Senators know when teams struggle, trade winds blow

The NHL’s Christmas roster freeze was to kick in at midnight Thursday, meaning general manager Bryan Murray’s hands are tied on the trade front.

Senators know when teams struggle, trade winds blow
Bryan Murray. (Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen)

“There’s no ultimatums. There’s no threats. But there’s a definite understanding that if we don’t start playing better, it could be you out the door. It could be any one of us. And when you don’t win, that’s what happens. We put ourselves in this situation and we’re the only ones who can get ourselves out of it. But we understand that’s part of the game.”

— Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza

The NHL’s Christmas roster freeze was to kick in at midnight Thursday, meaning general manager Bryan Murray’s hands are tied on the trade front.

For now.

Rest assured, Murray’s mind won’t be idle during the weeklong trade embargo. The arrival of Boxing Day could signal the departure of a household name.

The mental gears are clicking as Murray tries to find a way to make the pieces fit on what has been a dysfunctional club. The problems of the first 20 games didn’t go away after 30 games or disappear after 35 games.

Patience is running out. Murray has already played the “I-won’t-take-this-crap-any-longer” trump card, blasting the team in the celebrated post-game dressing room address in New Jersey Wednesday.

The angst only grew following Thursday’s defeat to the Florida Panthers, as the Senators ended up with nothing to show for games on consecutive nights.

The players are on alert. They know the general manager can’t go down the same dressing room intervention road again and the next logical step is for bodies to be shipped out.

It’s not a fun feeling, according to Bobby Ryan, who spent all of last season wondering if his next day in Anaheim could be his last. Yet it’s also the nature of the beast when expectations aren’t met.

“Change is inevitable when things like this happen,” Ryan said before Thursday’s game. “I wouldn’t be surprised if something happened. And guys wouldn’t be surprised in the room, right? I think guys would understand that’s the way the game goes if you’re not performing.”

There are two avenues the Senators can take. One route is minor. The other is major.

The short-term — perhaps predictable — fix goes something like this: acquiring an experienced, reliable defenceman who can put a Band-Aid on at least some of the nightly bleeding inside their own zone.

Rostislav Klesla of the Phoenix Coyotes is the type of player who could be an option, but his $2.9 million U.S. contract is a tad heavy for the tight-budget Senators.

Klesla has been on a yo-yo ride between Phoenix and Portland of the American Hockey League this season, no longer a big part of coach Dave Tippett’s plans. If the Senators were willing to take on the salary — hello, Eugene Melnyk — they may be able to get away with trading a third or fourth liner or a bottom end defenceman, rather than parting with a high-end prospect or top draft pick. We know Murray floated the names Erik Condra, Colin Greening and Eric Gryba when pursuing Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers earlier this season.

Now, it doesn’t have to be Klesla, of course, but now that we’re fast approaching the mid-point of the season, it’s painfully obvious that a defenceman with more consistency and experience is needed in front of the goaltending tandem of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner.

Lehner says he was “flying everywhere because there was always something dangerous in close” during Wednesday’s loss to New Jersey. It’s not new. Lehner began the year facing 50-plus shots a couple of times.

Again, that’s simply a stopgap possibility, in the hopes the Senators can eventually string together something to earn themselves a playoff spot in the ridiculously weak Eastern Conference.

Then there’s the big picture, where-is-the-organization-going discussion.

Spezza himself said Thursday that anybody is a candidate to be moved.

Taking a look into the not-so-distant future — Spezza will be making $7 million next season in the final year of his seven-year, $49 million contract next season — what about the possibility of trading the captain to a Western Conference squad looking to load up for a long playoff run?

What if a team was willing to offer up a first-round draft choice in return, allowing the Senators to recoup the first rounder they lost to Anaheim in the Bobby Ryan trade? Could it open the door for Curtis Lazar, the Edmonton Oil Kings star who appears to own first-line status on Canada’s world junior team, to develop a bit faster in the organization next season?

Those questions are all moot unless Spezza is willing to waive his no-trade clause — Murray experienced endless headaches because neither Wade Redden nor Dany Heatley would sign off on potential deals — but nothing should be completely ruled out in a year that has so far gone nowhere near according to plan.

Murray has never been afraid to explore out-of-the-box trade ideas. A few years back, he pitched the idea of dealing the goaltending tandem of Ray Emery and Martin Gerber to Chicago in exchange for the Blackhawks tandem of Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime.

Adding to the intrigue of what happens next for the Senators is the fact Murray is in limbo himself, without a contract beyond this season.

Yet his loud and pointed words late Wednesday are an indication that his passion and competitive spirit is alive and well.

There will be action.

Twitter.com/Citizenkwarren

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