Senators owner Eugene Melnyk will be in town today to meet with team president Roy Mlakar and GM John Muckler before tomorrow's NHL entry draft at the Westin Hotel.
They'll sit down to map out the future and talk about how the new collective bargaining agreement will shape the franchise.
Before Melnyk boarded a plane to Ottawa from Barbados, he consented to a one-on-one telephone interview with Sun hockey writer Bruce Garrioch. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation:
SUN: You must be pleased this lockout is over and hockey will be back in September?
MELNYK: No question about it. This was painful as a fan and an owner to sit out a season. I'm pretty sure it will never happen again.
SUN: But you knew when you bought the team this was going to happen ... Maybe not a season, but you knew this had to be fixed?
MELNYK: Absolutely. I had it laid out for me by Gary Bettman and Bill Daly. They said there was a possibility we could have to sit out a half a season or a full season and it could be even longer. When I looked at the books buying the team, it was obvious the team couldn't survive under the existing system without cost certainty. That was pretty well the most important thing for us. Whatever it took, we had to get there just to have the franchise survive. I'm not just talking about our franchise, I'm talking about a lot of franchises.
SUN: Why is this deal so important to Ottawa?
MELNYK: Eventually, it will put Ottawa on a level playing field with all the big markets. We were very fortunate over the last five years that we were able to put a great team on the ice with the budget we had. It's almost miraculous that happened. That happened because of a good hockey operation, smart drafting, good player development and a little bit of luck. Eventually, luck runs out and you could be overtaken by teams that continue to throw big money at players and that's just by sheer spending. Now, over time, I think we will be in a tremendous position when these people that have been able to spend can't do it anymore. The one competitive advantage they had was cash. That has been taken off the table. Over time, if we stay smart, get a little bit of luck and continue to develop our players, we will be at the top of the game for a long time.
SUN: Will this CBA allow you to make money?
MELNYK: It all depends on where we spend. If we go to the high end of the cap, then no, but that would include financing costs. In a market with the size we're dealing with, we're never going to make any money unless you really get into the playoffs and you go a couple of rounds.
SUN: Why do it?
MELNYK: You can break even and make a bit of money. That's not the reason I bought the team. I bought the team because I love hockey. It's something I have always dreamed of doing. My bet is that we're going to be able to get into the playoffs and be competitive. It is what I am hoping for.
SUN: You still feel that this is a good business?
MELNYK: (Long pause) If you are only in it for business, then there's a lot of other places where you can find another money-making operation. Unless you love the game and really enjoy being involved with a team and everything that goes with owning a team, then this is not a place you want to invest.
SUN: But,you will stick with it?
MELNYK: Yes, as long as I'm on this planet, I'm going to be involved. Even if it is losing money. That's not something my bankers want to hear. What we will make sure is it makes a little bit of money and that's purely to ensure the survival of the franchise.
SUN: If the new system isn't going to make money and be competitive, then you can't instruct John Muckler to spend near the cap. Would you like to be in that $35-million (all figures US) range?
MELNYK: It's so early to say right now what kind of deals are going to be done with whom and for what kind of term and at what price. That's the kind of thing we're going to be talking about almost daily. We're going to be making a full review (today), because there's a lot of moving parts. Some players you might want to sign on a longer term, some on a shorter term. Some will be at higher and some at lower salaries. I think we are going to go through a two to three- year flushing out period where everybody is going to get used to operating within the new system. In Ottawa, we're going to find some sweet spots where we can be competitive. It is all going to come down to being smart. Our management there has worked extremely well and I think they can adapt to this new world.
SUN: Is one of the things you have to talk about keeping this team together? This has always been a team that has been built from its core group. Now, because of the new CBA, could some of the core be let loose?
MELNYK: We talked about that at length last week in New York. John, myself and Roy. One of the things that was a competitive advantage we had was drafting very well and developing players over time. Now, we have a new world order. That program may not be the wisest program because just when the player is reaching their peak, you have the threat of losing them. You need to adapt to that. We've got plans in place to be able to adapt to that. We're going to have to see over the next two to three years how we can be competitive in this new environment.
SUN: Does that mean being more active on the free-agent market and doing a better job of pro scouting? Do you expect to be more active on the free agent market this summer?
MELNYK: Well, it's too early to tell. We've got to see where we are with the existing players. We had a championship team in the last season and if it hadn't been for bad luck in Game 7 against the Leafs, we would have gone a long way. If you look at it from that perspective, we've got a young team coming back and there's no reason why we shouldn't be at the top of the game next year. What happens next year with the unrestricted free agents is something we have to address. If you look at all the teams, I think we have the most to lose over the short term. I think with the core players we will resign for the long-term, we will remain competitive. Our biggest advantage now is we can't be outspent two-to-one like we have been historically. All these people have to spend smart and historically they haven't spent smart. And I would bet on my management team over anybody else in the league anytime.
SUN: Do you expect that the fans in Ottawa will come back?
MELNYK: I certainly hope they do. The fans in Ottawa are unique in that they truly love hockey. They want to come out because they enjoy the game. I think they'll come back. If you dropped the puck this Saturday, I would think you would have a sellout. It is just going to take some time to rebuild with some people. Once it's back and it gets a little cooler and people start forgetting about barbecues and outdoor sports, then I think you're going to feel a lot of excitement. A lot of people missed the game and wanted it to come back.
SUN: You've got the 2008 entry draft. When are you going to get an NHL all-star game?
MELNYK: We have that commitment from (Bettman). It's just a matter of what date. I think it's going to be before 2011. It was going to be before 2011, but with a year lost, it has been pushed back because there's got to be a makeup year. You've also got to factor in the 2010 Olympics. That's a discussion we're going to have to have with Gary Bettman and it might take place this weekend.