Ottawa Senators Sign Zenon Konopka: Are Sens the Toughest Team in the NHL?

Jason Sapunka@moreSapunkaCorrespondent IIJuly 6, 2011

OTTAWA, ON - OCTOBER 08:   Matt Carkner #39 and Chris Neil #25 of the Ottawa Senators discuss strategy before a faceoff against the Buffalo Sabres during a game at Scotiabank Place on October 8, 2010 in Ottawa, Ontario,  Canada. The Buffalo Sabres defeated the Ottawa Senators 2-1.  (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)
Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images

Zenon Konopka signed a one-year contract worth $700,000 with the Ottawa Senators.

After leading the league in both fighting majors and penalty minutes in 2009-2010 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Konopka signed a one-year deal with the New York Islanders prior to this season.

Konopka led the league in penalty minutes yet again during this past season as part of a hard-nosed Long Island team.

Ottawa already has two of the best fighters in the NHL under contract.

Matt Carkner is among the league's best with Ontario rival Colton Orr and unsigned free agent Steve MacIntyre, formerly of the Edmonton Oilers.

Carkner's punching power is incredible, strong enough to break the stone-hard face of Eric Godard.

Chris Neil is also among the best when dropping the gloves, despite being smaller than many of the fighters he takes on. Neil was ranked No. 13 in a countdown of the Top 15 Best Fighters in the NHL.

Journeyman enforcer Francis Lessard was called up by Ottawa in mid-February and played with the team until the season's end. His 24-game stint this past season was his longest since playing 62 games with the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2003-2004 campaign.

Lessard is another quality pugilist who has beaten elite fighters such as Shawn Thornton, Eric Boulton, Darcy Hordichuk, Kevin Westgarth and D.J. King.

Lessard may occasionally pick his spots and likes to unfairly get the jump on his opponent, but there is no denying his abilities as a heavyweight enforcer.

Adding middleweight Konopka to this bunch further ensures that no team will take liberties with smaller, skilled players such as Jason Spezza or Erik Karlsson.

Konopka is a firecracker who will not only be aggressive in his efforts to check, hurt, and intimidate the opposition, but will not let an opportunity to defend a teammate go past him.

If Konopka and Lessard want to push around the other team, there is little that can be done with Carkner and Neil backing them up.

Comparatively, last year's toughest team was the New York Islanders, who skated Trevor Gillies, Michael Haley, Matt Martin, and Konopka. Carkner is a slightly better fighter than Gillies, while Lessard and Neil are easily better than Haley and Martin.

With Konopka now on the Senators, it is unlikely the Islanders will be able to match that toughness.

Other tough squads from last season include the Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins, St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks.

After Cam Janssen or George Parros takes on Matt Carkner, the Blues and Ducks don't have much in response to Lessard and Neil.

The Penguins have lost Mike Rupp to the New York Rangers and do not appear to be resigning Eric Godard. This leaves Deryk Engelland and Arron Asham as the Penguins' only protectors of players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

The Boston Bruins have much of the same roster intact as last season and would probably stand the best chance of handling themselves against the Senators, but only if Zdeno Chara is willing to drop his gloves.

Shawn Thornton can handle Carkner, Chara might be able to deal with Lessard, and Milan Lucic has beat Neil in the past. After that, Adam McQuaid and Konopka are fairly matched.

Of course, this depends on Chara dropping his gloves. In the case of rarities such as this, other teams in the league might also stand a chance, such as the Philadelphia Flyers.

Chris Pronger has picked up one fighting major in the past three years, but is certainly one of the most intimidating forces on the ice.

Throughout his career, Pronger has cleared his net by slashing and cross-checking forwards endlessly. He hasn't gotten away with it for being a Hall-of-Famer that is protected by linesmen and teammates.

After the whistle, if a player turns around to show his displeasure with Pronger, he simply gives another cross-check and stares. Nobody ever does more back to Pronger.

If somebody actually wanted to fight him, that would be the time to drop the gloves. Nobody does it.

Theoretically, Pronger could drop his gloves and take on a player like Chris Neil. Pronger knows how to fight, and would likely handle himself fine against Neil.

Jody Shelley is one of the league's best fighters, is afraid of nobody, and would easily fight Carkner in an effort to defend his teammates.

If Matt Walker were dressed as the Flyers' sixth defenseman instead of Andreas Lilja (which would be likely against a tough team such as Ottawa), him and Lessard would produce an even fight.

Wayne Simmonds, Scott Hartnell, or even Zac Rinaldo or Tom Sestito (the two players who may likely replace Dan Carcillo on the fourth line) could handle Konopka.

All of these circumstances are hypothetical and could certainly change depending on where free agents such as Steve MacIntyre, Eric Godard and Eric Boulton end up next season.

One certainty is that Neil, Konopka, and Lessard form the toughest fourth line in the entire NHL. Having Matt Carkner behind that tandem is like backing up ancient Sparta's army with an F-16 fighter jet.

When the NHL season begins in October, nobody in the Senators' dressing room will have to play with fear of being run over or bullied.

Regardless of whether or not the Senators are No. 1 in the toughness department, their season will certainly be far more entertaining to watch that last year's thanks to the signing of Konopka.


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