Warren: Kuba, Gonchar questions must be answered soon

For the Ottawa Senators and Erik Karlsson, the serious discussions about what he’s worth won’t happen until well after the free-agent frenzy in early July. That’s about the same time as the NHL and the players’ association will be rolling up their sleeves to reach an agreement on how to fairly divide up the league’s revenues.

Warren: Kuba, Gonchar questions must be answered soon

For the Ottawa Senators and Erik Karlsson, the serious discussions about what he’s worth won’t happen until well after the free-agent frenzy in early July. That’s about the same time as the NHL and the players’ association will be rolling up their sleeves to reach an agreement on how to fairly divide up the league’s revenues.

While all that negotiating nastiness is on the backburner, Senators general manager Bryan Murray is facing some rather pivotal decisions in the next few weeks about how to surround his marquee blue-liner.

Do you adopt the if-it’s-not-broken-don’t-fix-it model or gamble that the grass will be greener with a high-profile new face or two?

The Senators must decide whether to re-sign pending unrestricted free agent Filip Kuba, who delivered an impressive comeback season in 2011-12, serving as Karlsson’s defence partner and safety valve.

At this point, there have been no discussions between the Senators and Kuba’s agent, Rich Evans, but talks must begin soon. Kuba scored six goals and 26 assists, picking up some free points by playing alongside Karlsson and finished ninth in the NHL with a plus/minus figure of plus-26.

A starting point might be the three-year, $10.125-million U.S. deal Johnny Oduya received from the Chicago Blackhawks last week. Kuba delivers more offence, but the Blackhawks played Oduya 23 minutes per game in the playoffs, just shy of the 23:30 that Kuba averaged in both the regular season and playoffs. Kuba is coming off a three-year, $11.1-million deal, which also featured a terrible, injury filled 2010-11 season that began with him suffering a broken leg in training camp.

There’s limited flash and bash in Kuba’s game — every Senators fan would like to see him be more physical — but Karlsson has clearly been more comfortable playing with Kuba than anyone else during his first three NHL seasons.

Keep in mind that Oduya is 30 years old and Kuba turns 36 in December, with Father Time closing in. Would the Senators be willing to overpay slightly — say $4 million per season — if Kuba is willing to accept a two-year deal? Kuba will likely be pursuing a three-year contract, but that final year for older players is often dangerous, because it handicaps management decisions down the road.

Which brings us to Sergei Gonchar, who is entering the final year of the three-year deal he received in July 2010. Gonchar had an uneven season and was decent in the playoffs, but his $5.5-million salary is too high. If we assume Karlsson is eventually going to land a deal paying him in the $6.5-million range per season, those two alone would be eating up roughly one-quarter of the team’s salary-cap hit last season.

Expect Murray to be aggressively selling Gonchar in advance of the NHL entry draft on June 22-23. It’s unlikely a team will take that gamble, but if the Senators are successful in somehow moving him, the return won’t be big: the benefit for the Senators in any such deal is moving the salary.

With those balls in the air, the organization is eyeing the free-agency market. At this point, Gonchar, Chris Phillips and Jared Cowen are the only returning rearguards under contract.

At season’s end, Murray talked about wanting to add a defensive defenceman. Put aside for the moment talk about Matt Carkner (the decision on whether to re-sign him as a sixth or seventh defenceman likely depends on the strength of his knees) and Kanata’s Mark Borowiecki, who will push for a spot at the bottom end of the defensive roster during training camp.

The shortlist of defencemen who could fill a top-four spot includes Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators, Brad Stuart of the Detroit Red Wings, Dennis Wideman of the Washington Capitals, Barret Jackman of the St.Louis Blues, Jason Garrison of the Florida Panthers, Matt Carle of the Philadelphia Flyers, Milan Jurcina of the New York Islanders and Shane O’Brien of the Colorado Avalanche.

Suter is the jewel of the class, scoring seven goals and 39 assists with the Predators last season and teaming up with Shea Weber to deliver the top 1-2 defence punch in the NHL. If Nashville is unsuccessful in re-signing him, all signs point to him going to Detroit as a replacement for the retired Nicklas Lidstrom. Beyond that, there are few guarantees. Speculation is that the well-rounded Stuart wants to play in California.

Once a player hits the open market, it only takes two teams to drive up his value and add years to a new contract. Carle, for instance, could secure $5 million per season on a long-term deal.

Clearly, there are questions to be asked and homework to be completed by Senators management. Before venturing too far down that road, however, you would expect the organization to get a handle on what coach Paul MacLean and Karlsson himself think of the situation.

Late in the season, MacLean suggested that Karlsson wouldn’t have developed as quickly without the support of Kuba, a comment that Kuba’s camp will surely toss back at Murray during negotiations.

They might not choose to use the expressions “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” but that is essentially the argument.

Potential unrestricted free-agent defencemen

Name Team Age GP G A Pts +/- Avg. Ice Time

Ryan Suter Nas 27 79 7 39 46 +15 26:30

Brad Stuart Det 32 81 6 15 21 +16 21:03

Dennis Wideman Was 82 11 35 46 -8 23:54

Barret Jackman StL 31 81 1 12 13 +20 20:40

Jason Garrison Fla 27 77 16 17 33 +6 23:41

Matt Carle Phi 27 82 4 34 38 +4 23:01

Milan Jurcina NYI 28 65 3 8 11 -34 18:46

Shane O’Brien Col 28 76 3 17 20 +2 19:13

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