OTTAWA - A tough season now behind them, the Ottawa Senators may be facing an even more challenging off-season.
Ottawa saw its playoff hopes dashed Saturday following a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The defending Stanley Cup champions advanced in six games, leaving the Senators to clean out their lockers Monday.
Ottawa hasn't advanced past the first round since reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2006?and with plenty of players becoming free agents this summer, big changes could be on the way.
The biggest decision involves defenceman Anton Volchenkov, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Volchenkov, respected around the league for his shot blocking and physical play, will be seeing for a substantial raise on the US$3.2 million he made this season.
Senators GM Bryan Murray didn't sound optimistic when asked about his chances of retaining Volchenkov.
"I don't know whether I'm going to be able to get him signed," said Murray. "It's going to be very difficult.
"We have three or four restricted free agents. Even if we get them done at the numbers I'm hoping we get them done at?and that?s usually not the case?budget-wise we'll be in a position that will be difficult."
Volchenkov, for his part, didn't rule out a return.
"There is always a chance I will be back," he said. "I played seven years here. My first choice for sure is to be in Ottawa."
The Senators are also facing questions in goal, where Pascal Leclaire was a bust in his first season in Ottawa. A combination of injuries and inconsistency forced Leclaire out of the starting role in favour of Brian Elliott.
Leclaire was solid in the final two games of the Pittsburgh series, and Murray hopes the 27-year-old will ride that momentum into next season.
"He's a good goaltender, he's a competitive guy and hopefully he has a great summer," said Murray. "I think conditioning and those things we always talk to players about are important, and we hope that he comes back (strong).
"He's got another year with us that he has a chance to prove that he can be the top dog, and we'll give him that chance."
Leclaire knows much will be expected of him next season?and he?s looking forward to the challenge.
"Obviously I was hoping to have a better season, but it didn't happen and hopefully next year will be better," said Leclaire. "I have a big summer ahead of me."
The Senators have nine restricted free agents, including Peter Regin, Nick Foligno, Jesse Winchester and Chris Campoli.
Matt Cullen was brought in prior to the trade deadline from the Carolina Hurricanes, and said he enjoyed the chance to play in a Canadian city for the first time. He hasn't ruled out a return to Ottawa.
"I enjoyed every minute of it," said Cullen. "I had a good meeting with Bryan and certainly need a little time to let things settle and get home and see my family and speak with them a little bit.
"I have nothing but good things to say about this organization and it certainly is a possibility so we?ll see what happens in these next few weeks and months."
Murray will also need to make a decision regarding Jonathan Cheechoo, who is due to make $3.5 million next season. He was sent to the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Binghamton, N.Y., after struggling early in the season in order to make cap room for Sutton and Cullen.
Murray bristled when asked about star forward Jason Spezza's no-trade clause, which goes into effect July 1. Spezza is a polarizing figure in Ottawa, lauded for his offensive heroics and chided for his mistakes.
"So he is what he is. You accept it," Murray said. "We hope that as he continues to play this game that he'll do little things a little different and better, but he's a good player, and you don't go find that kind of player very often in the National Hockey League."
Spezza said he gets tired of dealing with the criticism.
"I have persevered my whole career and I will continue to do the same," he said.
There were plenty of bright spots for the Senators this season. Teenage defenceman Erik Karlsson excelled in his rookie season, while Peter Regin finished ninth among first-year players with 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists). The two added 10 points in 12 combined playoff games.