Crossroads: Contract Negotiations Update with Lehner and Impending 2015 UFAs

Finally, some Ottawa Senators news!

At the media’s reveal of the new Sens House Bar and Grill on Thursday– the bar will open to the public on Monday, July 28 – majestic photos of Alex Chiasson were taken(and he bears a striking resemblance to actor Jamie Bamber from Battlestar Galactica fame, I might add) and word trickled out that the Senators were ready to get moving on contract extensions with a number of principle players.

The #Sens are closing in on a deal with Robin Lehner. Agreed on term. Have to work out money.

— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) July 24, 2014

 

“We’re extremely close,” said Pierre Dorion on signing Robin Lehner. “We said we’d give it a week break so that’s what we’ve done.” #Sens

— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) July 24, 2014

Robin Lehner is just one of two RFAs remaining within the organization. Stephane Da Costa is the other and although the Senators probably would have qualified Da Costa to retain his rights, he’s expected to join a team in the KHL for the upcoming season.

Management has consistently relayed the message that they had issued short, medium and long-term offers to Robin Lehner’s camp with varying target price points to protect everyone’s interests, so it’s kind of surprising to hear that the two camps have agreed to a term, but not to the assigned dollar figure. Unless of course the only term that he and the Senators have agreed to is the one that determines when he’s the number one starter and frankly, given the accompanying news that the lone 2015 impending UFA that the Senators aren’t apparently talking extension with is Craig Anderson, maybe Lehner will be given every opportunity to claim that job in 2014/15.

Yes, according to those in attendance at yesterday’s event, “assistant general manager Pierre Dorion says talks are warming up on all contract fronts, including the big ones: pending unrestricted free agent wingers Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur and defenceman Marc Methot.”

Part of the problem for these impending UFAs is that they are slated to hit the open market in a season in which the league can expect the salary cap ceiling to be raised once again because of the revenue generated by the league’s new Canadian national broadcast agreement with Rogers Media that kicks in this upcoming season.

Although injuries could befall any of these players and potentially limit their bargaining power next summer, if they sign now, they likely would be taking less than market value to remain with an organization that might not necessarily have the cash or currency in stockpiled prospects to surround these vets with better talent and with it, a greater chance to compete.

That’s the rub for these players and for many of them, it’s their first opportunity to pass up a chance at a big pay day and handpick where they want to play next season.

Just ask Marc Methot:

“But this is my first time really being in this position. In the past, I had restricted free agency. Now, with unrestricted free agency just around the corner, it changes the dynamic. I’d like to stay here but there’s only so much I can do. It’s up to my agent to get something done.”

As a hometown guy, it might be a little easier to convince Methot to stay and Dorion himself indicated that any contract with Methot will be a “fairly simple one” that he anticipates will get done, but the problem that the Senators have is that as much local pressure they perceive there to be to retain this talent, there’s a proportionate response from the fans and players who want assurances that the franchise has the wherewithal to surround said talent with better players, so that they can prove that they can be more than just a bubble playoff team.

The inability to do anything other than preserve the status quo isn’t palatable for anyone and it would be foolish to think the players aren’t aware of this.

The Senators were able to capitalize on the lowered expectations and subsequent surprising playoff appearances that  followed their 2011 sell job at the trade deadline, but at some point, fans and the players will want to see this organization take another step forward.

Veterans like the 2015 impending UFAs want to win and before they want to commit, they will also want to ensure the organization has the financial flexibility (aka the “commitment to win” as a recently departed captain noted in his introductory press conference in Dallas) to make the team better now and in the future.

For this reason alone, many are left wondering whether this ability to compete will make it difficult to sign a player like Bobby Ryan.

The simple fact that a Senators entourage will be meeting with Ryan’s representation and to a lesser extent may bode well, but should those negotiations go south, it would put the organization at a crossroad. (To a lesser extent, the same could be said about MacArthur or Methot as well.)

On one hand, if they fail to sign Ryan this summer, do they chance holding onto him and enter the season without him having a new contract in hopes that they can convince him to stay? Do they risk the distraction of ongoing negotiations and his uncertain status lingering over the team?

The risk of an injury could also be disastrous and judging by the activity at last season’s trade deadline, are we seeing the start of a trend in which teams have wizened up to the depreciating value of a rental player? If teams are no longer interested in mortgaging the future on a rental, will Ryan’s trade value diminish over the course of the season leading up to the deadline?

Conversely, the organization also has to worry about fan backlash and having to sell tickets. Both are easier to mitigate with Ryan in the lineup than not. There’s also the possibility that the organization believes its fickle fans may not support a rebuild or maybe ownership just really wants to line its pockets with sweet and delicious playoff revenues. Whatever the case, there will come a point in time when the fans will want more from their favorite team and if the Senators continue to spin their tires, one can’t help but wonder how much longer will fans continue to throw their unwavering support behind the direction of the team.

Should Ryan decide that he doesn’t have confidence in the organization’s ability to build around him, the Senators may have no choice but to reset.

Being a competitive team on an annual basis while operating on a shoestring budget is incredibly difficult, but it’s not impossible to do. It just comes with a ridiculously fine margin for error. Any chance of sustained success or eventual contention is predicated on winning trades, being smart with their limited financial resources and constantly drafting and developing stud players who can step in and contribute in short order.

The Senators simply can’t rely exclusively on just one of these areas. They do need to do all three. and right now and whether they are doing any of these things consistently enough to think their fortunes will markedly improve anytime soon is subject to debate.

Should Ryan elect to remain in Ottawa, the Senators will have a roster comprised of players who are, for the better part, on inexpensive deals and with Lazar’s expected presence on the roster as well, many of this team’s best young players stand a legitimate chance to crack the Senators’ opening day roster. Ideally, the time would be right for the team to go all in with moves to make this team better now.

If they can’t make more moves now, the hope will hinge on the team repaying its sizeable debt load in short order so the purse strings are loosened and the money spent on player payroll increases. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee this happening anytime soon.

No one wants to see this team be caught in a cycle of not being good enough to develop into a contender, but not bad enough to land a higher draft picks and significantly better odds of grabbing young talent with high upside.

All of these things will weigh on the mind of Bobby Ryan and the ball is in his court. His decision alone will tell us what direction the Senators will be going in moving forward.

 

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