Now that it is a couple of weeks past the trade deadline and the roster of the rebuilding Ottawa Senators is set until the off-season, for fun let's look at what the Senators might do next year.
Next year, in this case, begins when players can be moved again, and includes the draft. So in four months or so, we shall hopefully see the new general manager, whoever he may be, start making some moves.
But what moves should he make? I have some thoughts on the matter. Hopefully the new GM will be much more imaginative and bold than I, but we shall see.
1) The Draft
It is most likely that the Senators will be getting a top-five pick at the 2011 draft, although with the team's recent play (4-2-0 since the trade deadline) and the horrible play by teams such as the Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers, it is beginning to look like the Sens won't land a draft pick in the top three. The climate of opinion here is that if they get first overall, they should pick defenseman Adam Larsson. After that, opinions are divided as to whom the team should draft with its first-round pick if it doesn't get first overall.
Depending on how well or poorly the Nashville Predators do, the Senators could find themselves with a mid-first round pick as well. Although opinion is divided as to whether the team needs a centre or winger more urgently at the draft, Murray has already made it known that the team is looking to draft someone who can make the jump to the big club right away, but after that, who knows. Murray's statement that the team might "use one of those picks to get a player that maybe some other team can’t afford to keep, or whatever" suggests that they might be considering making an offer sheet.
That Murray is making such speculations also suggests that he won't be completely removed from the rebuilding process, even if he steps down as general manager, but what position he will have with the club, I cannot say.
2) Free Agency
I will be limiting my discussion here to unrestricted free agents who have played with the big club. In the article I linked to above, Murray mentions that one possibility is to trade for a top-six forward, or sign one from free agency.
My hope is that Murray, or the new general manager, does not sign a free agent or make a trade for a top-six forward. The team doesn't have a pool of prospects deep enough to lose one or two in a trade, and in my view, the team should still be trying to shed salary, not pick it up. However, it is open to question as to how many of the team's forwards are top-six material, in which case the team might need to acquire someone as a stop-gap.
The team's unrestricted free agents include: Marek Svatos, Ryan Shannon, Francis Lessard, Ryan Potulny, Pascal Leclaire, Craig Anderson, Curtis McElhinney, David Hale, Mike Brodeur, Andre Benoit, and Ryan Keller. Keller, Benoit, Brodeur, Lessard and Hale could be re-signed to two-way deals; so much for them. Leclaire, of course, is not coming back. Neither Potulny nor Svatos have impressed; given the team's lack of depth at forward, one or both could be re-signed, but it should be to two-way deals.
It matters whether the team re-signs Shannon, Anderson, or McElhinney. Shannon is a Clouston favourite, as we know, and he does work hard. He would be a cheap player to plug in, but if Cory Clouston does not stay, Shannon might not either. I would rather see Shannon re-signed than Potulny or Svatos.
As for McElhinney, he could be let go. If the team feels Robin Lehner is ready next year to back up Anderson or some other goaltender, it doesn't need to hang on to McElhinney. However, Lehner's development has been a bit topsy-turvy this year, and it might be felt he would do well to get a full season of AHL hockey under his belt, in which case McElhinney could be re-signed; there are, however, plenty of options for a back-up goaltender.
3) Craig Anderson
The decision to re-sign Craig Anderson could be the most important, after choosing who is drafted with the team's first-round pick, the general manager makes. As we have learned, Anderson's agent would like to see Murray stick around in some capacity, and it appears he feels Anderson is more likely to sign an extension with the club in such a case.
This season, Anderson has had injury problems and has also struggled in Colorado, and while he is certainly not wholly to blame for how poor his play has been (GAA 3.28, sv% .897 in 33 games with the Avs), it does raise some questions. However, Anderson has been reliable historically, compared, say, to Pascal Leclaire.
There is no doubt Anderson could be of great benefit for the team. It is worth asking, however, whether re-signing him would hinder the Senate Reform. At worst, the team could make the play-offs and lose in the first round, which reduces the likelihood that the Sens will draft players in the first round of the draft who can step up and make an impact right away. This is not to say that the club couldn't draft well in an intermediate or low position. But the team's preference should be, for the next year or two, to get a high draft position. Anderson's play could jeopardise this.
The other question is how much it will cost to keep Anderson, and how long he will be signed with the team. He will certainly command a higher salary than what he now earns. It is conceivable that the cap hit of his next contract could be at least $4 million. Probably the bigger issue is for how long Anderson will be signed. Two years would be best, assuming Lehner spends at least one season in Bingo as the farm team's number one goalie and one year as Anderson's back-up. If Lehner does not develop as quickly as expected, Anderson's contract could be extended; if Lehner looks ready to play with the big club out of training camp this coming fall, two years behind Anderson is not too long. For all we know, however, Anderson's superb play could make him more costly than the team might be willing to pay.
