OTTAWA – The Ottawa Senators like the position they’re in heading into the final weekend of play before the NHL’s Olympic break, so much so that they made several moves Friday to help keep them there afterward.
General manager Bryan Murray saw the option on his contract picked up for another year.
Murray then went out and acquired versatile centre Matt Cullen from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for defenceman Alexandre Picard and a second-round draft pick. He also placed right-winger Jonathan Cheechoo on waivers, clearing the way for more potential moves ahead of the March 3 trade deadline.
“It’s always nice to feel like they want to strengthen our team,” centre Jason Spezza said of the Senators’ busy day before they left for Detroit, where the Senators will wrap up their pre-Olympic schedule with games Saturday against the Red Wings and Sunday in New York versus the Islanders.
“It shows that (management) believes in us and we want to try and take a run – finish off strong here and then get ready to go after the break.”
Having beaten the Washington Capitals a night earlier to win for the 13th time in the past 14 games, the Senators have taken over the Northeast Division lead from Buffalo, although the Sabres do have two games in hand.
Where just making the playoffs was the team’s concern weeks ago, its run now has players and management looking at a longer post-season journey.
“It’s a good feeling,” said Spezza, who has 11 goals in his last 11 games. “You’d rather go into something like this winning and having a positive feeling around your team than losing and being down on your time.”
The Senators’ achievement didn’t go unnoticed by owner Eugene Melnyk.
Team president Cyril Leeder said the Senators wanted to give Murray, whose current deal was to expire July 1, a “vote of confidence.”
“We’ve got a very competitive team now that can challenge for the Stanley Cup,” Leeder said. “All the way through the organization, we’ve seen a lot of hard work from Bryan and his team that he’s put together.”
Murray felt the addition of the 33-year-old Cullen adds to that.
In Cullen, whose contract is up after this season, the Senators get a proven veteran who won a Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2006. The six-foot-one, 200-pound native of Virginia, Minn., gives them options since he can also play the wing.
“He’s been deep into the playoffs before and he thinks he can add something here and we feel the same way,” said Murray, who had Cullen as a player during his time as GM in Anaheim.
“We think it’s a good fit. He’s a very versatile player. He kills penalties, he plays the point on the power play, he plays centre, left wing, he’s a very competitive guy … and a real quality person that we think will bring energy and hopefully some statistics to our locker-room.”
Cullen, who was expected to join the Senators in Detroit in time for their game against the Red Wings on Saturday, had 12 goals and 28 assists in 59 games with the Hurricanes this season.
Picard, 24, played regularly earlier this season, but the emergence of rookie Erik Karlsson, who’s currently out with a minor shoulder injury, made him a regular healthy scratch when the Senators had all of their defencemen available. He had four goals and 11 assists in 45 games.
“It definitely helps us up front with more depth,” Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said of the trade. “If you want to have a long playoff run or give yourselves a chance, I think that’s what we’ve done.”
“If you can have three lines that can be a threat offensively, maybe the other team has two. And in the long run, you run into injuries, you have more players that can play that role.”
Blue-liner Chris Campoli suffered an undisclosed injury Thursday against Washington and is expected to be out for about a month. Brian Lee and Derek Smith have been recalled from Binghamton of the American Hockey League for this weekend’s games.
Murray said landing a defenceman ahead of the trade deadline is his next move and waiving Cheechoo could help facilitate that once the Olympic roster freeze is lifted. He dismissed speculation he would try to trade veteran Anton Volchenkov, saying he had extended a contract offer to the pending unrestricted free agent.
Cheechoo, the 29-year-old native of Moose Factory, Ont., was acquired in September as part of the deal that saw disgruntled sniper Dany Heatley dealt to the San Jose Sharks. However, he had just five goals and nine assists in 61 games at a salary-cap hit of US$3 million.