Saturday, January 1, 2011

Senators Hit Rock Bottom In Awful Season... Changes Around The Corner

One more loss in a season that's already on the trash heap.

One more embarrassing loss to the hated Toronto Maple Leafs in Ottawa's own rink.

At this point, one more loss is basically meaningless, but it does start to push this bad-luck (and just plain bad) Ottawa Senators team to the point where everyone involved can't help but think of the future, and more importantly, who will and who won't be coming back.

And with the trade deadline not far away now, a lot of these clearly defeated players won't make it to the end of the season in a Senators uniform. Possibly even the coaching staff won't if Clouston can't even inspire a heartbeat in his team for a pride on the line game against the Leafs.

That's how bad it is right now.

So much for New Years cheer.

The Senators have five pending unrestricted free agents who are regulars on their roster, and it's now safe to say that at least four of them won't be returning next season: Pascal Leclaire, Alexei Kovalev, Jarkko Ruutu and Ryan Shannon. They're as good as gone, one way or the other.

GM Bryan Murray (if he somehow keeps his job) will be trying to convert all of these assets into some kind of return at the trade deadline, even if it's just a late round pick. Leclaire is all but untradeable but there should be at least some interest in the other three UFA's.

The fifth UFA is lifelong Senator Chris Phillips and he is the only one who has a chance to return next season. With they way things have turned out this, partly due to the struggles of Sergei Gonchar and Erik Karlsson (early on in the season only) combined with the multiple injuries to Filip Kuba, Phillips has played way too many hard minutes this season and it's starting to eat away at his confidence. Phillips has always been best as an anchor on the second pairing but now, along with Matt Carkner, he's the only defensive defenseman left on that back end and now he's fighting the puck, resulting in uncharacteristic giveaways. But what are the Senators supposed to do? They have to play Phillips into the ground because he's all they have.

As much criticism as Phillips is getting this year, imagine if his minutes were being played by anyone else on this defense? If Bryan Murray can somehow fix Gonchar or bring in another player to take some defensive heat off, then Phillips is definitely worth bringing back. Whether that happens or not is a big question. Of all their pending UFA's, Phillips would bring back the most in a trade. And there's your problem.

Murray watched Anton Volchenkov walk away for nothing even though he had a chance to move him at the deadline. He may not want to make the same mistake with Phillips, but then again, the Senators don't want to see another life-long Senator and his veteran leadership leave the team. Not re-signing Volchenkov was clearly a big mistake by Murray, but then you could say not trading him when he had the chance was just as bad. It's the exact same situation with Phillips all over again.

The stakes are high to say the least. If I had money on it, I'd say Phillips stays and gets re-signed to a three or four year deal before July 1st. Just a hunch.

Which brings us to Filip Kuba. With a group of youngsters like Jared Cowen, David Rundblad and Patrick Wiercioch, there's no room here (or desire) to keep both Phillips and Kuba. Yet Kuba is the skater with one more year on his deal, not Phillips. Gonchar is going to be hard to move because he's playing terrible and he's on a 35+ contract for the next two seasons. It's doubtful he's going anywhere, or possibly thinking of retiring with the Russian Olympic games coming up very soon. Even if he did retire, the Senators would still be paying him and eating valuable cap space.

So here's saying it's Kuba leaving in the off-season. He's been steady but never really excelled that much ever since the Senators thoughtlessly moved a young defenseman in Andrej Meszaros for him due to a contract squabble. Meszaros, as most young defenseman do, went through some expected growing pains with Tampa but now leads the NHL in plus/minus for the Flyers, plays over twenty minutes a game and has a cap hit of 4 million, just $300,000 more than Kuba - basically peanuts.

Kuba is a much better player than he's showing this season and is definitely still feeling the effects of some major injuries. A lot of GM's would still be interested in the all-around game Kuba can provide when healthy and with only one more year left on his deal, it's conceivable Murray may be able to move him in the summer, or perhaps as early as this trade deadline.

Another player under the gun will be Brian Elliott, who continues to show that he is not capable of being consistent over a long span of games. Even if Robin Lehner is not ready as early as next season, it doesn't mean the organization will just ride Elliott one more season. That just won't work anymore. He's a restricted free agent, and no doubt will get a qualifying offer, but the Senators would certainly like to bring in an established veteran rather than cross their fingers yet again that Elliott will find that consistency everybody has been waiting for. Elliott will still be cheap enough to be a backup goalie, but unless Lehner can't be denied anymore, look for a change in the crease. Tomas Vokoun is unrestricted this summer. So is Ilya Bryzgalov. Either might be a fit if they take less than 4 million on a very short term deal. And there's certainly no guarantee either would, with Vokoun likely being the cheaper option of the two.

Of course, if the Senators decided that a complete rebuild is necessary, no one is safe, except for maybe Erik Karlsson.

But the team may decide to just do a quick blood transfusion. If you count Kovalev, Leclaire, Ruutu and Shannon as already gone, it wouldn't be a stretch to also see an RFA like Chris Campoli get moved, along with the aforementioned Kuba and Elliott and of course the constantly embattled Brian Lee who needs a fresh start somewhere else. Right there you have eight players on the move with both cap space and most likely draft picks or new roster players coming back. That would mean a lot of core guys return but with a completely new supporting staff.

