Of all the players that saw significant ice-time for the Ottawa Senators last season: 11 of those forwards (Spezza, Alfredsson, Kovalev, Michalek, Fisher, Cheechoo, Kelly, Neil, Ruutu, Shannon and Smith); 5 defencemen (Kuba, Phillips, Karlsson, Lee and Carkner); and both goaltenders (LeClaire and Elliott) are under contract for next year for a total cap hit of $ 51.5 million, according to www.capgeek.com. If we assume that the NHL salary cap stays around $56.8 million next year, then Ottawa general manager Brian Murray has just over $6.2 million to spend this summer to retain any of the team’s top UFAs: Anton Volchenkov, Matt Cullen, Andy Sutton and RFAs Nick Foligno, Peter Regin, Chris Campoli and Jesse Winchester. Seldom used veteran forward Shean Donovan is unlikely to be retained by the organization.
The team needs two more forwards and two more defencemen in order to make a 20 man roster with the customary extra forward and defenceman. Since it is very unlikely that forwards Nick Foligno and Peter Regin will not be retained, then we can assume that they fill those two forward spots. Their combined salaries will probably be in the $2 million to $2.5 million range. Additionally, Winchester will likely be resigned for about $750,000 and Smith, who is on a two-way contract, will be returned to the AHL. This would leave Murray with about $3 million left for the needed defencemen. This will certainly not be enough to re-sign long time Senator Volchenkov, who is rumoured to be seeking $5 million a year on a long-term deal. Additionally, $3 million is probably not enough to resign Sutton either.
Now, an additional consideration is that it is very likely that Jonathan Cheechoo will not be playing with the Ottawa Senators next season after failing to score enough goals to justify his $3.5 million salary (and $3.0 million cap hit) for the next season. The Senators have two options: 1) buyout the last year of his contract, which would save the Senators approximately $2.3 million in actual salary and about $2 million in the cap hit; or, 2) honour the contract and assign him to the AHL for the entire 2010-11 season. This latter option would save the team $3.0 million in cap hit, but would cost the team the full $3.5 million against its real bottom line. The first option will be realized unless Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is willing to pay Cheechoo to play in the minors.
If Cheechoo is bought out, the team will have approximately $5 million to pay two defencemen and one forward (to replace Cheechoo). If top defensive prospect Jared Cowen (the Senators’ first pick in the 2009 draft) is given a chance to start the season in the majors, and RFA Campoli is re-signed for approximately $1 million. The team will have approximately $4 in cap space left over. Since Murray will want to save up to $1 million for a rainy day, that leaves about $3 million to spend. That's definitely not enough to sign even two of the aforementioned UFAs. However, it might be enough to keep Matt Cullen; his 2009-10 salary was $2.8 million and due for a raise. Cullen was arguably the Senators’ best forward in Ottawa’s 2010 quarter-final match up with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and provides some balance to a group of forwards that are under pressure to produce offensively.
Some may argue that it would be better to start Cowen in the minors and put the $1.325 million he would be paid in the NHL towards finding the money to resign Volochenkov. I disagree. Volchenkov is certainly a very valuable player; he is one of the league’s top shot blockers, for one. However, hard decisions need to be made in this salary cap era. The reality is that the Senators’ organizational depth on defence is fairly good. The organization has three top defensive prospects in Erik Karlsson (who has already made the team), Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch. In contrast, the Senators lack top forward prospects; although they have a few decent forward prospects including Bobby Butler, recently signed out of the NCAA. Therefore, it makes more sense to retain the quality forwards the team already has. To my mind, that makes making every effort to re-sign Matt Cullen a top priority.
Should the team fail to resign Cullen, Murray would probably be best to allow Volchenkov to walk anyway, rather than figure out how to come up with the money to get him signed. Instead, the Senators should give Zack Smith or Bulter a shot at making the team out of camp. Then re-address the team’s forward depth at the 2011 trade deadline. If Murray is concerned about the team’s defensive depth to start the season, and believes that neither Cowen or Wiercioch are ready for the big leagues, then he could use the $3 million not used to sign Cullen to make Sutton an offer (who would need to take a pay cut), or sign another veteran UFA defenseman, like Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference or (Milan's brother) Zbynek Michalek from the summer’s free-agent pool.
This is my predicted 2010 open day roster for the Ottawa Senators: