OTTAWA - Before the Senators went their separate ways for the all-star break, veteran Senators defenceman Chris Phillips admitted he'd like to play for a playoff contender.
"Yeah, and I want this team to be a contender," the 32-year-old blue-liner said.
But with the realization that a post-season in Ottawa isn't looking likely, Phillips may be down to his last few weeks as a member of the Senators after spending the first 12 ½ years of his NHL career with the team.
The Senators wrapped up their schedule before this weekend's all-star festivities with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday that left them with a 17-25-8 record and in 13th place in the Eastern Conference.
And with the realization that they'll miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons—they trailed a playoff spot by 13 points before Wednesday night's games—changes are expected ahead of the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
As one of the few Senators who is likely attractive for playoff-bound teams, there's a good chance that Phillips could be asked to waive his no-trade clause.
"That's something that has to be decided on the other side and then we'll talk about it, but I'm still not sure where that stands," he said.
It wouldn't have been this way if the first half of the year hadn't gone sideways early for the Sens.
Ottawa got out of the gate with three straight defeats and one victory in its first six games. After a brief resurgence, it's been more of the same, with the break mercifully bringing an end to a 13-game stretch in which the Senators have just one win and are without a victory in six straight outings.
That prompted team owner Eugene Melnyk to speak out earlier this week to assure that general manager Bryan Murray and coach Cory Clouston would be allowed to finish out their contracts, meaning the only likely changes will be among the players.
"This probably, I think, is my worst year record-wise," Murray said. "This team, I felt all along and I still feel, is a team that I was sure was going to be a playoff team, so that’s disappointing."
Murray has taken his share of the blame among the fans and media for his role in the team’s predicament, beginning in goal, where the acquisition of Pascal Leclaire to be the No. 1 goaltender never panned out.
Leclaire has been constantly injured and when he has played, he hasn't been very good.
Milan Michalek, the remnant of the Dany Heatley trade, has been inconsistent in returning from off-season ACL surgery, but that’s at least better than the free-agent signings of Alex Kovalev, who also underwent ACL surgery last summer, and, more recently, Sergei Gonchar. In hindsight, both look like costly mistakes.
Gonchar was brought in to quarterback a power play that ranks 21st in the league and finally ended an 0-for-24 slump with a goal Tuesday. He’s also a minus-17 in the plus-minus ratings.
Murray chalks up injuries as a big reason for the Senators’troubles.
"I look at what happened—Kovalev and Milan getting their knees done, and just now you can see Milan now starting to play," Murray said. "We've had (Mike) Fisher hurt for a period of time, we’ve had Spezza (hurt) for a period of time, (Daniel Alfredsson) has been hurting for quite some time—I think you see that in his play—and Leclaire, as an excuse. But beyond that, it's been disappointing that probably on some nights get beat the way we do."
Regardless of the reasons, putting the puck in the other team's net and keeping it out of their own have been the Senators' problems this year.
Although they work hard and often outshoot and outchance other teams, they still wind up on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
Behind a turnover-prone defence that's not very physical, Brian Elliott has shown a penchant for allowing deflating goals and appears to be a better backup goaltender.
The Senators rank 27th in goals-against average at 3.14 per game.
The team's lone all-star representative, Swedish youngster Erik Karlsson, has had a good year offensively from the blue-line with 28 points—tiedfor the team lead with Alfredsson. However, he's struggled in his own end.
Offensively, they're even worse with only New Jersey scoring at a clip less than Ottawa's 2.16 goals-for average per game.
"We've allowed way too many goals, and easy goals where it's turnovers that leads to great chances for the other team and we put ourselves in tough positions right away," Alfredsson said. "We've put ourselves in a good position at the end of the game and we've found a way to lose and that's been in most part due to our lack of scoring."
One positive on the horizon is that Spezza, who’s been out of the lineup since separating his shoulder on Boxing Day, should be making his return shortly after the all-star break.
"He's going to be a breath of fresh air for us, for sure," Alfredsson said. "Especially with our trouble scoring goals. He'll have jump and definitely create a spark for us."
Like the rest of the team offensively, he’s failed to produce at anywhere near the clip that he's shown in the past with just 20 points in 32 games, but Ottawa has been even worse without him.
"It's been really tough. You feel for the guys," Spezza said of watching the team flounder from the press box. "I know because I'm around the guys how much they're gripping their sticks and how badly everyone wants to be doing better. When you're not playing, you hear the perceptions a little bit of guys quitting and stuff and, as a player, I know that’s not the case at all."
Fans in Ottawa have given up on the playoffs and warmed to the idea of rebuilding the Senators, even though Melnyk doesn't want it to be called that.
Starting fresh is just what the Senators and their fragile psyche need, however, and the all-star break gives them a chance at a fresh start to try and get things going in more positive direction over their final 32 games.
"I think we're just real down on ourselves and we’ve got to play with confidence," Spezza said. "We can't listen to everything that's being talked about on the outside and we can't wait for something to happen. I think we have to just go out and worry about our game and try to be crisp and try to practise hard and maybe enjoy practice a little bit more and just try to play with a little less pressure on our backs. You can see that we start games well and if one or two little things go wrong, then that’s when things go wrong for us as a group."
For Phillips, who says his first priority is to remain in Ottawa, and a few other Senators, they may get a fresh start in a new uniform and may find themselves in the post-season after all.
For those who do stick around, they’ll be playing to salvage some pride in a dismal year, otherwise, the final 32 games will be even more of a grind for players and fans alike.
"As you start playing games and other teams are getting points as well, maybe it becomes more clear mathematically that you don't have that chance (at the playoffs) and that’s exactly what it is," Phillips said. "There’s a pride, a commitment to this team, a commitment to the fans even when things aren't going great and you're obviously in a position you don't want to be in."