Currently the Ottawa Senators have Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris, Mika Zibanejad, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Zack Smith at centre. That is five centres and obviously there are only four spots. More specifically among the top two lines, there are two spots and Spezza, Turris, Zibanejad all competing to play in them long term.
For next season, there is nothing wrong with playing Zibanejad as a centre on the third line and then moving Smith to the wing or demoting Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the AHL. Zibanejad could also move to the wing, although he hasn't been effective in that role so far in his career. Moving Smith to the wing probably isn't great for him, but he's very possibly the least valuable of the five centres. As of right now in the way the team is constructed, someone has to play with Smith and Chris Neil which means either: a) Zibanejad gets stuck with linemates that don't suit him or b) he has to move to the wing or c) Pageau gets sent down to the minors.
However at some point one or both of Zibanejad and Turris could become better players than Jason Spezza. It might happen in three years, it might happen in five years but with Spezza at age 30, Turris at 23 and Zibanejad at 20, it is very likely going to happen. It doesn't help that Spezza seems to have a recurring back problem that may plague him for the rest of his career.
Hopefully the Senators have a successful and healthy season in which Spezza returns to being a point per game player and healthy and Turris and Zibanejad continue to develop nicely. This is the situation that the Senators will find themselves in. Jason Spezza will be 31-years old at the end of next season with one year remaining on his contract. Fancy stats tell us that means he will be 32-years old at the end of his current contract. In the summer of 2011, Brad Richards was 31-years old and was coming off a 77-point season in 72 games for the Dallas Stars. He received a 9-year contract with the New York Rangers for for $60 million dollars although the last three years are for $1 million each that Richards likely had no intention of playing. Practically speaking, Richards signed a 6-year contract for $57 million at an annual average value of $9.5 million.
The new CBA does not allow for that much variation in annual salaries, so Spezza wouldn't receive such a contract. Also, he is limited to sign a deal no longer than eight years with Ottawa or seven years with any other club. The Rangers are a rich team that can spend tons of money and buyout their mistakes. The cap ceiling isn't an issue for Ottawa right now and they don't have the resources to wash away their mistakes.
The Senators may very well decide that they are better off overpaying for Spezza than to lose him, especially with his no-trade clause restricting potential suitors. The other alternative to this scenario would be to trade Mika Zibanejad. He is 20 years old coming off a relatively productive season. He is big, fast, strong and has the pedigree of being a recent sixth overall pick. That has all the ingredients of being trade bait especially as he plays at a position that the Senators have a surplus of. Zibanejad is one of the most sought after assets that the Senators hold and he could be packaged with lesser prospects and draft picks to land the defenceman that this club desperately needs. Spezza should be able to return something similar to what the Blue Jackets received for Rick Nash: Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first round pick. The Rangers also included a conditional third and Steven Delisle. Also helping potential trade partners is that Spezza is due only $4 million in 2014-2015
There are a number of factors that determine what the Senators do. Bryan Murray's contract ends next season and a Spezza trade likely means he is conceding not winning a cup during his time in Ottawa. Replacing Spezza is going to be tough but that will have to be done whether Spezza stays or not. If the Senators do decide to keep him, they are going to have to commit a lot of money and a lot of years to him, longer than they will want to for more than they want to. There is nothing inherently wrong with keeping Zibanejad on the third line for two or three years or playing him on the wing, except that a decision on Spezza ideally should be made before the 2014-2015 season starts, the last year of his contract.
Another thing to keep in mind is the salary cap. If the salary cap does not significantly increase for 2014-2015, a lot of players could be hitting the unrestricted free agent market and a lot of restricted free agents could be available for trade. If the Senators are able to sign Henrik Sedin even at his age and then trade Spezza for assets, that is a net gain.
There are so many things to consider, and decisions might have to be made before the Murrays have a good sense of the development of Zibanejad or Turris, but they are going to have to make these decisions. I am not sure exactly what the right decision is, but going forward Zibanejad has to be in the top six to be utilised to his full potential. It is possible to try him at wing next season but if that doesn't succeed, that could be almost a wasted year of development if he is to return to centre the following season.
One thing is for sure though - the Senators have tough decisions to make because they have too much talent at a position. That is quite a welcome change from just a few years in the past.