It’s clear the Ottawa Senators will have a dogfight on their hands to get into the playoffs this season. When people dissect what's happened to this club, they often lament the ones that got away - players that they wish were still here. Topping that list is Zdeno Chara. Before Chara ever got to free agency in 2006, history tells us the Sens should have made him the NHL’s highest paid defenceman and allowed Wade Redden to walk. Everybody knows that.
But Chara may not have been the most important Senator asset to get away. I’m starting to think it may have been Peter Chiarelli.
Chiarelli was widely regarded as a hotshot GM-in-waiting here in Ottawa. He was the club's assistant GM, a rare breed with hockey brains (a standout collegiate player at Harvard) and ivy league business brains (an economics major). The perfect combo for the NHL’s new salary cap world.
However, Chiarelli was stuck behind then Senators’ GM John Muckler. He was ready to be a GM and the Bruins job was available. So, in July 2006, not unlike the Chara-Redden decision, the Sens chose to retain Muckler instead of Chiarelli.
The Sens allowed Chiarelli to bolt to Boston then fired Muckler one year later.
With Muckler out, they turned to Bryan Murray, their head coach and also a very capable GM. Since then, Murray, like most NHL managers, has been outperformed by Chiarelli. Besides that, Murray is now 66 and retirement looms.
Chiarelli’s first order of business in Boston? He signed Chara, whom he’d watched for several years in Ottawa. He then grabbed a fellow Ottawa native, horribly underrated Atlanta sniper Marc Savard. Chiarelli then had a monster draft in ‘06, selecting Milan Lucic and Phil Kessel.
He further bolstered team defence by aquiring Dennis Wideman, Andrew Ference, Aaron Ward and Manny Fernandez.
It’s still early but Boston now has the best team in the East at 18-4-4. I’ve seen enough to know that the Sens, with their aging hockey brain trust, probably should have been taken care of Chiarelli just as they would an early first round draft pick. They should have paid him GM money to stay as an assistant with a guarantee he's next in line.