Ottawa Senators: Bigger Salaries Don't Change the Players

David LawCorrespondent IFebruary 24, 2009

Now that the the Ottawa Senators have drifted far enough out of the playoff picture for even the most optimistic fan to ignore the "mathematical possibility," we can take a deep breath and consider the misplaced optimism of the preseason and first few games. Something in the offseason and preseason that struck me as odd was the expectation that the players with new, long-term, big dollar contracts would suddenly become different players this year.

Those were the heady days when Bryan Murray could say with a straight face that he expected Jason Spezza to be an effective two-way player, and Spezza would agree and say all the right things (okay, admittedly, Spezza's pretty good at that act). Senators fans listening to Ottawa's sports talk radio station repeatedly heard how Spezza could change from a one-dimensional offensive force to an offensively-gifted player who took care of things defensively, the way local boy Steve Yzerman did years back. There was a consensus that with his new big salary and a disciplinarian like Hartsburg as coach, we would see a changed Jason Spezza: a better two-way player.

Same goes for Dany Heatley. Remember the "A" they sewed on his jersey? That was to reflect Heatley's newfound commitment to respect his defensive responsibilities. Murray intoned that with the new contract he expected to see a more complete game out of Heatley as well. Instead, perhaps in an attempt to play Hartsburg's defensive scheme, Heatley not only failed to backcheck or play a physical game, he lost some of his scoring touch as well. Instead of being on pace for 50 goals, this season Heatley is headed for 40.

There are other big-dollar players who were unreasonably expected to markedly improve their games now that they earned more money. Fans to the sports talk shows mirrored the talkin' heads' expectations that $4.2 million dollars would turn Mike Fisher into a 30- to 40-goal scorer this year. Never mind the fact that in eight previous seasons his best output was 23 goals. Reasonable fans and analysts should have expected Fisher to be what he has always been: a hard-working, fast-skating defensive forward who harasses the opposition while potting 20 to 25 goals. That sounds like a $2 or $2.5 million-dollar player, doesn't it? Paying him twice that won't magically turn Fisher into a player with a scoring touch.

Antoine Vermette? He too was going to use the motivation of a $2.76 million dollar salary to suddenly emerge from a 20-goal man to a 30-goal man.

The common thread here is that fans, team officials, members of the media, and the players themselves all expected that these players would turn into something they are not. Vermette and Fisher will never be offensive catalysts. Heatley and Spezza will never be defensively responsible. To use that most annoying of phrases: "It is what is is." More accurately, "...they are what they are." 

These players should have been signed to contracts that reflected the nature of their games rather than to multi-year deals based on unrealistic expectations as to what they might magically evolve into. Bryan Murray must take responsibility for that.

These four are not the only examples.

Brian Lee was thought to be able to step into the lineup as a top-four defenseman without a hiccup, and Martin Gerber was signed to a questionable deal and expected to lead Ottawa to the promised land. When Gerber failed to do so, Ottawa signed Ray Emery and expected him to be a team leader, or at least a team player. It's hard to believe that they did not know the character of the goalie they expected to lead them the Cup. Emery came up through their organization. They did know what he was, but they turned a blind eye and expected him to change.

What should be clear to Ottawa's management group now is something that leaders in all forms of business have come to recognize: MONEY DOES NOT MOTIVATE. Any apparent motivational effect is gone the moment the contract is signed.

The Ottawa Senators' contract offers should reflect the value that the player currently brings to the rink, not a value based on some optimistic view of the player acquiring different skill sets or attitudes.

I am not sure if all this comes down to blind optimism or arrogance on the part of Ottawa's management team. Either quality will doom the franchise to similar mistakes unless changes are made.