Ottawa’s Off-Season Game Plan in relation to their forward corps can be summed up in the three letters R, F and A; as in restricted free agents. In short, Ottawa has five forwards who are all RFAs and while this is not unusual for a team, Ottawa is in a unique situation because they are both a budget team and almost all their key pieces for the future are restricted free agents and in line for large raises. Super rookies Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman as well as 2011 first round draft pick Mike Zibanejad and fan favorite/local kid Jean Gabriel Pageau are all in a position to command at least double their present salary while Alex Chaisson, acquired as part of the Spezza trade, will be able to command a raise over his entry-level contract.
While the RFA kids will command the bulk of fans’ attention this summer, they aren’t the only issue that Ottawa faces up front. Eric Condra is a UFA and will probably walk for more money, while Bryan Murray and co. have to figure out what to do with deadwood Colin Greening, their logjam at centre and an aging Chris Neil. Plus, in what seems to be a perpetual quest, Bryan Murray is looking for a top six forward and using a goalie as bait.
Interesting '30 Thought' on Senators' goaltending situation: will likely trade the guy who helps them get that top six forward.
— Graeme Nichols (@6thSens) May 10, 2015
So what does Ottawa do? Who goes and who stays?
Who Is Heading Out of Town?
The most obvious answer is Colin Greening. He has a $2.65 million cap hit and played 26 games getting one goal, by default to boot after being tripped up on a breakaway with an empty net. He spent some time in the AHL this year and Murray has made no secret that he is shopping him. He is either traded or bought out this off-season.
Colin Greening's career is at a crossroads now. Couldn't be dealt at deadline. If he can't be moved before draft, buyout coming. #Sens
— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) March 3, 2015
As mentioned above, Eric Condra most likely walks for more money somewhere else. However, the biggest decision Ottawa has to make is what to do with their logjam at centre. Currently the top three centres seem set, with Turris, Zibanejad and Pageau playing in the top nine. That leaves the forth line spot for one of David Legwand, Zack Smith or Binghamton’s Derek Grant. Legwand earning $3 million to play forth line minutes is clearly overpaying and ideally he gets moved for a draft pick in the summer. Similarly, the value proposition on Zack Smith is not clear, as he is payed $1.8 million but his 0.27 points per sixty minutes over his NHL career indicate that he doesn’t offer much offensive contribution, meaning his ability to move up to the top nine in case of injury is limited. Rather, moving Curtis Lazar from wing to centre in case of an injury to one of Turris or Zibanejad seems like a better option, meaning keeping Smith for depth reasons doesn’t make much sense. As well, RFA Derek Grant can probably be resigned for the league minimum and offers the same gritty style of play and can kill penalties just like Smith, as we saw in his twenty game tryout in 2013-2014. He doesn’t offer much offense either, but he is much cheaper. And he can do this:
Plus, Grant’s ability to play pugilist would serve as a suitable replacement for Chris Neil in the Senators’ line up. Neil is due $1.8 million this year and he effectively played himself out of the line up last year. Of the 15 Ottawa forwards to play over 20 games last year, Neil was dead last in possession stats, while scoring precisely two goals. But unlike Greening – who put up better possession numbers that Neil – it seems that there is a trade market for #25. It makes senses for Ottawa to deal Neil; they can get an asset, free up a space on the wing for one of Shane Prince or Matt Puempel, save money and, most importantly, the Sens are a better team when Neil isn’t in the line up.
Who Stays in Ottawa?
Ideally, all five of the restricted free agents. Certainly Stone, Hoffman, Pageau and Zibanejad have proved their value to the franchise and all have room to develop further. While Hoffman probably is closest to his ceiling, give his age and more one-dimensional nature of his game, what team is going to say no to a 25+ goal scorer who puts up fifty plus points? All of which makes it slightly bizarre that Murray wants to bring in another top six winger during the off-season. If we assume that a top six forward puts up about 1.7 points per sixty minutes and has positive possession numbers, then Ottawa has five clear top six forwards with Pageau and Michalek as a suitable back up options. Plus, based on a small sample size, Matt Puempel could also fill the role of super rookie/top six forward for next year. Why add another body up front when Ottawa has a more pressing need on defense?
Instead of trading for a top six forward, Murray and the Sens’ staff need to focus on keeping the effective forward core that they have, and yes, I include Chiasson in that list of effective players. The problem in keeping the band together, so to speak, is money. The Senators currently have $61 million committed in actual salary for next season. While the cap hit is only $58 million, Ottawa’s place as a budget team is well-known, so actual dollars matter. Certainly Stone, Hoffman and Zibanejad all deserve somewhere in the $3 to $5 million a year range, while Pageau and Chiasson will likely command around $2 million per year. While these are rough numbers, it will probably cost the Sens between $15 and 20 million to resign their five RFAs.
Hence why it is imperative that Ottawa makes the moves described above. Shipping Neil, Smith, Legwand, a goalie and buying out Greening, plus letting Condra walk – even if it is a bad idea – will save around $12 million (depending on which goalie goes). These projected savings don’t include a possible trade that sends Cowen out-of-town, but reasonably speaking, such a deal will involve taking on salary or signing a free agent as a replacement, so no savings there. Roster moves won’t keep Ottawa’s pay role static, but it will ensure that Melnyck can keep most of his money and he has said that he will spend when Ottawa needs to.
Well, guess what Eugene? The time to spend is now.