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What We Learned: What fans owe the Ottawa Senators

If Senators owner Eugene Melnyk paid to put a winning team on the ice every year, supported by a group of good decision-makers behind the scenes, there wouldn’t be a problem in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)

Last week we talked about the value of Erik Karlsson to the Ottawa Senators, and how any idea that he shouldn’t pursue a top-level contract “for the good of the franchise” was wrongheaded.

Karlsson, of course, owes nothing to the Senators, having already taken a lengthy hometown-discount contract that devoured basically his entire prime and didn’t give him much in return; Ottawa made the playoffs three times since the new deal kicked in back in the lockout-shortened 2013 season and the Senators won a grand total of four rounds, three of which were last season’s run to the conference finals.

So if Karlsson would prefer to look for what he’s actually worth (or more accurately, recoup some of the value he lost on his last deal) on his next deal, wherever that may take him, it’s tough to place any blame on him. Most fans around the league, and even in Ottawa, seem to agree with that too, which is a rare thing in modern sports. But that seems to be because most of those people recognize that Ottawa is a badly mismanaged team that would be among the worst in the league were it not for Karlsson’s mere existence.

Which brings us to the past few days, during which time Senators owner Eugene Melnyk ran his mouth about as effectively as he runs his franchise. At a time when his team was hosting the NHL 100 Classic — celebrating the league’s 100th birthday — he chose to make proceedings all about himself, his inability to make a deal for a new arena because his team currently (in its “very bad” iteration) can’t convince people to come out to Kanata.

While he said he wouldn’t be selling the team, he also basically said he’s more than happy to move the team. Unlike years past, the current Senators roster is pretty close to the cap ceiling, but Melnyk says that could change if other things with the organization do not. And he’s already running many parts of that organization on extremely limited budgets.

So the thing is, this is basically an NHL owner — albeit one whose team couldn’t draw a crowd with a box of crayons — using a vaunted league platform to say, “Show up or else.” Much like how things have gone in Calgary with the “Pay for our arena or else” argument, one imagines this isn’t a winning strategy. Especially because, for the millionth time, the Senators are horrendous.

Their win in the outdoor game was their second straight, but only their third in the previous month. Melnyk also used the opportunity earlier in the week to basically say “Trust me, this is a playoff team.” Which is not the kind of promise one typically wants to make when one’s team is six points out of a divisional playoff spot and 10 out of the wild card; the Senators would have to play at a 101-point pace for the rest of the season to even get to 92 points, which is probably the bare minimum cutoff for a playoff spot in the Atlantic. They would also have to leapfrog Florida, Detroit, Montreal and Boston to get there, as Tampa (certainly) and Toronto (probably) appear safely ensconced in the top-two.

Point being, Melnyk has done a number of very unwise things in the past several days — guaranteed a playoff appearance by a team that has almost no hope of making the playoffs, admitting to cutting behind-the-scenes budgets, and threatened to move the team — in what I guess is an attempt to coerce fans into……. showing up?

The idea, one supposes, is that Senators fans should really not want this team to move to Quebec City or Houston (hey! that’s the Flames’ gimmick!), but it’s a tough sell, because of Melnyk’s previous stewardship of the team.

Yeah, the club is spending money for the on-ice product now, but that’s a relatively new phenomenon, likely propped up by the revenues generated during last year’s fluke playoff run — which hey, credit to Melnyk for not just pocketing all that money — and little more. And again, spending on what, exactly? Lots of bad contracts on this team, right? And that big three-way trade that was supposed to reinvigorate everybody and get them excited for Senators hockey doesn’t seem to be working out in quite the way it is for, say, the other two teams in that trade.

Point being, the Senators haven’t really given fans a lot of reason to show up apart from that playoff run (which, granted, was like six months), so threatening to move and saying the market has to “prove itself” is a poor strategy. Fans owe the teams they root for nothing. Most fans will give more than they should in terms of loyalty to their franchises — see also: the attempted vilification of Karlsson for saying he deserves to get huge money two summers from now, which has worked in a lot of other markets to turn fans against a lot of lesser players — but the rise of the European-style “Melnyk Out” movement in the wake of all these pronouncements tells you the owner pushed much farther than he should have here.

To use Melnyk’s own McDonald’s analogy, this is basically the owner of a run-down McDonald’s franchise 40 minutes away from anyone, whose restaurant has been serving some of the worst Big Macs in the region and refuses to pay more than one fry cook and cashier saying, “Hey, if you guys don’t come start shoving these undercooked McNuggets in your dumb faces, I’ll go to another city where people will!”

This is classic rich-guy stuff, though. People like Melnyk are owed fealty because they (barely) operate a thing people ostensibly should like, and when “consumers” he doesn’t care about — except as far as they can be parted from their money to support a bare-bones product — don’t grovel enough for their liking, the threats to take their ball and go home start pretty quickly.

Can’t imagine why Sens fans would chafe at that line of talk from a guy who, if he isn’t the worst owner in the league, is pretty close.

