At this time last year, the Ottawa Senators appeared loaded with defence prospects, but were deemed a tad thin up front.
Now, as the organization comes to terms with the dream season that died in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, the biggest issues for GM Bryan Murray during the summer are centered around the club’s defence.
There are only three experienced NHL defencemen under contract for the 2012-13 season: Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips and Jared Cowen. The once highly-touted David Rundblad is long gone to the Phoenix Coyotes, in the Kyle Turris trade.
The Senators aren’t going to let pending restricted free agent Erik Karlsson get away, of course. Despite his uneven playoff performance – the New York Rangers barely forechecked when Karlsson was on the ice, successfully clogging up the neutral zone to counter his speed – Karlsson will strike it rich, regardless of whether he wins the Norris Trophy or not. There’s a distinct possibility that Karlsson, who turns 22 on May 30, will become a $6 million man annually, most likely receiving a long-term contract.
To this point, anyway, negotiations between Murray and Craig Oster, Karlsson’s agent, have been cordial.
Karlsson, however, is most likely going to lose his safety valve, defence partner Filip Kuba, who becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1. Considering that Murray will need to open the vault to re-sign Karlsson, it’s unlikely the Senators will be able to keep Kuba.
The physical Matt Carkner and Matt Gilroy, who came to the Senators from Tampa Bay in the trade deadline deal for Brian Lee, are also pending unrestricted free agents.
Many fans will always have a soft spot for Carkner because his style of play provides protection for the team’s skilled players, but his health and mobility are concerns. Carkner played most of the year with an ailing knee and that’s believed to be why he couldn’t play in Game 7 against the Rangers.
Gilroy, meanwhile, displayed defensive flaws and didn’t produce offensively. The Senators were hoping he was an upgrade on Lee. He wasn’t. It’s not likely he will be back.
So, who steps into the void?
The Senators are high on Mark Borowiecki, the 22-year-old Kanata native, who worked his way into a top position with Binghamton due to his sound defensive play and physical edge. Borowiecki (pronounced Bohr-vee-yet-skee) played two games with the Senators during the regular season, could serve as the replacement for Carkner. Patrick Wiercioch, drafted 42nd overall by the Senators in 2009, will get a look, but after a disappointing, injury-plagued season with Binghamton, the Senators would likely want to see him become a dominant AHL defenceman before giving him a full-time NHL job.
Add it all up and you might suspect the Senators would be looking to take a defenceman in the first round at the NHL entry draft in June, even though a mid-round selection wouldn’t be expected to make the big-league immediately. You can also expect Murray to be looking for a veteran defenceman or two during free agency or through a trade.
That’s where the forward depth in the organization becomes so valuable.
Putting aside, for now, the question of whether Daniel Alfredsson chooses to retire – he has one year remaining on his contract – the Senators have few contract question marks up front.
Nick Foligno and Jim O’Brien are restricted free agents and both are expected to be re-signed. The bonus for O’Brien is that he’ll likely secure a guaranteed NHL contract after earning the trust of coach Paul MacLean.
The good news for the Senators is that there are few openings for all their incoming young forwards who are on two-way contracts, guaranteeing them only an NHL salary if they’re with the team. That group includes Jakob Silfverberg, Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad, Stefan Noesen, Andre Petersson, Mike Hoffman and Matt Puempel. Shane Prince of the Ottawa 67′s and Jean-Gabriel Pageau of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens are unsigned prospects. The Senators must decide what to do with Bobby Butler, who is guaranteed $1.05 million next season, because his status on the depth chart has slipped behind Silfverberg and Stone.
Considering all the young forwards, unrestricted free agents Jesse Winchester, Zenon Konopka and Rob Klinkhammer might not be re-signed. Kaspars Daugavins is a restricted free agent. Amazingly, there’s no guarantee that Peter Regin and Stephane Da Costa will be re-signed as restricted free agents. The two of them began the season battling for the second-line centre spot which has since been filled by Turris. Regin suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in November and Da Costa finished out the season with Binghamton after his 22-game trial with Ottawa. That duel now seems like ancient history with everything else that happened since. Looking ahead, a summer trade of a forward or two for an established defenceman appears to be a distinct possibility.
Pending Unrestricted Free Agents: D Filip Kuba, C Jesse Winchester, D Matt Carkner, D Zenon Konopka, D Matt Gilroy, F Rob Klinkhammer, C Corey Locke
Pending Restricted Free Agents: D Erik Karlsson, C Peter Regin, F Kaspars Daugavins, C Stephane Da Costa, D Erik Gryba, D Craig Shira