Senators' logjam on defence is easy to clear up

Jared Cowen has been more assertive and physical in the defensive end, and that's raised some eyebrows--and some expectations that he might be ready to compete in the NHL this season.

Decisions on the Ottawa Senators defence corps were put off for a while with the injury to Filip Kuba, but there is still an abundance of defencemen who--either due to their contracts or their play--are ready for the NHL this season. The group includes Kuba and five others on one-way NHL contracts--Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips, Chris Campoli, Matt Carkner, and Brian Lee--along with shoo-in Erik Karlsson, making seven defencemen altogether, the number an NHL squad usually keeps through the season. Veteran Andre Benoit and prospects Eric Gryba and Craig Schira all appear set to start the season with the AHL's Binghamton Senators, but both David Hale and Jared Cowen remain in camp, competing for spots against the "top seven" listed above.

So far in camp, Hale has looked reliable, if unspectacular--a mid-sized, defensively responsible defenceman who keeps things simple on the ice. And after a rough start, Cowen is quickly looking like he might actually be ready for the NHL thanks to, once again, keeping his play simple and using his huge size to assert himself physically. Both, I would argue, have outplayed Lee and Campoli so far in the pre-season, but their one-way contracts give Lee and Campoli the inside track on the lineup.

But a one-way contract hasn't been enough, in Senators' recent history, to guarantee defencemen a spot. To start each of the last two seasons, multiple defencemen on one-way contracts have been tossed aside to make room for better players. So it's not at all unlikely that it won't happen again.

The list of defencemen dumped by the Senators includes trades, waiver giveaways, and retirements that have cleared the way, opening up two defence spots in each of the last two years:

  • 2008/09/02 Lawrence Nycholat: Coming into a one-way deal, Nycholat was dealt to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Ryan Shannon.
  • 2008/11/27 Luke Richardson: After being signed to a one-year contract, Richardson was put on waivers, assigned to Binghamton, and retired. He was then given a coaching job with the Senators.
  • 2009/09/02 Jason Smith: After missing time the previous season with a knee injury, Smith retired under curious circumstances despite one year (and $2.6M) left on his contract.
  • 2009/10/02 Christoph Schubert: On a one-way deal, waived and picked up on re-entry waivers by the Atlanta Thrashers.

There are plenty of options open to the Senators. The luxury (if you can call it that) of Kuba's injury is that it allows for an extended period of time to evaluate Cowen's preparedness level, and how Hale stacks up, before having to make a decision on any other Senators defenceman. But if it turns out either of Cowen or Hale gives the Senators a better defence corps than, say, Brian Lee, then there's every reason to believe Bryan Murray will be shopping Lee around the league--for anything he might get, even if that's a Ryan Shannon-esque AHL 'tweener. Or if its Campoli who's less than impressive, then his one-year contract makes it palatable to absorb half of his salary if some team chooses to pick him up on re-entry waivers, should he not attract any offers by trade.

The bottom line is this: Right now, it looks like there are a lot of defencemen competing for very few spots. We've already seen what a single injury can do to that situation. And as we've witnessed in each of the last two seasons, it's not difficult to clear room on the roster, even if there are one-way contracts that appear to be standing in the way.

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