OTTAWA - Tired of stalled negotiations with restricted free-agent defenceman Andrej Meszaros, the Ottawa Senators sent him packing for the Sunshine State.
The Senators traded Meszaros, a young but experienced defenceman with plenty of upside, to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday, acquiring defencemen Filip Kuba and Alexandre Picard and a 2009 first-round pick in return.
Senators GM Bryan Murray said that the team and Meszaros were far apart in their negotiations, and with the Lightning threatening to sign Meszaros to an offer sheet Murray decided to work out a trade instead.
"It got to a point where the money was too much for what we wanted to pay," Murray said of Meszaros. "We thought we had made a considerable offer, but when there was the threat of an offer sheet at such an exaggerated (dollar amount) it really led us to believe that making a deal was an easier way, and would give us the return that we needed for this player."
As first reported by THN.com, the Lightning were trying to acquire Meszaros via free agency, but did not have their third round pick, which, in addition to their '09 first and second round pics, the team needed to provide compensation for signing the restricted free agent to an offer sheet.
When the Lightning attempted to re-acquire their third round pick from Pittsburgh - which they had sent to the Penguins for the negotiating rights to Ryan Malone eariler this summer - Pens GM Ray Shero was, according to sources, reticent to be part of a trade that would help facilitate an offer sheet.
By making this trade, Tampa and Ottawa avoid the offer sheet process and were able to sign Meszaros to a six-year deal.
The Lightning's proposed offer sheet was reportedly a multi-year deal worth around US$5 million per season. Meszaros made $984,200 last season.
This is the latest move for the rebuilding Lightning, who have had a busy off-season. They nabbed highly-touted prospect Steven Stamkos with the first overall pick in the draft, and re-signed superstar forward Vincent Lecavalier to a multi-year deal. They also acquired forwards Radim Vrbata, Vaclav Prospal, Gary Roberts and Malone and defenceman Matt Carle.
"Andrej is a perfect fit within our plan to rebuild the Lightning into a contender," Lightning president of hockey operations Brian Lawton said in a statement. "He has a strong all-around game, he competes, he moves the puck and he can handle big, strong forwards defensively.
"Perhaps most importantly, we're pleased to add a 22-year old player with almost 250 NHL games already under his belt; we know Andrej will continue to grow and improve as he matures with the rest of our defence."
The Senators' defensive top six will also look a lot different when it takes the ice this season. Along with Meszaros, Wade Redden will not be back in the nation's capital. The one time shining star of Ottawa's defence suffered the wrath of Senators fans after a sub-par season in 2007-08, and signed a $39-million, six-year contract with the New York Rangers on July 1.
Instead, the Senators will have new acquisition Jason Smith, a tough defender who served as captain in both Edmonton and Philadelphia, and Kuba, a reliable blue-liner who wore the "C" for a time in Minnesota's rotating captain system in 2005. The acquisitions, along with new players like agitator Jarko Ruutu, should help eliminate the rumours of locker-room strife and character problems that plagued the Senators last season.
"I think (the locker-room issues) were overstated maybe in the past, but very definitely our room, the type of team we have now, the character of the team now, could not be questioned at all," Murray said.
"I think (Meszaros) is one of those guys that we were hoping would grow up, but by moving him out and bringing in two other guys that are target people really upgrades what we needed in the room."
There won't likely be any problems with the new guys fitting in. Picard is a native of nearby Gatineau, Que., while Murray said Kuba told him he was looking for a change of scenery and expressed interest in a developed hockey market like Ottawa.
Meszaros was Ottawa's first-round pick (23rd overall) in the 2004 NHL draft. The 22-year-old from Povazska Bystrica, Slovakia, excelled in his rookie year, playing all 82 games and racking up 39 points while posting a scintillating plus-minus differential of plus-34.
Star defender Zdeno Chara was signed with Boston the next year, and Meszaros was expected to have a breakout second season paired with Redden. Instead, his production dipped to 35 points and his plus-minus plummeted to minus-15. He had 36 points and was a modest plus-5 last year.
"I thought his first year in Ottawa was real good, I though his last two years left something to be desired," Murray said. "I was hoping I could convince him to take a contract that's fair and reasonable so he could really develop into the player we hoped he could be, but that wasn't in the books."
Kuba, a native of Ostrava, Czech Republic, has been with the Lightning for the past two seasons signing as a free agent in July 2006. He had six goals, 25 assists and 40 penalty minutes in 75 games last season. The six-foot-five, 225-pound defenceman has 207 points and 239 penalty minutes over 531 career games.
"He's a really solid person," Murray said. "Really quiet but a real good player. He can play the point on the power play and shoots the puck really well."
Picard, 22, had three goals, three assists and 10 penalty minutes over 24 games with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Lightning last season. In his three-year NHL career, the six-foot-two, 225-pounder has six goals, 22 assists and 31 penalty minutes over 92 regular-season games.
- with files from The Hockey News