Nichols: Pursuit of (Spezza’s) Happiness

June 3, 2010, 4:56 PM’s Ian Mendes writes that in the next three weeks Senators GM Bryan Murray will have a very important conversation with Jason Spezza to see if his star centre is still happy in Ottawa.

At their season-ending meeting in April, Spezza expressed some frustration to the Senators general manager with the way his season ended.

“He was a little unhappy at the end of the year. I took it as being somewhat emotional more than anything. I haven’t talked to him in the last few weeks. I hope before July 1st to have that conversation with him,” said Murray on Wednesday afternoon.

Murray did not confirm that Spezza asked for a trade during that meeting in late April. He simply said his star player felt like he was being unfairly targeted by the fans and media.

“I got an impression that he was quite unhappy at the end,” continued Murray. “I think the coverage he felt he got and the fan reaction a couple of times left him kind of wanting a little bit. But I don’t think it’s anything beyond that. My next conversation with him will be away from the emotion of playoff time to see what we can do and what we have to do.”

If you look at Spezza’s point totals on the whole (23-34-57 in 60 GP) this season, they’re actually slightly better than his ’08-9 results of 32-41-73 in 82 GP in terms of point-per-game pace (0.89 up to 0.95). ’09-10 was really a tale of two seasons though: pre and post-injury. He collected 19 points in (5-14-19) in 30 GP before suffering a serious knee injury, which is a disappointing pace. Chalk it up to a period of adjustment sans Dany Heatley or whatever you want, but the bottom line was not good for poolies or the Sens.

After Spezza came back though, he scored 18 times on the way to collecting 18-20-38 in his final 30 GP. That stretch included goals in six straight games immediately upon his return with 10 in his 11 starts. He looked much more confident and finally became the difference-maker expected by his fantasy league owners.

Whether or not Spezza asked for a trade, it’d be difficult to deal his $7M cap hit (five years remaining).

Murray said as much himself.

“It’s easy to say we should trade players. People don’t have space for six or seven million dollar players – so that’s an issue.”

Also in that article was a note on Anton Volchenkov, who’s set to become a UFA July 1st. Murray told Mendes he has been in contact with other teams to see if they would like to trade for Volchenkov, giving them a window of exclusivity to negotiate before July 1st.

“It’s been investigated – but it’s not what we want to do,” added Murray. “I’ve talked to a couple of teams, but the money frightens some of the managers right now.”

“We’re not going to pay him based on him becoming a first-line player by default, because we didn’t have anybody better,” Brian Burke told The Toronto Star of negotiations with RFA Nikolai Kulemin, who could be seeking upwards of $3M after a season in which the 23-year old Russian winger posted 16-20-36 in 78 GP.

KABERLE DEAL COMING?’s Mark Spector notes that Tomas Kaberle’s no-trade clause is set to expire and Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke is ready to deal him.

Upon exiting the National Hockey League’s general managers meetings on Wednesday, Burke revealed that Kaberle’s status is top of mind right now.

“The biggest issue we have on our team is Tomas Kaberle’s status,” Burke said. “We’ve informed the teams how his no-trade works. (Former Toronto GM) John Ferguson rigged that very cleverly that if the team didn’t have success it went away when the draft began. So we’re listening.”

If not at the draft, then before July 1 and the opening of free agency, it sounds very much like Burke will move Kaberle.

“We need to add a winger that can score, preferably with some size and we need some secondary toughness,” said Burke. “So those will be the areas we try to address.”

Kaberle would be a fantastic cap deal for any team acquiring him, at least for the last year of his $4.25M per season contract, because of his ability to consistently generate offence from the back end. It’s true that he “only” had 49 points last year after recent seasons of 67, 58 and 53 points, but we’re clearly talking about a Toronto team that had very little scoring power up front.

Dion Phaneuf will eat up a lot of PP1 minutes in ’10-11 regardless, but Francois Beauchemin could stand to get a bump up in value if Kaberle is dealt before next season gets underway.

The Vancouver Province indicates that with a $1.8M, two-year contract in his back pocket, Cory Schneider’s days as an elite AHL goalie are done. With Andrew Raycroft’s contract expiring (UFA), Schneider will finally get his shot to back up franchise goalie Roberto Luongo.

