Entering this season, Ottawa was considered a lock to make the playoffs. Many experts were won over by the Senators overcoming significant obstacles (including injuries to several key players) to clinch a post-season berth and upset the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round last season. Some went so far as to project them as Cup champions this year.
Now, however, the Senators playoff dreams are fading: they are eight points out of playoff contention in the Eastern Conference with only 10 games left. Pundits and bloggers are not only trying to determine the reasons behind the Senators struggles, but how it will impact the futures of several of their stars.
opping the list is captain Jason Spezza, who becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency next summer. Spezza, who turns 31 in June, carries a no-trade clause in a contract paying him $4 million next season but worth an annual cap hit of $7 million. The Ottawa Citizen's Ken Warren notes the Anaheim Ducks had interest in the Senators captain prior to the trade deadline. Warren wonders if Spezza is growing weary over being blamed for his team's woes.
Ottawa Sun columnists Don Brennan and Bruce Garrioch also pondered Spezza's future. Brennan believes Senators management must decide to re-sign or trade him this summer. Garrioch feels they'll retain him if they re-sign winger Ales Hemsky, who is playing well alongside Spezza since his acquisition from Edmonton at the trade deadline.
Warren points out winger Bobby Ryan and goaltender Craig Anderson are also eligible for UFA status next summer. Ryan will earn more than $5.5 million next season in actual salary at an annual cap hit of $5.1 million. It'll likely cost up to $6.5 million per season to re-sign him.
Ryan, who is currently day-to-day with a lower body injury, was acquired to play on Spezza's wing, but they failed to mesh, which explains the recent acquisition of Hemsky. With 23 goals in 70 games, this could be the full season where Ryan fails to reach the 30-goal plateau. Warren suggests shopping the 27-year-old to bolster the club's grit. Considering how much the Senators gave up to get Ryan (a first round pick, prospect Stefan Noesen and young winger Jakob Silfverberg), that grit had better come with some scoring ability.
Anderson's annual cap hit is just more than $3.1 million, but he'll earn $3.5 million in actual salary next season. He was the main reason the rebuilding Senators confounded the experts in 2012 by making the post-season. His return from injury late last season helped the Senators upset the Canadiens in the opening round.
The 32-year-old netminder has struggled this season, with a bloated 3.10 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage. He recently missed five games with a shoulder injury, during which understudy Robin Lehner struggled through a five-game losing skid, jeopardizing the Senators playoff hopes. If Lehner isn't ready to step into the starter's role on a full-time basis, the Sens could retain Anderson.
The Senators can open contract talks with the trio on July 1. Of the three, Spezza has the most trade value. But Ryan and Anderson lack no-trade clauses, providing Senators management with considerably more trade possibilities than with Spezza. Much will depend on how much owner Eugene Melnyk is willing to invest in the trio beyond next season. Melnyk's kept the Senators payroll well below the league ceiling this season.
The Senators don't have to move the three this summer. They could retain them and see how next season unfolds before opening serious contract negotiations. The danger, however, is it could prove more difficult to move them over the course of next season, let alone get a decent return. Even if they help the Senators return to playoff contention, there's the risk one or more could depart via free agency.
From late-June through mid-July teams have more cap space and willingness to deal. It could be the best time to determine if Spezza, Ryan and Anderson have long-term futures in Ottawa.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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