As part of a series, writer Benjamin Benya will be forecasting the plan of the five worst NHL teams as the trade deadline nears. Will they be big sellers or stick to their guns and stomp through the trenches?
For the Ottawa Senators, the 2010-11 NHL season has gone from disappointment to complete nightmare in a matter of weeks. The Sens were in the thick of the conference hunt for playoff positioning at the start of the new year, but a slew of losses, capped off by 10 consecutive over the past few weeks has left the Senators searching for new solutions to the same old problems.
From the inception of the new year, the Senators have failed to really get things clicking. Initially, it was goaltending that struggled for the team with Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott both sharing inauspicious records. Once things got back on track defensively, Ottawa's scoring began to let down dramatically and the play all over the ice was catastrophically bad.
It would appear that with the Senators backing themselves into the worst finish since the franchise first started, a reconstruction is vital to survival. But Ottawa is already in a tight space with $43 million against the salary cap at the start of next year. Because of this, the thought lingers that this team won't be much different from those that previously failed to make the playoffs.
A few personnel changes in the coaching staff combined with the right moves at the deadline can help the Sens build positive momentum into a vital offseason. So while this season may be written off as a total loss, the Senators can make the most out of the opportunity if they play their cards well.
Ottawa boasts four expiring contracts by July 1st that could be great bargaining chips if marketed to the right teams, the most important of which is aging scorer Alex Kovalev. Kovalev's best days are far behind him, and the old moniker of "give-it-away-Alexei" seems more fitting given his inconsistencies.
But if he's used in the right system with the right players, Kovalev is an immediate difference maker who can bolster the power play unit and deliver a threat on the wing. He's also got a plethora of playoff experience that includes a Stanley Cup ring as a 17-year-old with the New York Rangers.
Kovalev's current contract calls for $5 million this season, but if he chooses to play beyond it he'll likely take a pay cut to stay afloat and may well be low-risk enough for a team to part with a second round selection or a few prospects. Despite steadily declining numbers in the regular season, Kovalev's 98 points in 116 playoff games are certainly impressive. The only thing holding Kovalev back is his no-trade clause, but he'd likely wave it if it meant a shot at the Cup.
In fact, we could talk ad nauseam about the teams interested in acquiring Kovalev's services, which would include but not be limited to his former employers the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, or Montreal Canadiens. Each is struggling through injuries of some form or another and could be the perfect place for him to reignite the flame. Maybe he'll even dive into the Western Conference pool for the first time in his career. Detroit Red Wings, anyone?
Aside from Kovalev, who may be the most marketable player come the deadline this year, the Senators also find themselves holding expiring contracts with goalie/trainwreck Pascal Leclaire, pest forward Jarkko Ruutu, and longstanding defensemen Chris Phillips.
Maybe I'm being hard on Leclaire, but since making the jump to full time responsibilities in both Columbus and Ottawa, Leclaire has been an utter disappointment. He's had one season of compotent play; the rest of his career is masked by injuries and sad starts.
There is a case to be made that if he could get healthy and play at the level he did initially in Columbus, Leclaire would be a great steal for a team needed a goalie in the pinch. But to think that Ottawa keeps him around for any reason other than an inability to shop the banged-up netminder would be foolish, especially because Brian Elliott's contract is up as well and he's restricted at this point.
Elliott has clearly been the better netminder over the past few years, both physically and statistically. Leclaire's injuries will scare off many suitors, but goalies still have a tendency to move regardless of the baggage they're packaged with on deadline day.
Speaking of injury, forward Jarkko Ruutu has just recently been activated by the Sens and could also be fair game by the end of the month. Ruutu may not be a pest at the same level of spite as say, Sean Avery, but he's close. And at his best, he's also a catalyst for teams looking to get that spark back in the middle of a game.
With a low rent, $1.3 million contract paid out before July 1st and no contract extension in immediate sight, he too is a solid option to exit. And we again turn to his former clientele, the Penguins and Vancouver Canucks, as leading the pack for this agitating forward.
Then of course, we have Chris Phillips, who is in the midst of what can only be deemed the worst season of his career. Phillips is still eating up all the minutes he usually would, but with zero goals, four assists, and a minus-26 rating coming into Wednesday, he's having an atrocious time out there. Figure it this way: if he were a younger, budding defender, he'd be demoted to the AHL for such a showing.
Phillips isn't a sure thing to return to the Senators next year, either, as his current payout of $3.5 million would need to be reduced significantly for the Sens to strongly consider extending the deal. In short, Phillips is quite expendable and one of the top defenders on the market over the next three weeks.
A simple change of scenery playing for a team that scores at will like Philadelphia would do wonders for both sides. Phillips, like Kovalev, has a no-trade clause in his contract that he'd have to waive first. But with the season going the way it has thus far, he'll probably have a list of future candidates made up by Friday.
If there's one player that isn't going anywhere, however, it would be Jason Spezza. Every year the rumor mill buzzes with deals that imply Spezza will be on the move out of Ottawa and onto the next conquest, yet nothing ever comes of them. Its as if Spezza is the proverbial Manny Ramirez of the NHL, constantly trade bait during his prime but never really moved until after the love affair ends.
Despite is lowly numbers this year (and to be fair, the whole team is suffering statistically), he'll reach 500 points and 500 games played at almost the same time before turning 28. And with four more years left on a contract that supports a no-trade clause and $7 million cap hit each year, even the most anxious general manager has to think twice about dealing for him.
This leaves us with one more player of interest, and he's the captain. Daniel Alfredsson has spent his entire career in Ottawa and has never shown himself to be anything but a Senator. He'll be 40 by the time his contract expires and though he's still a prolific scorer, he's not moving. Not unless the deal is that sweet, and with GM's showing increasing frugality in the past few years, it won't be.
Fun Fact: The Senators have almost $2 million of Salary Cap for next season tied up in the contract buyouts of Jonathan Cheechoo and Ray Emery, both of whom remain without an NHL affiliation this year (though Emery will join the AHL this week).
On the Move:
1. C/RW Alex Kovalev
2. LW/RW Jarkko Ruutu
3. D Chris Phillips
1. C Jason Spezza
2. G Brian Elliott
3. RW Daniel Alfredsson