What Happened? – Six Senators Moves That Led To The Downfall Of A Cup Contender


It has been 3 ½ seasons since the Ottawa Senators made their appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, and their stock has indeed fallen to depths not seen since the early expansion days of the franchise.  This blog entry deals with 6 choices that were made by the franchise that I believe has put them in their current situation.

I am not saying these decisions were all considered mistakes at the time, or could have even been prevented.  Hindsight is 20-20 however, and the results speak for themselves.  Two of the decisions even precede the club’s Finals appearance, but the decisions made at that time have greatly affected the current state of the team.  The moves were made by two different General Managers, first John Muckler and then Bryan Murray.

The events are listed in chronological order, not in order of importance of damage done to the franchise.

July 30, 2005 – Ottawa selects D Brian Lee 9th overall instead of Mark Staal

I remember sitting in front of the television watching the 2005 draft (AKA the Crosby Show), and Ottawa holding the #9 pick.  The excitement was because they hadn’t selected in the top 10 since they traded Alexei Yashin for the rights to pick Spezza at #2 in 2001.  I also remember the elation I felt when #8 San Jose selected Devin Setoguchi, meaning my top choice at that point was still on the board.   I thought, “The Senators are going to get Marc Staal!”  John Muckler stepped to the microphone and indeed selected a defenseman, but it wasn’t Staal.  He drafted some guy named Brian Lee from a Minnesota high school.  I was stunned, as were many others at the time and it turns out we were right.  Staal (who ended up going to the Rangers three picks later at #12) is nearing 300 NHL games, while Lee recently hit the 100 mark.  Staal was selected to represent the Rangers at this year’s All Star Game, while Lee has been sat out of more than 30 games as a healthy scratch.

This could be a case of hindsight being 20-20, but I was shocked at the selection as were a lot of other people I talked to at the time.  How good would Mark Staal look on the Senators’ blue line today?

June 29th & July 2, 2006   Ottawa re-signs Wade Redden & Chara leaves Senators to sign with Bruins

Leading up to the 2006 free agency period, the debate reigning in the city of Ottawa was about whether the Senators should re-sign home-grown talent Wade Redden or perrenial Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara.  It was plain to see that there wasn’t going to be enough money in the Ottawa budget to sign both players.  The Senators made their choice and re-upped with Redden, for 2 years @ $13 million.  Three days later, Big Z cashed in big time with the Bruins, signing for 5 years and $37.5 million.  Redden struggled mightily after signing the contract, and after two years of being the public’s whipping boy, left as a free agent to join the Rangers in 2008.  Redden signed a big-money contract with New York, but it turned out to be a mistake and he has since been buried in the minors.  Meanwhile, Chara has continued to excel as the Bruins’ captain, winning the Norris Trophy following the 2008-09 season.

March 4, 2009 – Ottawa Acquires Pascal Leclaire & 2nd rd pick for Antoine Vermette

If he had been able to remain healthy, the Pascal Leclaire era might have gone differently.  I, for one, professed at the time that he was the most talented goalie in the history of the franchise.  However, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy and the era is apparently coming to an end before it had a chance to succeed.  This deal still has an asterisk for future evaluation, as with the 2nd rd pick acquired with Leclaire, Ottawa selected Robin Lehner.  The young Swede who is being groomed as the goaltender of the future for the franchise.  If he comes to develop as expected, then this deal will be switched over to the “win” column.

Leclaire came with a cap hit of $3.8 million and is “earning” a cool $4.8 for this season.  Thankfully it is the last season of his contract, as he becomes an unrestricted free agent at season’s end.  Meanwhile, Vermette has enjoyed success with the Blue Jackets, finishing 2nd on the club in scoring last season.  He would be an ideal 2nd/3rd line centre in the current Senators scheme, and at a cap hit of $3.75 million, would be making more of a contribution than Kovalev @ $5 million .

July 6, 2009 Alex Kovalev signs 2 year, $10 million Deal with Senators

At the time Kovalev was signed to a 2 year, $10 million contract, it was considered a gamble for Bryan Murray, who was dealing with the Heatley situation at the time.  Very talented, barely motivated, that was the book on the veteran Kovalev.  Alex couldn’t have been a bigger disappointment, netting just 67 points in 120 games played over his first year and a half.  These results are not good enough for $5 million per season, neither is the perceived lack of effort on most nights.  That money could have been spent better elsewhere, or nowhere at all for that matter.

Sept 12, 2009  Dany Heatley  & 5th rd pick  traded to San Jose for Milan Michalek, Jonathan Cheechoo & 2nd rd pick

For whatever reason, Dany Heatley didn’t mesh with the Ottawa dressing room (be it either coach or player conflict), and the feud went public.  In his defense, GM Bryan Murray was held with a gun to his head (some would argue that he pointed the gun at his own head by making the trade demand public).  Either way, when the trade with San Jose finally went down, the return was nowhere near enough for an asset as great as Heatley.  Murray initially had another deal worked out with Edmonton, but Heatley would not waive his no-trade clause to go to the Oilers.   (Although the rumoured return on the Edmonton deal wasn’t much better.)  The public forum in which this all played out made villans of both Heatley and Murray.

Milan Michalek is a gamer, but doesn’t have the same skill set as Heatley gave the Senators.  Jonathan Cheechoo was a nothing more than a salary dump that was forced on the Senators to make the money work out under the cap.  The Senators used the 2nd rd pick to acquire defenseman Andy Sutton from the Islanders, who played 18 games in a Senators uniform, got into a memorable verbal jousting match with a member of the Pittsburgh media during the playoffs, and then signed with Anaheim in the 2010 off-season.

July 1, 2010  Sergei Gonchar signs 3 year deal with Ottawa

The signing was praised at the time, and was supposed to signal the transition of the franchise’s identity as the Senators said goodbye to defensive stalwart Anton Volchenkov and welcomed the silky puck moving Sergei Gonchar.  The Senators were bringing in a player who ran one of the league’s top power plays (Pittsburgh), and has been one of the top scoring defensemen over the last few seasons. He was brought in to help the Senators power play (21st in the league in 2009-2010), and be a mentor to the Sergei Gonchar of the future, Erik Karlsson.

Almost 50 games into his first season patrolling the Sens’ blue line, he has 21 points and is a deplorable -17 (2nd worst on the team).  The power play still sits in the 20th spot today.  He was signed to a 3 year, $16 million deal that contains a no-trade clause.  Unlike the Kovalev signing, not many people, if any at all,  would have predicted this level of futility from Gonchar, but the Senators are likely stuck with him and his $5-plus million cap hit.

So there you have it, a six-pack of roster moves over the past 6 years that have casused the once powerful 2007 Eastern Conference Champions  (once considered the blueprint of how to build a team),  to become a lottery team in 2011.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Comment below or reach me onTwitter @alfieisgod.