“I think I’ve come a long way,” Scheider said over the phone. “Coming in my first year I think all the pieces were in place, I was just very unrefined and unpolished, not really sure what it took to be a pro mentally.”

He feels his time in the AHL has been well-served.

“My three years in Manitoba have been good for me. The organization has been patient, I’ve been patient and I think it’s worked out for both parties.”

Barring an injury, Luongo will obviously still play the lion’s share of games. Maybe now the Canucks will feel comfortable enough to give him a bit more rest, but we’ll see how that goes. Either way, Schneider is looking forward to the challenge and he should be good for spot-starts in pools when Luongo’s rare nights off come up.

“It’s a different role than I’ve been used to playing, I’ve never really had the backup job,” he said. “But any time you get a chance to play in the NHL, especially behind a guy like that, it’s an excellent opportunity and I’m going to make the most of it.

“I want to be just as good as Roberto is when I go in for him so we maintain that level in goal. It’s a challenge but part of being pro and you’ve got to start somewhere before hopefully moving on from that role at some point.”

“Looking at our third period, we felt that we created so much that it was just a matter of time,” Danny Briere told The Philadelphia Daily News after last night’s overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks. “I think they had one good shift early in overtime and after that, we were right there, banging at the doorstep.

“Even when that goal got called back, it was like, ‘OK, it’s just a matter of time. We’ve got to keep shooting pucks and good things are going to happen.’ Finally, it did.”

The Denver Post reports that any Avalanche fan who hopes the team uses much of its considerable salary cap room on a free-agent splurge July 1 will be disappointed. Avs GM Greg Sherman all but ruled out any pricey forays this summer, preferring to continue a “build from within” blueprint.

“I don’t foresee any shortcuts,” Sherman said, following a meeting of league GMs at a Philadelphia hotel Wednesday. “Our plan is to build around the young, enthusiastic players we have now.”

The Avs have 14 likely roster players for next season signed at a cap-average payroll of about $30.2M. The cap should be close to $59M for ’10-11 after rising about $2M.

The Post notes that partly because the Avs’ current payroll is on the lower side and because of the team’s average age (26), the organization doesn’t want to blow a lot of money on risky, older free agents and maybe get stuck with little cap room when the younger players come due for new deals in a couple of years.

“We do want to build from within,” Sherman said. “When you look at the young players we have, some we have coming in and some of the restricted free agents we have, we want to stay with the plan in place.”

Chris Stewart (amazing breakout season) and Peter Mueller (dynamite after being dealt from Phoenix) will be the key RFAs this summer.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that the Jackets have signed David Savard (CHL Defenceman of the Year) to his entry-level contract. He was a fourth-round pick in last summer’s draft. He would be eligible to return for another season of junior hockey, but both Savard, his agent and the Blue Jackets feel it’s time for a new challenge. Look for Savard to join a glut of players with the Blue Jackets’ minor-league affiliate in Springfield.

The Dallas Morning News reports that Stars rookie Jamie Benn, who was assigned to the team’s AHL affiliate for the playoffs after a 22-goal campaign at the NHL level, leads the playoffs in scoring and has helped the Texas Stars get to the Calder Cup finals.

“He’s a really quiet kid, but you can see all the time that he’s listening, soaking up the information and finding a way to use it on the ice,” Texas coach Glen Gulutzan said. “He’s definitely the model of ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ He just wants to get out there and play and let his actions do the talking.”

Benn’s stock has been rising steadily in the past year and the team – along with poolies, to be sure – has taken notice.

“I think the interesting thing about Jamie is this [the AHL] is where we thought he would be this season,” Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk said. “He is a player who is only 20, who just came out of junior hockey and this is the level of development where he should probably be. But every situation he has been put in, he’s found a way to excel.”

One bonus for fantasy leaguers this season was that Benn was able to switch from the wing to centre when needed because of team injuries, which gave him dual eligibility in many formats. The DMN says he’s back on LW with the Texas Stars, but Nieuwendyk said Benn still takes a lot of face-offs and understands the centre position.

