Seconds on the Volchenclock are ticking away. The Ottawa Senators want to retain the services of the shutdown defenceman (Sens fans want him re-signed even more than that), and Anton Volchenkov wants to cash in. Can't blame Volchenkov for looking to get his money: He plays a style that takes its physical toll, and he's got to make sure his next contract gets him a nice nest-egg to put away for retirement. At the same time, the Senators need to be careful: That very style Volchenkov plays makes it difficult to commit to him long-term, because who knows when one of those shots he blocks will damage the Android irreparably.
In an interview on the Team 1200 on Monday, GM Bryan Murray said he wasn't positive about the progress that had been made in contract negotiations with Volchenkov and his agent. Murray apparently made an offer to the pending UFA, and by the sound of the interview, it wasn't met with a positive reaction. So the GM's got a decision to make: Do you keep Volchenkov through the end of the season and the playoff run--where Volchenkov is at his best--and continue to try to negotiate with him. The longer the negotiations go on, the closer July 1 gets, and the more tempting it becomes for Volchenkov to wait it out and see what kind of money he can get on the open market.
This leads us to the underlying question: Keep Volchenkov, and hope he signs so you don't lose him for nothing, or trade him before Wednesday, and maximize the value of your current asset. Not an easy choice for Murray to have to make, to be certain, but each option has pros and cons, which I'll look at after the jump.
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Option 1: Give the man what he wants
There's no question Volchenkov is valuable to this team. The guy blocks shots in preseason games, for crying out loud; he gives everything he has for the team that he's playing for. He won't put up many points--he's got less than 100 points over seven NHL seasons--but his contributions without the puck are valuable. So you sign him to what he wants, probably a deal in Mike Komisarek-range, a five-year contract worth $22.5M, and you make it work.
Option 2: Keep him
Hold on to Volchenkov. Will we get him re-signed to a contract by the time the trade deadline comes around? Seems unlikely, but there's still a few months to get into earnest negotiations. Most importantly, you hold on to a huge part of your top shutdown tandem; Volchenkov and partner Chris Phillips have shut down the best in the league night in and night out, and they do it effectively. Although the Senators are still going through an on-the-fly rebuild, the recent success of this team has demonstrated that they can compete with every team in the Eastern Conference, and would hold up well in a seven-game series against any of them.
In his time with the Senators, Murray has let three notable free agent walk away from the Senators: Wade Redden, Mike Commodore, and Cory Stillman. The first two went on to sign what have largely been seen as ridiculously inflated contracts, Redden getting $39M over six years from the New York Rangers and Commodore cashing in $18.75M over five seasons from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Stillman went on to sign a three-year pact with the Florida Panthers for $10.6M, a loss some might think was a mistake, but a contract which simply didn't fit into the Senators' salary structure. All other key unrestricted free agents have been retained: Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Neil, and Filip Kuba were all retained--some of these contracts seem like overpayments, but they tell you one thing: Murray doesn't let free agents walk away for nothing. You can be sure he'll prioritize re-signing Volchenkov, because he's made it abundantly clear that it's not his style to lose assets for no return.
The possibility of continuing negotiations through the off-season and only trading Volchenkov after they have absolutely failed, a la Jay Bouwmeester, would remain, but seems unlikely. Volchenkov is an elite shutdown defender, of that there is no doubt, but he's not nearly as highly valued as Bouwmeester; seems unlikely another team would give up an asset to gain primary negotiation rights with Android.
Option 3: Trade him
Don't take the chance: Maximize the asset right now, and trade Volchenkov while his value is at his highest, and you can hope to wrench an inflated return from a team stocking up for a playoff run. Acquire some other defenceman to fill the void as a shutdown defender for the time being, and hope that one of Jared Cowen, Matt Carkner, or some darkhorse prospect steps up to fill the void--or sign a cheaper-than-Volchenkov defensive defenceman to round out the top six.
Trading Volchenkov would have to bring decent value for the Senators, given the two trades we've seen since the roster thaw: Both Jordan Leopold (to the Pittsburgh Penguins -- read more) and Denis Grebeshkov (to the Nashville Predators -- read more) brought second-round picks back to their original teams, and Volchenkov is a step above them. With that in mind, he should bring in a first-round pick or a very strong prospect.
There are a few shutdown defencemen on the market, none of whom are as strong as Volchenkov, but some of whom might be able to fill in for a playoff run. The Senators have been rumoured to have been talking about Aaron Ward, and they can just ask the New York Islanders for Brendan Witt (although they might have to ask nicely). One of the most interesting rumours, though, comes out of Dallas, where Stephane Robidas might be available for the right price. He's become known as a playoff warrior, and he's signed long-term: He just inked an extension for four years at a cap hit of $3.2M per season, likely the kind of numbers he'd like to get Volchenkov to agree to. I'm skeptical about whether or not he's actually available, but the rumours are out there, and if there's any merit to them you can be pretty sure Murray's identified him as a possible stand-in for Volchenkov. You might be curious of why the Senators would trade Volchenkov to acquire Robidas, but there are reasons: Volchenkov's contract status makes him more attractive to cap-crunched teams making a big run, while Robidas' contractual obligations might make him slightly less attractive--unless that's the exact contract you're looking to fit under your salary cap, and the exact role you're looking to fill on your team.
So... what's your choice? My vote is to hold on to the guy for the playoffs, even if you risk letting him walk away. Would it seem bad if the Sens get ousted early, and then let Volchenkov walk for nothing? Absolutely, but Ottawa's got some good defencemen in the system, and Volchenkov's 27 years old and not getting any younger. Volchenkov gives us our best chance this season, and if you hold on to him, Murray gets plenty more time to continue negotiating with him on a reasonable extension. But hey... Murray gets a lot more money than I do to make these decisions, so he'll do whatever he likes to balance the current and future needs of the organization.