Heading ever closer to the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline, Senators general manager Bryan Murray makes several points clear:
1. He might have made his biggest deal already, bringing in centre Kyle Turris from Phoenix in a trade for defenceman David Rundblad.
2. With any depth additions for a playoff run, he’d rather acquire a younger player with upside than a veteran spring rental.
3. Murray respects the chemistry and rejuvenated atmosphere of the Senators dressing room, and will only add a player he knows will mesh with the group he has.
4. Murray won’t part with pending unrestricted free agent defenceman Filip Kuba unless some GM makes a very enticing offer.
“I think he’s one of our best defencemen, if not the steadiest guy at this point and time,” Murray said on Tuesday to Ottawa media at Scotiabank Place. “He’s played penalty killing, power play, has been Erik Karlsson’s partner, plays a lot of minutes, has great respect on the team, I’m not sure why his name has ever come but at this time . . . unless I got something awfully, awfully good, it wouldn’t do us any service to not keep him here.”
Kuba’s name has come up, of course, because the 35-year-old is about to become a free agent and the Senators have made no push to re-sign him.
It’s a shame the contract of Sergei Gonchar isn’t expiring instead of that of Kuba, who has quite simply been Ottawa’s comeback player of the year.
Playing about 23.5 minutes per game, Kuba is second only to Karlsson in minutes played, leads the Senators in plus-minus at plus 16, and has been an exceptionally steady partner for the free-wheeling Karlsson.
After breaking his leg in the pre-season of 2010-11, Kuba came back to play 64 games but struggled to regain his conditioning and was a minus-26 player, maligned as a $3.7-million ticket. The contract doesn’t look nearly as imposing in its final weeks, and Murray should get some interesting offers for Kuba. (Gonchar, the Senators would love to unload, if there are takers for his $5.5-million hit next season).
Murray doesn’t mind hanging onto Kuba for this spring, to help and reward a group that has put itself in playoff contention. If Kuba stays past Monday, the Senators will likely let him go to free agency while allowing their defensive prospects to fill the void.
In case Murray needed help, club owner Eugene Melnyk has already spoken up about the team wanting to stay young while avoiding expensive contracts for older players. That doesn’t mean Murray won’t be on the lookout for any small move that might help his team this spring. A phone call to Melnyk could spring a few extra dollars as needed, Murray says.
“We’d like to be in the playoffs, and we’d like to win in the playoffs,” Murray said. “If we continue to play the way we are, we’re comparable to many, many of the good teams in this league . . . we’re a competitive team when we work hard, and we’re competitive because our back end produces a lot of points for us.”
It’s understandable why the Senators have aspirations as they look around them. The NHL might aptly rename the Eastern Conference the ‘Land of Opportunity.’
What a year for the rebuilding Senators to surprise everyone with their level of consistently strong play, Ottawa’s recent run of wins now putting a mild scare into the slumping Boston Bruins atop the Northeast Division. Just two points separate Boston (72) from Ottawa (70), and yes, the Senators have played four more games than the Stanley Cup champion-Bruins, but did anyone imagine this scenario approaching the trade deadline?
Considering their firm grip on 7th place in the conference, with a chance to move northward, the question surrounding the Senators is not whether they’ll make the playoffs, but whether they could have home ice advantage in round one.
This astonishing development is a credit to the Senators, but also made possible by the crashes of teams like Washington, Buffalo and Tampa Bay plus with the mid-season slumps of Philadelphia and Boston.
For fun, look back at the pre-season selections of the venerable hockey bible, The Hockey News, regarding the Eastern Conference. The Washington Capitals were picked for first, with the Pittsburgh Penguins second, assuming Sidney Crosby would be a participant for a lot more than the eight games he has played. The Buffalo Sabres (summer spenders) and Tampa Bay Lightning (last season’s pleasant surprise) were both expected to be playoff teams, but Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Washington are all out of the picture at the moment. The Senators were picked for 15th, which didn’t exactly create an uproar of indignation here in the Nation’s Capital.
This is why they play the games. And what has played out in Ottawa is the pleasant fallout from a young, hungry team that the rest of the league is only beginning to notice.
It makes for an intriguing weekend as Murray wades into the trading pool at the deadline, although he tempers expectations.
“I’m not sure much, if anything, will happen here,” he said. History suggests he will do something.