“He’s a good wing, he’s a good centre … he’s just a good player wherever he is,” Nieuwendyk said.

Benn said he will do whatever the coaches want, and he has shown that attitude throughout.

“He’s so smart and so willing to do anything to help,” Gulutzan said. “We’ve been a pretty close team all year, so it can be hard for someone to just come in late and jump in, but he’s so well-respected he fit right in from the start.”

According to The Washington Post, defenceman Joe Corvo (UFA) and winger Scott Walker (UFA) have been informed that they won’t be re-signed by Caps GM George McPhee.

“They were great, but we can only carry 23 when the season starts,” McPhee said.

They were both acquired via trade for the stretch run.

When asked about the status of centre Eric Belanger – the other pending UFA acquired at the deadline – McPhee said, “There’s some discussion there.”

McPhee declined to discuss the team’s other free agents, saying that decisions are still being made.

The Orange County Register reports that rugged defenceman Sheldon Brookbank has signed a two-year contract extension with the Ducks.

“Being that I was originally signed my first NHL contract with the Ducks, it’s comforting for me because I know they know exactly what I’m all about,” said Brookbank on Wednesday after inking a deal worth $1.5M total. “They kind of had expectations for me back then and maybe it didn’t work out in the time frame that they thought.

“Over the course of time, this is ultimately the place that I want to be. I can’t complain one bit.”

The blueliner could have become a UFA this summer, but he placed more value on remaining with the team that gave him his first real chance at being more than a depth defenceman.

“I thought about it a little bit,” Brookbank said of free agency. “It’s always tempting that you might be able to go out and try to chase a little more money or whatever. But I was comfortable here. I didn’t want to get too greedy. I wanted to be somewhere where I kind of fit in and I feel like I fit in here.

“My wife (Lene) likes it here a lot too so we definitely had a lot of contributing factors to why you’d want to stay.”

Brookbank isn’t much of a fantasy asset other than being used as a depth PIM producer on the back end. Still, as a “non-star” athlete he can still provide some insight into how he has dealt with not always being an everyday player… something we might be able to apply to our own daily lives when things don’t always go our way.

“I realized that I’m not going to gain a lot by stressing over it,” he said. “That’s something I had to battle with early in my career. And now I just kind of get over that and realize that I can be an effective player at this level.”

The Raleigh News & Observer reports that GM Jim Rutherford said today that Babchuk and his agent recently came to Raleigh to discuss the defenceman signing a new contract and returning to Carolina next season. Babchuk played last season with Avangard Omsk (KHL) in Russia.

“It was a very productive meeting,” Rutherford said. “We can’t sign him until July 1 because he played in Europe last year, but I’m very comfortable we will sign him at that point.”

I touched on this topic a few weeks ago when news first broke of Carolina’s intent to get the RFA back in the fold. The same thinking applies now, so here’s what was written then…

If the Canes do get Babchuk under contract, he and Joni Pitkanen (one more year at a $4.0M cap hit before becoming a UFA) would then see the bulk of power play action for the team. Jamie McBain, who was nothing short of spectacular in his late-season call-up, would then have less pressure to produce at the NHL level next year. Given Babchuk’s bouts with inconsistency in the past, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see McBain take away some PP minutes from Babchuk at some point.

A few more noteworthy tidbits from that article in the RN&O:

Rutherford said he would meet next week with veteran winger Ray Whitney (UFA) to discuss his future with the team. If the finances work, both sides are happy with each other.

No decision had been made on forward Sergei Samsonov. The 31-year-old winger has one year left on a contract that will him $2.8M next season, but there is a possibility the team could look to trade him or consider buying out his contract.

“We’re still working through that,” Rutherford said. “We have decisions to make on Sergei, Ray and Roddy (Brind’Amour).”

Rutherford said nothing yet had been decided on offering contracts to goaltender Manny Legace (UFA) or defenceman Brian Pothier (UFA).

Rutherford said the Canes “definitely will not be active on the free-agent market” come July 1.

“We want to give our younger players opportunities to play,” he said, although noting he would not completely rule out signing a free agent.


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