Monday, January 26, 2009
Clock Is Ticking On Neil And Other UFA's
Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray has to get Chris Neil under contract for next season and the longer he lets this situation go unfixed, the more Neil is likely to decide to see what kind of offers he receives this summer.
This would be a big mistake by Murray. Teams are going to be all over Neil if he hits unrestricted free agency and a modest bidding war is bound to take place.
Neil is a rare commodity in the NHL. A guy who can fight, play the game well and be a core piece of your leadership group while still in his prime at 30 years old is something that virtually every team is looking for. And he has proven that if he doesn’t have to be the heavyweight enforcer of the team, he can actually put up respectable numbers like he did in 2006 and 2007 with 16 and 12 goals respectively.
His goals plunged to only 6 last season as he was beset by injuries and was used sparingly by ex-coach John Paddock. This year Neil is spending most of his time fighting because Bryan Murray neglected to replace Brian McGrattan with a true heavyweight. That leaves Neil to take on the larger enforcers of the Eastern Conference and he has been a busy boxer.
People keep saying that there’s no need for enforcers anymore but Neil is getting into a huge scrap almost every night and fighting is actually on the increase around the league. Like it or not, fighting is still a huge part of the game and Neil is, “pound for pound”, one of the toughest in the league as Georges Laraque said earlier this season.
If you could pick one player on the Senators who has consistently succeeded at his job night after night, it would have to be Chris Neil. In a lot of ways, he is the heart of the team and the only one to consistently stick up for his teammates, this year and in seasons past.
Also, wouldn't it be nice if this team could have more than just Alfie to boast about playing their whole career in one city? Great teams with tradition like the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings seem to find a way to keep players in town for the duration and Ottawa has a chance to do just that with a handful of its current players.
Chris Phillips has already played 743 games for the Senators but is still a ways back of Wade Redden who is second all-time with 838 games. Mike Fisher just recently passed the 500 mark and Neil is right behind him with 488.
These players would all be willing to stay long-term (in a small, frigid and highly taxed Canadian city no less) and other teams would be lucky to be in the same position. Fans seem to have a bad case of ADD, wanting change just for change's sake but building tradition and loyalty takes a while to cultivate. Having a core of players stay in town for a long time certainly helps accelerate that process (it would also be nice if the Senators just chose a logo and a sweater and stuck with it for more than 5 years).
I’m not saying Murray should break the bank but Neil will probably accept something in the 2 – 2.25 million range to stay with the only team he’s ever known and with his best buddy Fisher.
Why take a chance on losing a valuable commodity like Neil? There is not a lot of skill in the minors so this team will have to grind it out for the next few seasons and who better to have on your side than one of the most physical players in the league?
Get it done, Bryan.
Speaking of unrestricted free-agents, what are the chances of both Filip Kuba and Dean McAmmond returning to the Senators next season?
Murray will have to think twice about re-signing Kuba at his current salary (3 million) and there’s no doubt Kuba will be expecting a healthy raise after putting up some significant numbers so far.
It’s a bit of a lose-lose situation for Murray because if he loses Kuba, he’s really got a hole to fill on defense and we all saw what happened when Kuba missed the entire disastrous road trip over Christmas.
Yet “Kubes” is probably not dynamic enough with the puck to warrant a big raise on his current contract. You’d like to think you could get a better power-play quarterback with that money but there’s no guarantees in free-agency.
We all saw what happened with Brian Campbell last summer. Murray pinned his hopes on Campbell and struck out badly. Then he lost Andrej Meszaros to an alleged "offer sheet" that never existed (and never could have because Tampa did not own all its picks needed for compensation to Ottawa) and voila – you have a lower echelon defense in a matter of months.
Losing Kuba for nothing in the summer would only exacerbate the situation so look for Murray to move him at the deadline to the highest bidder.
Kuba should be able to bring in a valuable prospect or a young established player in such a deal. He’s the perfect deadline pick-up for a team looking for stability. See Larry Murphy getting traded to Detroit in 97 as a good example of that. Kuba can be that type of difference maker in the short-term but as your stand alone number one defenseman he is definitely not the answer.
McAmmond has been a good player for the Senators but they are going to make room for some younger players like Zack Smith, Peter Regin and Ilya Zubov going forward. McAmmond would also be attractive for a lot of teams at the deadline but would probably only bring in a pittance compared to Kuba.
A lot of people will probably begin speculating about Jason Smith getting traded but I got a hunch that Murray will hang on to the veteran (who has 1 year remaining on his contract), not only because he's a proven leader (and you need leaders as much as young players in a situation the Senators find themselves) but because Murray will be loading up to make the playoffs next year and Smith is a guy built for the post-season.
In fact, you can probably already pencil in Smith, Anton Volchenkov, Chris Phillips and Brian Lee for next year. If some good puck movers can be found, I'd guess that would put players such as Alex Picard, Christoph Schubert and Brendan Bell under the gun.
Those roster spots can be much better used.
Why would anyone do Ottawa a favour and take Martin Gerber off of their hands when 29 other teams already passed on Dany Sabourin just a week ago?
Everybody is talking about the Flames but Mike Keenan would eat Gerber alive, which would be much nicer than what he did to some of his past goalies. The afternoon drive show on the Team 1200 was all abuzz with the rumours and were doing a bit of revisionist history, claiming that Gerber would be a fantastic back-up goalie.
He wasn't a good one here.