The Ottawa Senators have thus far exceeded expectations by remaining in the hunt for a playoff spot. Brian Murray, however, has been a chronic underachiever as the club’s general manager, with a legacy of poor managerial decisions. That Murray still holds down the GM title has more to do with his personal appeal than his accomplishments.
Murray is instantly likable. He’s accessible to the media and candid in his remarks, provides media-friendly sound-bites, and his dry sense of humour in press conferences can draw a chuckle from fans watching at home.
There’s no doubt of Murray’s ability to manage human relationships within the club. In three seasons as head coach, he never had a public falling-out, despite a cadre of trouble-makers in the squad in Ray Emery, Brian McGratton, and Dany Heatley. Murray was able to keep a tight leash on the former two and stroke the latter’s ego.
But the people skills that enabled Murray to be a respected coach have not translated to success in the GM’s chair. The Senators went from a Stanley Cup finals appearance to squeaking into the playoffs as the eight seed in Murray’s first year as GM, and were swept by the Penguins in the first-round. Last season, they finished near the bottom, failing to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons.
Once a perennial Stanley Cup favourite, the Senators metamorphosed into an also-ran, then into a doormat in just less than two years. How have the Senators rocketed down the standings?
Bryan Murray stumbled out of the gate immediately after assuming the GM’s cap. He announced a month-long selection and interview process to find the next the coach, interviewing highly qualified candidates Peter Deboer and Bob Hartley, before settling on his assistant and friend, John Paddock. Even the Murray-friendly Ottawa media described the process as a sham.
Murray fired Paddock before the end of the season and replaced his former partner with himself without much success.
The offseason of 2008 was a repeat of the previous summer. After a lengthy search for a new head coach, Murray went with a proven hand, hiring former NHL coach, Craig Hartsburg. Murray didn’t wait long before axing Hartsburg, dismissed at the half-way mark. Thus, bringing the total number of coaches to five in two seasons, including Bryan Murray twice.
An organization once renowned for its stability under John Muckler has been under constant change.
Things go from bad to worse when examining his player personnel decisions. Murray's contract extensions and free agent signings have amounted to precious little, moves analogous to a weak wrister from outside the blue-line.
The Senators GM handed monster contracts to Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, Ray Emery, and Dany Heatley after their run to the Cup finals. And that’s when Murray’s midas touch left him and went south.
Jason Spezza’s point totals took a noticeable dip after signing a new long-term deal. Mike Fisher too saw a steep decline in his production. Fans and media pundits questioned whether these players where deserving of such lucrative deals, given the knock that Spezza has always been a suspect skater and Fisher injury-prone.
After threatening to deal the petulant Ray Emery all season, Murray was forced to buy out Emery one season after he signed him to a three-year 10 million dollar deal contract.
Again, the Dany Heatley signing seemed to ignore the player’s past history. Heatley asked to be dealt two years into his new seven-year deal. Murray eventually moved the disgruntled forward to the Sharks, but not before Heatley collected his $4 million bonus on Canada Day.
Free agent signings Luke Richardson, Jason Smith, Jarko Ruutu, and Alex Auld all failed to make an impact.
On the trade front, Murray’s moves mirror a juggling act gone bad.
Murray dealt away Pat Eaves and Joe Corvo in a last-gasp effort to remain competitive in 2008. As Murray plugged one hole another sprung open. He added a gritty player but was then left without a puck-moving defenseman to quarterback the power-play, like Corvo whom he had just dealt.
The players the Senators received in return, Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore, soon left the organization, leaving Murray with nothing to show for his moves.
The Senators lost young defenseman Andrej Mezsaros when he and his agent became entangled in a contract dispute with the Senators organization. Murray opted to trade the young defenseman for an aging veteran in Filip Kuba. The jury is still out on who won the deal.
Murray again sacrificed the future in trading away a first-round draft choice to the Islanders to acquire Chris Campoli who is, at best, a fifth-defenseman.
And all the while Murray has shuffled the coaching ranks and made changes to the team’s core, he still hasn’t found the second line power-forward he’s been after since the spring of 2007, nor has he obtained a name goalie the franchise has always lacked.
Worst of all, there’s the allegation of unprofessionalism in his handling of the Heatley trade request. Heatley’s agent claims they asked for a trade behind closed doors only for Murray to leak it to the media, a definite no-no in sports circles, and which created the summer’s worst spectacle—the Dany Heatley trade drama.
The Ottawa Senators have been spinning their wheels under the leadership of Bryan Murray. To kick-start a turn-around, they may have to give Murray the boot.