Matt Murray had said he hoped to stay in Ottawa long term.
Senators general manager Pierre Dorion expressed the belief it could happen.
Those two mindsets melded in a four-year, $25-million contract extension Friday for the starting goaltender Ottawa acquired via trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins just 48 hours earlier.
“We know how important the goaltending position is, especially as we move forward as a team,” Dorion said in a Zoom call Friday evening. “Matt has played in high-pressure moments and will stabilize our defence with his presence back there — and he’s someone who really wanted to be here. That says a lot about him.”
Considering Dorion was not given permission to speak to Murray or his agent during the trade negotiations with Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford, this deal came together quickly.
Like so many pandemic-time contracts, it is backloaded: $4 million, $6 million, $7 million and $8 million through 2023-24 for an average annual value of $6.25M. Murray had reached restricted free-agent status as the NHL’s free agency period ticked opened at noon on Friday.
Interestingly, that $4 million Murray will make this season nearly matches what the departing Craig Anderson made last season — $4.75 million. Anders Nilsson, 30, is slated to earn $2.6 million, but may not be ready to start the season, due to concussion issues. That will have to be determined. If Marcus Hogberg is Murray’s backup, he will earn $700,000.
Also interesting — Dorion believes that in a condensed season, the Senators may need a trifecta in goal, not a duo.
“We might have to look at having three goalies,” he said.
“Until Anders Nilsson gets to Ottawa, we don’t know what the situation is. I know (goalie coach) Pierre Groulx talked to him on Monday, and he still had symptoms and we determined then we had to improve our goaltending — not because Nilsson is not a good enough goalie, but because of the fact he is still hurt, still has symptoms from an injury suffered in December.”
For now, pencil in the Murray-Hogberg tandem and we’ll see about Nilsson.
While the Senators currently have lots of cap space, with a projected cap hit of $49.6 million, those final two years of the Murray deal could be more problematic down the road when Ottawa hopes to extend some of its young stars, notably Brady Tkachuk. That’s tomorrow’s question.
Meanwhile, there will be no issue with the Senators reaching the salary cap floor this season.
By acquiring defenceman Erik Gudbranson from Anaheim on Thursday, the Senators added $4 million to the payroll. Plus, they still intend to sign RFA forwards Connor Brown, Brad Tierney, Rudolfs Balcers and Nick Paul.
Further salaries will kick in with the expectation that former Belleville forwards Drake Batherson, Alex Formenton, Josh Norris and Logan Brown could be added to the NHL roster for 2020-21.
In a Zoom call with reporters on Thursday, Murray said his plan was to become a part of the Senators promising future with some of these aforementioned names.
“I definitely hope we can get something done so I can be here for years to come,” Murray said. “I see a really good fit here.
“This is a young team stacked with talent and absolutely heading in the right direction.”
A day later, the 26-year-old Murray became Ottawa’s second highest-paid player, behind only defenceman Thomas Chabot and his $8-million cap hit.
To get Murray, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, the Senators gave up forward prospect Jonathan Gruden and Ottawa’s 52nd pick in Wednesday’s draft.
By his own admission, Murray is coming off a sub-par season. In 38 games in 2019-20, Murray was 20-11-5 for a perennially contending Pittsburgh team, with a save percentage of .899 and goals-against of 2.87. Though he did see some playoff action against the Montreal Canadiens, Murray essentially lost his starting job to Tristan Jarry.
Murray was earning $3.75 million with Pittsburgh last season.
Dorion said his pro scouts and goalie coach spent a lot of time watching Murray, especially against the Canadiens, and they feel Murray can regain the form that helped eclipse the Senators in the 2017 Eastern Conference Final, when Murray came off the bench to be a hero.
“We’re in it to win.”
Dorion said he feels the signing of a Cup champion like Murray sends a positive message to fans but also to “players who will be here for the next four years that we’re in it to win.”
“We’re committed to building something for the long term here in Ottawa.”