4) Continuing Senate Reform
I won't consider players whom the Senators might trade for; rather, who on the club might still be traded, perhaps during the off-season or as next season progresses, for picks or prospects to further the Senate Reform?
The top contenders include Filip Kuba, Chris Neil, Nick Foligno, and Brian Lee. Other, less likely, possibilities include Sergei Gonchar, Peter Regin and Milan Michalek. Beyond these players it is hard to see whom the team might trade: Spezza, Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson are 'untouchables' (although a new general manager may have a different opinion), and most of the rest are prospects. Chris Phillips is more or less untouchable at this point, having signed an extension with the team.
Every effort should be made to move Kuba, in my view. At worst he may simply be let go as an unrestricted free agent next off-season, but with Karlsson (who will be in the last year of his entry-level deal next season) and Gonchar on the team, the readiness of the team's defensive prospects notwithstanding, Kuba is expendable. It will help that he is more likely to play better next season than he was able to this season. Better to trade him for something than let him walk away for nothing.
As much as I like Chris Neil and value the leadership he brings to the team, he is just the sort of gritty player the Senators could move for a pick. Next season he will have two years for a combined $4 million cap hit left on his contract; by the trade deadline he could actually be desirable. If he could be moved at this year's draft for a pick, that would be best, as the team would have an extra season to develop whomever is selected; I am not holding my breath that this will happen, however.
Lee will be in the last year of his deal, so a team in need of defensive depth might show interest at the deadline, especially since his contract is cheap. He will be much more desirable if he is able to play the whole season, too. Indeed, I think it would be best if Lee stayed with the team at least until the deadline. He would be able to improve his trade value (which is, at present, nil), while giving time for the team's other prospects to develop. Of course, if Lee blossoms into a top-four calibre defender, that could make the decision to move him more difficult.
As for Nick Foligno, the point has been made, by Peter Raaymakers I believe, how significant it is that he is not playing top-six minutes under present circumstances, although a new coaching staff might be able to mould him into a top-six forward. He will be making $1.5 million next season, which may make it hard to move him, especially if he does not perform up to snuff. That said, he could very well have a career year this season in terms of points scored - but that is not saying much. Foligno's trade value is low, and while he is unlikely to be moved, I feel the team should try to trade him if it can.
After so poor a year, Regin is unlikely to command any interest, especially since he won't bounce back from his shoulder injury until next season is well underway. His injury could not have come at a worse time for him, as he will be unable to show the coaching staff his stuff at training camp. He has the advantage of being on a one-way deal, so he will be played. If Regin recovers the form he showed in the 2010 play-offs and the subsequent Worlds, he could be an inexpensive top-six forward for the team.
Michalek, with few points or goals scored over the last two years, three years remaining on his contract with a cap hit of just over $4.3 million per year, and plenty of recent injuries, is staying put. It has been suggested (I'm sorry, I can't remember by whom) that he has been mishandled by Clouston and his coaching staff. Since the team needs at least some top-six scoring while its prospects develop, Michalek is here to stay, whether he is worth it or not. I wouldn't mind seeing him moved, but it doesn't look like it is going to happen.
Sergei Gonchar is having his worst season since 1997-98, with regard to points. He is signed to a 35+ contract with 2 more years at $5.5 million, and has a full no-movement clause. If Gonchar rebounds next season, he might be moved in the off-season next year at the earliest (which is unlikely), if he can be convinced to waive his no-movement clause. Like Michalek, Gonchar is likely here to stay. At least his contract will expire before the team has to extend guys like Jared Cowen or Rundblad.
5) Final Thoughts
As this all indicates, I am in favour of the team continuing to dump salary, to move veterans for prospects and picks, and to avoid signing expensive veteran free agents who will increase the team's competitiveness (not that that worked with Alexei Kovalev or Sergei Gonchar) while decreasing its cap room and ability to draft high-impact talent. In other words, my view is that for next season the Senate Reform should continue at full steam. We should expect that it will take the club at least two years to rebuild, in which case there is no point in the GM (whoever he may be) taking his foot off the gas.
The team has seen a lot of turn-over since Eugene Melnyk announced that it would begin the process of rebuilding back in January. We have since said good-bye to Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Chris Campoli, Alex Kovalev, Jarkko Ruutu, Brian Elliott, and Pascal Leclaire (sort of). I am advocating that we wish at least four more players currently with the team a hearty adieu over the course of the next season, and if we can move one or two more big contracts, so much the better. It is my wish that the Senators management keep the Senate Reform going.