Bob Murray has jumped the shark.
At least that’s what it feels like. It’s been a hectic week for the longtime Anaheim Ducks general manager; between statements about the status of his head coach to a bevy of roster transactions, if nothing else Murray is making headlines.
Probably not ideal headlines, but headlines nonetheless.
Where to start? The Ducks lost 12 games in a row, a feat matched only by some truly dreadful NHL teams dating back to the 1940s; Andrew Cogliano, a fan favorite, was traded to Dallas; Luke Schenn, a predictably bad free agent signing, was shipped to Vancouver; Pontus Aberg, one of only a handful of Ducks that has scored this year, was dealt to Minnesota; and to top it off, Murray traded prospect Joseph Blandisi to Pittsburgh to re-acquire Derek Grant, a centerman he could’ve retained for peanuts during the offseason.
In the process, Murray has defended his much-maligned head coach, Randy Carlyle, releasing a statement through the Ducks’ official Twitter account that he is not considering a coaching change. He called out his players — not the first time Murray has done so through the media — and wondered who will “step up” during the hard times.
Everyone deserves some criticism here, whether it be the players or their obsolete head coach, but none should be the recipient of more blame that Murray.
Let’s be clear — Bob Murray has been a very strong general manager for most of his tenure with the Ducks. He took an aging team in salary cap hell, thanks to Brian Burke, and rebuilt it into a group that won the Pacific Division five straight years.
He made some hard decisions, like trading Chris Pronger, firing Randy Carlyle (the first time) and relieving Bruce Boudreau. He drafted some great players, whether it be Rickard Rakell, Hampus Lindholm or John Gibson. And when it came time to reward some of those players with new contracts, Murray did so in team-friendly fashion.
Remember in 2013 when the hockey world was absolutely certain the Ducks couldn’t retain both Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, each an impending unrestricted free agent? Well, Murray did just that, and while neither came cheap, both Getzlaf and Perry returned for under market value.
For all that, Murray deserves praise. Under his stewardship, the Ducks have been more consistently competitive than any other point in the franchise’s 25-year history.
Everyone has their gripes — not all agreed that it was time to let Boudreau go, and maybe Murray could’ve held onto players like Pronger or Bobby Ryan for an extra year of contention with those specific cores — but not every GM bats 1.000. Maybe his handling of the expansion draft could’ve been different, and perhaps he hands out a few too many no-movement clauses, but mistakes plague everyone. Overall, he’s done a good job.
But all that goodwill has been tainted, whether it be the stubborn loyalty to Carlyle or fickle roster building.
Yes, re-hiring Randy Carlyle was a mistake. The decision itself was the wrong one and even worse was the justification. At Carlyle’s re-introductory press conference, Murray said, “I know in my heart that this is the right move at this time for this hockey team.”
That’s where my personal concerns began to bubble. Setting aside the fact that Carlyle’s time with the Toronto Maple Leafs was mostly a disaster, or that players like Getzlaf and Perry were tuning him out at the end of his first ride with the Ducks, or that his promises of interpersonal and gameplanning evolution were unconvincing, Murray’s justification for the hire was irresponsible. If you ever needed evidence that NHL front offices were just one giant old boy’s club, that was it.
Yes, Carlyle did remedy the Ducks’ Game 7 bugaboos (though how much credit he deserves for that changes depending on the observer), his team is the same undisciplined, slow group of brutes that it was 10 years ago, and Carlyle is the same matchup-obsessed, behind-the-times coach that he was before. This time around, however, he doesn’t have two Hall of Fame defensemen to wash away the warts.
It’s not as if Murray doesn’t recognize the flaws of his team. In a league now predicated on speed and skill, the Ducks still try to bully their opponents and lean on other-worldly goaltending to pick up wins. When the Ducks were embarrassingly swept by San Jose in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last year, Murray stated the obvious that his team needed to play faster.
His moves this offseason contradict all that. He signed Schenn and Andrej Sustr, and he brought back Carlyle (who had one year remaining on his contract) despite no evidence that his old pal was capable of refreshing his systems to a more 2018-friendly approach.
Remember how much Ryan Kesler struggled last season? And how useless the 34-year old has been this season? The Ducks’ entire handling of Kesler’s return, whether it be his premature activation last year or his usage this year, has been bungled. Why Kesler, who was clearly less than 100 percent, was playing in 2017-18 following hip surgery was mind-boggling.
Again, it’s not as if Murray was unaware. Prior to this season, Murray claimed that the team would be more careful with Kesler, giving him adequate rest from practicing or playing in games.
Well, prior to Kesler’s recent trip to the IR after the Ducks lost to Detroit on Tuesday, he had missed only three games this season and was averaging the third-most ice time among forwards on the entire team. Even worse, Kesler’s been a shell of his former self, and it doesn’t take a 31-game goal-less streak to figure that out.
In hindsight, it’s not hard to figure why Aberg was traded. Carlyle spoke of his need for higher “compete level,” which is A-plus coach speak. Cogliano’s departure is harder to figure out — on a team wanting to increase speed, why trade the fastest player? That decision to trade a respected veteran, and one that still helped the team despite decreasing scoring totals, was questionable. The decision to re-acquire a player that could’ve been re-signed at any point during the summer, while giving up a prospect to do so, is maddening.
As Murray continues to circle back to previous players, previous coaches, and previous ways the game should be played, his team circles the drain. As the rest of the league zigs, Murray still zags.
Randy Carlyle’s job status, Kesler’s usage vis-a-vis productivity and these bizarre, contradictory player acquisitions are all part of the same problem, and that problem falls under the umbrella of the one who runs the front office.
Should Murray be in fear of losing his job? Probably not. He signed a two-year extension last month and the Ducks are a franchise reluctant to spend money, especially when it comes to paying the unemployed (don’t be surprised if that’s a small reason why Carlyle, with time left on his contract, is still around).
If the Ducks are a sinking ship, Murray is the captain. As unrealistic as it may be, maybe it’s time for a change. After the Ducks were swept by San Jose, I wrote that the team’s reputation as the NHL’s bully was essentially fool’s gold and that that was no fashion in which to win Stanley Cups anymore. Little did I know that in less than a year, the Ducks, their stubborn coach and infinitely loyal general manager would become the embarrassment of the league. Don’t let Thursday’s win over Minnesota fool you — while the winless streak is over, the Ducks remain an extremely flawed team with questionable leadership.
This is your show, Bob, and maybe it’s time to play you off the stage.