Gudbranson comes home
Erik Gudbranson, who grew up playing his minor hockey in Ottawa’s east end, with the Gloucester Rangers, sometimes daydreamed about returning home to play for the Senators. On Thursday, when it actually happened, it caught him by surprise.
Gudbranson had just finished breakfast when he got a call from his agent. The Anaheim Ducks had traded the 28-year-old defenceman to Ottawa for a fifth-round selection in the 2021 draft (the pick previously belonged to Edmonton).
“It’s one of those things where you think maybe it could happen, but it happened so quickly, it came right out of left field for me,” Gudbranson said in a Zoom call with Ottawa media Friday. “But I couldn’t be more ecstatic and excited to come back home and play.”
Naturally, Gudbranson’s parents, Wayne and Donna, were delighted to know their son would be returning home after career stops in Florida, Vancouver, Pittsburgh and Anaheim.
“My mom called and she was borderline in tears,” Gudbranson said. “I’ve been gone from home since I was 16 years old and am now 28. Just the thought of having me back home is exciting for them. And, my buddies from my school days in Ottawa are all texting me.”
After proving himself to be a rugged, physical defenceman in the OHL, the six-foot-five, 215-pound Gudbranson was drafted by the Panthers third overall in 2010.
He says he feels as though he’s ready to return to being the type of dependable player he was in Florida while being a fixture on their blueline for five seasons. His experience will be a boost to a Senators team that just lost veterans Mark Borowiecki and Ron Hainsey to free agency.
“I’ve had an interesting career, I’ve had my good moments and my bad moments,” Gudbranson says. “There’s been ups and downs, injuries . . . I’ve been in the playoffs a few times. After ten years in the league, whatever experiences I bring, I bring to the group.”
The coronavirus “break” has been a time of healing for his banged-up body, Gudbranson says, noting he hasn’t felt this healthy in years. He is currently living north of Toronto, trains in the city three times a week and skates in the area with veteran Sam Gagner of the Detroit Red Wings.
In a sense, Gudbranson and Josh Brown replace Borowiecki and Hainsey.
“Erik is someone we targeted over the last few weeks,” Dorion said. “We know that the type of team DJ (Smith, head coach) wants to have has a physical presence on the back end and we feel Erik brings that for us.
“He’s a big guy, he’s rangy. He has a presence. He can shoot the puck hard, and at the same time he’s someone in a system where we box out, he will do very well. Obviously he’s a local guy that we like. And he was extremely excited when we talked to him.”
Gudbranson joins a blueline that currently has Chabot, Nikita Zaitsev, Mike Reilly, Josh Brown (acquired from Florida last week) and Christian Wolanin.
After these moves, Dorion feels his goaltending and defence are more or less set. He will look at adding perhaps one or two more forwards in the days ahead.
Turris, Borowiecki, nearly connect
In an odd bit of timing, one former Senator, Kyle Turris, left the Nashville Predators this week in a buyout, just before his ex-Sens teammate, Mark Borowiecki, signed a two-year deal with the Predators for an AAV of $2 million. Turris also signed for two years, at $1.65 million per season, with the Edmonton Oilers.
As he left, Borowiecki posted on his Instagram account heartfelt thanks to Senators staff and Ottawa fans for their support.
“Tara and I were both born and raised here, our son, Miles, was born here. We are so grateful for the support and safety this city has given us for the last 31 years.”
Signings for Belleville
With so many players expected to graduate from the AHL to Ottawa, Dorion signed two depth players who will almost certainly start the season in Belleville.
Forward Logan Shaw, 27, signed a two-year, two-way deal that would pay him $725,000 in the NHL and $375,000 in the AHL. Shaw split time in the 2019-20 season with the NHL Winnipeg Jets and AHL’s Manitoba. In 35 NHL games, he had two goals and three assists.
Matthew Peca, a centre acquired from a trade with the Montreal Canadiens in February, signed a two-way, one-year contract. He would earn $700,000 in the NHL and $300,000 in Belleville. Peca provided two points in nine games with the Senators last season.