Move the team, don’t move the team, whatever. Think the people of Quebec or Houston will keep showing up after the novelty wears off if the team keeps barely making the playoffs every other year? Fans show up to see good teams. It’s really that simple. If Melnyk paid to put a winning team on the ice every year, supported by a group of good decision-makers behind the scenes, that would be one thing.

If we’re supposed to be mad Karlsson vaguely implied he would go elsewhere if he couldn’t get what he’s worth, but not mad that a billionaire absentee owner who runs the team on a shoestring budget for basically doing-the-same-thing-times-100, that seems like a bizarre logical leap. Generally speaking, if your net worth has three commas in it, people probably aren’t going to have too much sympathy when you cry poor, for any reason.

Ransoming fans’ love of a team against that team’s ongoing existence is the basest, most desperate act an owner can undertake. Why Melnyk would expect any response other than the one he got shows the disconnect between working-class fans and team owners.

The NHL is an entertainment product, and it is therefore incumbent upon team owners to put an entertaining team on the ice so that fans will show up. The idea that it should work in the opposite direction — that fans should pay a billionaire a lot of money and drive out to some far-flung arena so the team can be financed appropriately — is a uniquely late-capitalist idea that has no real basis in the previous 100 years of this or any other sport.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The way these two teams have been playing, the Ducks getting a point out of the Capitals is pretty good.

Arizona Coyotes: “Has become,” sure.

Boston Bruins: In my opinion, if I were coach of a team that erased a two-goal deficit in a critical game, I would not also have that team take a too-many-men penalty in overtime and lose. Just my thoughts.

Buffalo Sabres: This is one of those things where it’s like, “Oh yeah, Jack Eichel ISN’T captain of the Sabres yet.”

Calgary Flames: The Flames got shut out on Saturday but they hit a post and three crossbars, and hey, sometimes that’s hockey, baby! And look, at least it was against the damn Predators. Sometimes you just don’t get the bounces when the other team is elite.

Carolina Hurricanes: Here’s me promising never to get too worked up about any results for the Hurricanes ever again. But they’ve won three straight, gang.

Chicago Blackhawks: Turns out guys don’t want to be healthy-scratched. Pretty wild.

Colorado Avalanche: One wonders if this is a salary-cap-era record: The Avs have used 11 players on their ELCs this season.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Sometimes you just run into a hot goalie. Sometimes you make that goalie look better than he was.

Dallas Stars: The Stars really shouldn’t be having this much trouble offensively. That’s the thing they’re supposed to be, y’know, good at.

Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings have six shorthanded goals. Pretty good number! They also have 80 goals in all other situations. Very bad number.

Edmonton Oilers: This is without a doubt my favorite tweet of all time:


Florida Panthers: What a burn.

Los Angeles Kings: Win eight straight, and this is the best team in the world. Lose three straight and someone’s gotta talk you off the ledge. Tough business.

Minnesota Wild: My theory is: Mikko Koivu is almost 35.

Montreal Canadiens: Lots of people comparing the NHL to communism lately. What a time to be alive.

Nashville Predators: To have back-to-back shutouts? Folks, that’s good to do.

New Jersey Devils: Is this a good group of guys to get back healthy?

New York Islanders: We definitely all saw this coming.

New York Rangers: Not sure “playing the guy who’s almost 36 a ton of minutes the rest of the way” is a great strategy, but okay.

Ottawa Senators: What a beautiful boy this guy is. We do not deserve Erik Karlsson.

Philadelphia Flyers: Of course the Flyers have won six straight. Hockey’s fun, right?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Hearing Rick Tocchet speak freely about why the Penguins are good is really interesting.

San Jose Sharks: Logan Couture might be out long-term. That would be, uh, bad.

St. Louis Blues: That’s a 48-save shutout for Carter Hutton. Pretty good!

Tampa Bay Lightning: *Looks at Lightning roster* Ah, that’s why they’re legit.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston, come back!

Vancouver Canucks: Bless those wonderful Sedin boys.

Vegas Golden Knights: Have you all heard about this stuff with Gerard Gallant and the Panthers? Pretty crazy!

Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin is up to 23 goals in 34 games. He might hit 50 again. Good lord.

Winnipeg Jets: No coach in the history of the NHL has lost more games than Paul Maurice. That’s weird to think about.

Play of the weekend

This goal by Ryan Johansen? That’s incredible skill level.

Gold Star Award

Carter Hutton not only had a 48-save shutout, but also did it coming off not having played in two weeks. C’mon!

Minus of the Weekend

#MelnykOut

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year

User “ViktorBaeArvidsson” cooked up a goodie.

To Ottawa:

2018 1st Round Pick
Jacob Trouba
Jack Roslovic
Nicolas Petan

To Winnipeg:

Erik Karlsson
Alexandre Burrows (500k retained)

Signoff

Ho ho ho ho ho, delightfully devilish, Seymour.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)