Down the road, I wonder if fans of the Senators will continue to appreciate Eugene Melnyk’s conversion to frugality.
Melnyk, who bought the NHL Senators nine years ago, rendering him white knight status in this community, has every right to feel good about the hockey club breaking even financially before the playoffs begin. He has passed along some of his good fortune to ticket buyers, offering reduced prices on many seats for next season, in a bid to attract more season ticket holders.
After seeing his own good money wasted on bad contracts (see files under Alex Kovalev, Jonathan Cheechoo, Pascal Leclaire, etc.), it’s understandable the Senators owner would think twice before signing off on future retirement contracts. Now, the performance of a young, unproven group of players (beyond several key veteran leaders), has steeled Melnyk’s resolve.
Why wouldn’t he feel good about this rebuilding team punching above its weight class this season, in the mix of the top eight playoff-bound teams in the Eastern Conference despite cutting payroll to dip $13 million under the NHL salary cap of $64.3 million?
“You can spend to the cap, it’s very easy. Any idiot can do that,” Melnyk told Citizen sports editor James Gordon in an interview on Thursday.
Fact is, a lot of contenders do that, too.
Ask yourself this question. Which team would you feel more comfortable chasing Stanley with this spring – the $64-million Pittsburgh Penguins, the $64-million Vancouver Canucks or the $51-million Senators?
Hey, the Senators could surprise some people — again — and do a bit of playoff damage. If they do, good luck wiping the smile off Melnyk’s face all summer long.
Realistically, it’s unspeakably tough to play giant-slayer four rounds in a row.
Like it or not, in pro sports on this continent, underdogs and lowball spenders make nice stories, they even turn out to be decent books and movies (seen Moneyball yet?), but they don’t tend to produce champions.
Those Moneyball-darling Oakland A’s, competing in baseball’s non-salary cap world, take their victories where they can, of the moral variety, just making the playoffs every so often — but not once since 2006.
Once in a very great while, a budget-minded hockey team has the stars align just so, but it’s becoming more and more rare.
Immediately following the lockout, the Carolina Hurricanes surprised everyone by winning the 2006 Stanley Cup with a veteran-laden lineup on a modest payroll of $35 million. Keep in mind, the salary cap ceiling was only $39 million at the time, and so the gap between the top-spending teams and the Hurricanes was relatively small.
With the cap ceiling having nearly doubled since the lockout, that spending gap has widened, and with it the breach between pretenders and contenders. So much for parity when the season really counts. For example, the final four teams in Cup contention last spring included three top 10 spenders — the Canucks ($62.8 million), the eventual Cup champion-Boston Bruins ($60.1 million), and San Jose Sharks (59.3 million).
Only the Tampa Bay Lightning, last year’s Cinderfellas, weren’t part of the high rent district, with a payroll at $50 million.
This year, the Lightning won’t even be in the playoffs. Like the Senators, the Lightning are rebuilding with a longer term in mind.
For fans of the Ottawa Senators, what will that mean exactly?
It’s hard to say at this point. Melnyk speaks of having a “competitive team on the ice, year after year” without having to “buy that team.”
Ultimately, it costs money to contend, even for teams like the Senators now trying to build from within without blowing their bank account on veteran unrestricted free agents (the Sergei Gonchar deals are a thing of the past).
One might think it’s a lot cheaper to draft and develop players, augmented by the college free agents the Senators have pursued vigorously (Jesse Winchester, Bobby Butler, Stephane DaCosta in recent years, and Cole Schneider earlier this month). But the players who pan out will get their money, too.
Erik Karlsson, gaining attention as the NHL’s highest-scoring defenceman and Norris Trophy candidate, has a contract expiring and can expect a huge raise from the $1.3 million cap hit of this season. Depending on the length of his next contract, what will the 21-year-old budding superstar be worth as he nears his late 20s?
Some of the most expensive Senators players were drafted by the club, including Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips and Chris Neil – with several promising draft picks just now joining the system. They, too, have agents, and will require significant pay to stay.
Cheap and cheerful, young and hungry — it’s all the rage this season, what with the Senators’ pleasant performance to date. Who isn’t tickled pink with this early spring, tree buds swelling, grass growing, and Ottawa playoff tickets on sale?
Rebuilding isn’t always this much fun. If a season near you finishes without a playoff berth, will fans remain enthused with this philosophy of restraint? Would they embrace mediocrity, or would native unrest spark a Plan B to loosen the budget strings?