And that's not even including the expected change in the coaching staff, none of whom have contracts for next season.

Basically, it's possible to change the look of the team without burning it to the ground. But then again, a lot of people might suggest doing just that.

What's certain is that everyone's future on this team will be debated fiercely in the coming months while the season continues to slip away.

NOTES

As tough as it is to say, Clouston sitting Jarkko Ruutu in favour of Bingo call-up Jim O'Brien for the last two games was the right move. It was refreshing to see someone skate north-south all game long and battle viciously for pucks the way O'Brien did on Friday night against Columbus (he wasn't as noticeable against the Leafs). Ironically, that's what Ruutu was once good at but you have to wonder if all the losing has taken the edge off of Ruutu's game. He's not even much of a pest this year. He will certainly look good to a lot of teams come the trade deadline and here's betting that a little playoff action will restore Ruutu's spirits. But as it stands right now, he's not going to be on the Senators next season. Might as well get a young guy like O'Brien in there and see what he's got. One thing you also like to have about O'Brien is his size. He just looks big out there and when he's moving, it's like a train derailing. He's got a bit of a Mike Ricci thing going on too. The Senators may want to keep him around for a bit longer to see how he progresses........Nice to see Matt Carkner getting a little facetime on the groundbreaking and very popular 24/7 HBO series. In the third episode, they showed a close-up of Carkner pummeling Eric Godard of the Penguins on Boxing Day and the immediate aftermath on Godard's face in the dressing room afterwards. Not bad for a guy once destined to play his entire career in the minors..... Nearly everyone playing in the East is bidding a fond farewell to Maxim Lapierre, recently traded from the Habs to the Anaheim Ducks, about as far away as he could go in the NHL from Montreal. Not many players are more hated than Lappy, who apparently wasn't happy with coach Jacques Martin. With Lapierre and P.K. Subban, that was just too much personality for a Martin coached team. At least one of them had to go.......Andy Sutton has had an up and down season in Anaheim, but one teammate, youngster Luca Sbisa, is learning a lot from the veteran on and off the ice and took time to send some kudos his way recently. It's interesting to wonder how this Senators team would have looked early on if Sutton was back there bashing heads instead of Filip Kuba this season. But I'm no expert or anything..... Calgary Herald writer George Johnson perfectly summed up the atmosphere in the Calgary rink after the dour Darryl Sutter was finally put out of his misery as Flames GM.

"The mood around the rest of ol' Dome wasn't nearly so sombre. Walking through the catacombs, winks. Smiles. It was as if ... the Berlin Wall had just fallen. One employee said it felt as if the building itself has just enjoyed a huge exhale."

Was Sutter really that grumpy? The real sad thing in all of this is that Sutter was allowed to guide this team into free agency this past summer when it was clear that he had already done some major damage with the terrible Dion Phaneuf trade and the equally ridiculous Matt Stajan contract. But as they say, better late than never. Sutter was, and is, an excellent hockey man (better as a coach) but he seemed to be stuck in pre-lockout hockey. No doubt the Flames suffered for it and now they have an aging Jarome Iginla without a real team around him. If you want to look at it fairly, the Senators are in a similar situation with Daniel Alfredsson, maybe worse with Alfie's age, but at least Ottawa has Erik Karlsson, Robin Lehner and a handful of can't miss defense prospects in the system. The Flames can't boast of a similar hope. It could get ugly for a long time there unless Jay Feaster finds a way to turn the whole thing around. On a side note, it must sting Sutter a little that Feaster is the one taking his job, seeing that Feaster is the one with the Stanley Cup ring after their battle back in 2004 between the Flames and the Lightning.....

Happy New Years

4 comments:

Sens said...

Why keep any of them around?

For the experience? You can get that from a free agent signing or trade.
For the great stories of first or second round flops, culminating in a five game embarassment to the Ducks?

This team needs some leadership in a massive, massive, massive way. I'm sorry, I like Alfredsson but his constant "I don't know, I don't think so, Not really" style is giving me hives. Come out there, lay down the law, put your foot down and speak your mind. Drop a bomb in the media if you have to but can you at least look the LEAST bit pissed off, instead of like someone that just finished a shopping run at K-Way?

Neil rarely fights anymore, Phillips can't defend, Fisher hasn't been the same since Delilah took his locks.

SO far, the only reasons I see for keeping this group together is that they don't want to get into their comfort zones, and for the team-related experience and history.

Sorry, neither of those are good enough. Take a hammer to this roster, bring in some spit & vinegar guys that will fight tooth & nail to win every night, say goodbye to the Kanata Boys Club.

Sens said...

Also, Phillips to a 3-4 year deal?

PLEASE NO.

We don't need any more old, immobile, defensevile porous rearguards than we have already.
Cut the cord with average players, replace them with young players that are cheaper and have more speed and stamina and upside!

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Gonchar, were he to retire, would not continue to be paid. His salary would count against the cap for the duration of the contrect, but there's no way he would still be paid the entire time. If that is actually the case, that is shocking.

Jeremy Milks said...

Anonymous, I was talking about the cap space, not actual salary being paid out.