murray had a chance to plug some holes in free agency. He had 17 players signed for just $45.3 million, which gave him about $19 million to spend on free agents. This was a 72-point team four years removed a Stanley Cup Final appearance and eight straight seasons of at least 94 points from 1998-2007. Murray wasn’t the GM for any of that, as he took over in June 2007 and was at the helm of the four-season downswing, so he could have very easily made some regrettable moves at the supermarket that summer.

And clearly, the pressure on the Senators to fire Bryan Murray was massive and overwhelming.

But seriously, with four coaches (including Murray) in four seasons and little success, talk of firing Murray was out there.

What were Ottawa’s big free-agent signings in the summer of 2011? Alex Auld and Zenon Konopka.

While other GMs were stumbling over each other to get the likes of Brad Richards, Ilya Bryzgalov, Joni Pitkanen, Tim Connolly, Tomas Kaberle and Ed Jovanovski into their shopping carts for marked-up prices, Murray was walking through the aisles on a full stomach, content to buy a backup goalie and tough guy who could kill penalties on the cheap.

Murray didn’t attempt to turn his team into a winner in one day, instead putting faith in his system and young players, who were part of an AHL championship that season. Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, Zack Smith, Kaspars Daugavins, Erik Condra and a slew of other players were given opportunities to play, and under new coach Paul MacLean, the Senators reached the postseason in a year they were supposed to be contending for the first overall pick.

It’s not that the likes of Daugavins and Smith were world beaters, but they also weren’t underperforming free agents with contracts that were anchors around the necks of the team for years to come.

Meanwhile, just two years later, the big names from that subpar 2011 free-agent class were either the victims of compliance buyouts, heavily considered for the buyout, or just vastly underperforming on bloated contracts that were the result of a weak crop of free agents.

Murray didn’t panic in 2011 and make cosmetic signings to appease a fan base. He locked up his recently acquired goaltender to a four-year deal during the season, and that was it. Murray exhibited patience in a situation when most GMs would’ve done something besides signing Auld or Konopka to show he’s trying hard and wants to win and THIS IS NOT A REBUILD and all that.

Fast forward to present time, and a case can be made the Senators are in the best position of any team in free agency.

While teams are slashing and burning contracts to get under the declining salary cap, the Senators have one of the best young rosters in the league and $22 million to spend on free agents. Murray and MacLean have said they are interested in adding a scoring forward and the always popular puck-moving defenseman because defenseman who are stationary with the puck and don’t move it are bad hockey players, and there is no reason why they can’t do both.

Of course, the problem of 2011 is still here in 2013 – it’s a very bad free-agent class. But by exercising caution and patience and exhibiting faith in the Senators’ system two years ago, the Senators can afford to take some gambles now. They can overpay for David Clarkson or even make a deal to acquire Bobby Ryan thanks to both the cap space and development of young players coveted by other teams.

The declining salary cap and Murray’s success could result in other teams following suit this summer. Murray is working with the same salary cap now that he did two years ago thanks to the new CBA, but current teams with young rosters that resist the temptation to spend prime money on C-list free agents will be rewarded with a salary cap in two years that will rise by perhaps $10 million. If there was ever a year when there was incentive to avoid paying out the nose for someone like Tyler Bozak, this is it.

So if you’re the Calgary Flames, Florida Panthers, Winnipeg Jets or New York Islanders, maybe it’s best to sit this one out. Patch some holes, nothing more. You have kids in your system; play them. Bide your time. Now is not the time to strike. Now is not the time for Mike Ribeiro, Tyler Bozak or Ilya Bryzgalov.

I understand it’s never pleasant as a sports fan to see your struggling team do nothing in free agency when it has money to spend, but take a lesson from Murray and the 2011 Senators — sometimes doing nothing is better than binge shopping out of desperation and regretting it for years to come.

Comments (5)

  1. Great article. I don’t check out this blog very often but sometimes I do at work, and this is one of the better pieces I’ve seen on here recently.

  2. When reading this I could only think about the Maple Leafs and David Clarkson. That signing was awful…

  3. Well said. I imagine the teams spending heavy are consoling themselves with projected cap increases… but still.

  4. I dunno, I think I’d rather take a lesson from the ‘Hawks, that tanked hard and got Kane, Toews and company then parlayed it into two Stanley Cups.

    I’m still waiting for a finals here in Ottawa, prospects are great but winning the Cup? That’s better and you need experience to do that.

  5. Awesome piece about a shrewd GM and hockey mind in general. Sure, the Sens are my favorite team but I have been telling fellow fans the same things since Murray was brought in by the organization. Keep up the good work Dave.

    @sens416

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