OTTAWA – The Ottawa Senators filled one of their needs on the opening day of free agency Friday, signing well-travelled goaltender Alex Auld to a one-year, US$1-million deal.
While the 30-year-old Auld will fill the role of backup behind Craig Anderson, the Senators will still be looking for scoring help.
But after two less-than-successful trips down the big-money veteran path, Senators general manager Bryan Murray avoided trying to make a big splash on the first day of free agency. