It’s shaping up to be a particularly busy offseason for the Ottawa Senators, and one of the most important in recent memory.
After winning the Matt O’Connor sweepstakes and signing Andrew Hammond to a three-year deal, the Senators’ summer is already off to an exciting start. But the offseason isn’t just going to be filled with feel-good signings. At least, it shouldn’t.
Assuming the NHL’s salary cap will be $71 million next year like Gary Bettman estimated earlier this week, Ottawa currently has $9 million to work with. And seeing as they have typically spent much less than the cap, that number will likely be a lot lower.
That spells trouble for the numerous unrestricted and restricted free agents on the roster that are looking to sign with the club.
Unless the Senators rid themselves of poor contracts and long-serving players who have overstayed their welcome – something they’ve refused to do the past few years – the success they saw with their young players at the end of the year will be lost.
Under Performing Veterans
To an outsider, Chris Neil and Chris Phillips might be seen as two franchise players that were candidates for Ottawa’s captaincy less than a year ago; cherished and respected.
But to one who has had to bear witness to their decline over the last five years, it’s only fitting that this season, the Senators went 20-4-3 when neither of the team’s lowly veterans were in the lineup. Yes, the team was incredibly successful without the help of Neil and Phillips, and it was surprising to no one.
Together, they are $4.4 million worth of salary, but it’s the roster spots they take up that seem more of an important issue.
In Neil’s absence, a new checking line of Curtis Lazar, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Erik Condra evolved and they were ever so impactful, creating a go-to trio that the team could rely on immediately after a goal or in the dying seconds of a close game.
While Phillips was out, it gave Patrick Wiercioch an opportunity to solidify a place in the lineup which he had been deserving of for quite some time. And if there’s anyone who still doubts Wiercioch’s ability, maybe his World Hockey Championship gold medal can convince them otherwise.
Neil and Phillips each have one year left on their contracts, and that’s why moving them in any way might be hard for Bryan Murray and company to do. Not that it would be difficult to find a team to trade them away for a 7th round pick, but that management has had a hard time letting go of their older players ever since the Daniel Alfredsson debacle when the Senators saw their beloved captain leave for a year with the Detroit Red Wings.
They’ve got it all wrong though. Where Alfredsson was a valuable player and also a fan favourite, Neil and Phillips don’t merit that same irreplaceable image.
Right now, their mere presence is preventing a younger, more talented player from claiming a roster spot. It’s a hard truth to swallow, especially when Neil and Phillips have been such a huge part of the team for a combined 30 years, but it’s what is holding the Senators back from reaching their full potential.
For a team that once offered Jared Cowen an eight-year deal, it’s safe to say the Senators have their fair share of dreadful contracts.
Speaking of Cowen; the 24-year-old is set to be the third highest paid defenseman on the team, earning $3.7 million in the 2015-16 season. That’s a lot of cap space being taken up by a player who was a healthy scratch in 23 regular season games and an entire playoff series.
Though Cowen should be remarkably high on Murray’s list of contracts to burn, Colin Greening is the undisputed No.1.
To put things into context, the St. John’s native had one point in 26 games this season. That one point was an empty-netter goal against the Buffalo Sabres in which the puck never actually went in the net. Greening was tripped on a breakaway and therefore was given an automatic goal. You couldn’t make this up.
While Greening will only make $2.75 million next season, David Legwand will rake in $3.5 million. For a player who was seen to be slotted in as Ottawa’s No.2 centre at the start of the season only to spend most of his ice time on the fourth line, Legwand’s miscast as a top six forward has badly hurt the Senators.
While Legwand was supposed to bring somewhat of a scoring touch to the Senators’ offence, it was extremely disappointing to see him only score three even strength goals in 80 games.
Make Room for Free Agents
If the Senators want to keep the core of players that were responsible for their unbelievable Cinderella run to the playoffs, they’re going to have to be awfully close to the cap. Mika Zibanejad, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman are all RFAs this summer and most of them won’t exactly be cheap. Add on the desired talents of UFA Erik Condra, and you’ve got quite the financial logjam.
Oh, and Alex Chiasson. But maybe worry about the other guys first.
It’s ever so obvious what the Senators should do in this situation. It’s what they’re going to do that is a complete mystery.
The youth movement is alive and well in Ottawa, but the organization needs to first realize it, then act accordingly. Losing Hoffman to the open market in exchange for Neil having one last year in a Senators uniform is the kind of decision that is easy to make for emotional purposes, but detrimental to building a playoff team.
It’s been a long time coming for the Senators to exchange their poor contracts for promising ones; trade in overwhelmed veterans for determined youngsters.
We’re now only stuck wondering if they have the guts to do it.