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MacGregor: Improved play has Senators thinking playoffs and beyond

They dream big in this town.

The Prime Minister sees another majority, the opposition leaders see their own victories, the mayor's digging a transit way, the new football club is within reach of the Grey Cup – and the Ottawa Senators are thinking parade.

Amazing what a few wins can do to the human imagination.

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After going an impressive 6-2-2 over the past 10 games, the once-impossible, consistently-inconsistent Senators of 2013-14 have moved to within a single victory of the final playoff spot in the NHL's Eastern Conference.

Whereas a month ago, heads were sure to roll, on Monday, it was dice they rolled instead – betting the local hockey team can at least challenge for, if not win, the Stanley Cup over the next two years.

The big talk came out of an announcement that Bryan Murray, 71, has signed a four-year extension contract with owner Eugene Melnyk. For the next two years, Murray will remain general manager; for the two after that, he will serve as an adviser; and then, at 75, he might take up golf. Maybe.

The team rebuild, now into its third season, is considered to be enough on course that Murray said his priority would be to polish "a team that we hope can bring a championship to Ottawa. The objective is to do it when I am here as general manager."

Melnyk added his own dream was to see Murray walk away from the GM's post with a Stanley Cup.

This is a high order in this country, given no Canadian team has won hockey's greatest prize since the Montreal Canadiens raised the Cup in 1993. And it may well be getting tougher. The Senators lasted longer than any other Canadian team in last year's playoffs, but still could not make it even half way.

The blue-chip free agents appear reluctant to come to Canada, whether for reasons of weather, taxes, media scrutiny or spousal preference. The salary cap is on the way up; the Canadian dollar on the way down.

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"We think we have all the core group in place," Melnyk told reporters on a conference call. "I think if we're on the same trajectory as we have been over the last few years that it's ultimately going to lead to a championship-type team."

Murray had been expected to retire after a couple of recent seasons but had been taking it "year-by-year" with the presumption being his nephew, Tim Murray, would take over at some point.

Tim Murray, however, was named GM of the Buffalo Sabres this week. That appeared to prompt Melnyk and Bryan Murray to work out a definite contract and elevate two long-time staffers, scout Pierre Dorion and Randy Lee, director of hockey operations and player development, to assistant GM status.

Murray's immediate priority is to make some sort of deal that might shore up what had been a porous defence. Promoting 20-year-old Cody Ceci from the team's AHL affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., has been hugely successful – "We can't get him out of the lineup," the GM said – but Murray says he'd like another skilled presence on the blueline. "We are available to make a deal."

He will also be soon entering into discussions on key contract extensions for two or more of the team's core players. Five key Senators – goaltender Craig Anderson, captain Jason Spezza, defenceman Marc Methot and top forwards Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur – are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2015.

The Senators have no first-round draft pick this year (that prize having been lost in the Ryan trade with the Anaheim Ducks) and two of Murray's star draft picks – James Norris Memorial Trophy-winning defenceman Erik Karlsson and 18-year-old Curtis Lazar (with the Edmonton Oil Kings) – are considered off-limits.

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Anything else is a possibility.

Murray's overriding concern has to be budget. The Senators are well under the current cap at roughly $56-million (U.S.) and that cap will be $71.1-million next season.

Melnyk told The Ottawa Citizen last year he had lost $94-million since he hauled the Senators out of bankruptcy in 2003, and claimed that losses are running at approximately $10-million a year.

With the Canadian dollar falling, Melnyk is trusting his team's strategy of hedging on funds will see them through, but he acknowledged the slipping dollar remains "a definite risk in our market."

But what are money worries when you're winning?

"We've turned things around," a happy Melnyk said. "If this just continues on, you never know what can happen …"

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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