Monday, December 18, 2017

Weekend wrap: Melnyk on the move

This was supposed to be a chance for Ottawa to steal the spotlight on one of the league’s biggest weekends of the year. With the NHL celebrating its 100th anniversary, Ottawa welcomed the hockey world for the season’s first outdoor game, as well as an alumni game and other events at a beautiful second rink at Parliament Hill. Even with the Senators struggling, this was a chance to put all that aside and let a market that so often plays second fiddle to Montreal or Toronto have its chance to be front and centre for all the right reasons.

But apparently Eugene Melnyk had other ideas.

The Senators’ owner was the story of the weekend, overshadowing the game itself with his Friday night comments in which he complained about attendance and suggested that payroll was too high. And, in the biggest headline, he told reporters that he’d never sell the team, but might be open to moving it.

After everything else they’ve been through this year, you could forgive Senators fans if they heard Melnyk’s musings and headed straight for the bar. Judging by the reactions on social media and radio call-in lines, more than a few did. But let’s be clear on a few points. First, Melnyk’s comment about moving was conditional on “if it becomes a disaster,” and he acknowledged that the situation isn’t there yet.

More importantly, an NHL owner can’t just pick his team up and move it whenever the whim strikes. Despite the comparisons Melnyk himself tried to draw, an NHL franchise isn’t a McDonald’s or a grocery store. There’s a reason that we’ve only seen one team move in the last 20 years, despite many of the league’s markets being far worse off than any worst-case scenario you could conjure in Ottawa. If Melnyk can’t make it work then the league would look high and low to find someone else who could before they’d consider abandoning a market they’ve spent a quarter-century cultivating.

So what’s Melnyk’s game here? Clearly, he’s disappointed by this year’s attendance numbers, especially after last year’s run to the conference final. Maybe he thinks that a threat of a move hanging over things will spur fans to reach into their wallets, instead of heading in the other direction by just tuning out altogether. It’s a bold strategy — let’s see if it pays off.

It’s impossible not to wonder how all this is playing in the Erik Karlsson camp. The star defenceman was reportedly reprimanded for speaking out publicly about the possibility of playing elsewhere; now the owner can launch into a tirade about moving the entire team? Star players in this league usually end up re-signing rather than testing the open market, in large part because they value stability. This situation doesn’t seem all that stable anymore.

Meanwhile, the hockey world came to Ottawa this weekend, and left with headlines about “dark clouds“and a “circus.” That’s probably not what Melnyk had in mind when he was boasting about putting on the greatest outdoor game yet.

With all that going on, the mood in the capital felt dour heading into the weekend. But the alumni game was fun, the pre-game fan fest attracted a solid crowd, and the weather was cold but otherwise cooperated. By the time Saturday rolled around, a sellout crowd (helped along by plenty of Habs fans) seemed ready to set aside Melnyk’s rant and enjoy a game.

They were rewarded with a low-scoring but reasonably entertaining contest, one that ended with a 3–0 Ottawa win. Karlsson was the driving force for Ottawa, playing an outdoor-record 32 minutes while still finding time to get weird. That makes it two straight for Ottawa, which isn’t much but sure beats losing 11 of 12. Their owner says we should trust him when he calls them a playoff team; today, they’re six points back, which is a healthy gap but not insurmountable.

Meanwhile, the Habs have lost four of five and are just three points up on Ottawa, who hold two games in hand. It’s looking more and more like the Atlantic may produce only three playoff teams, so there isn’t much room for error here. That may be bad news for a Montreal team that plays its next six on the road.

But look on the bright side, Habs fans. Your playoff hopes may be fading, and your team just got shut out in front of a leaguewide audience. But at least your owner hasn’t threatened to make off with the franchise you’ve spent decades supporting. Yet.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards Stanley Cup–favourite status.

5. Washington Capitals (21-12-1, +8 true goals differential*): Look who’s back in the top five for the first time since Week 1. They’ve won 10 of 12, including three straight, to move into top spot of the still-way-too-crowded Metro.

4. Los Angeles Kings (20-10-4, +20): Three straight losses opened the door for the Knights to retake the Pacific lead.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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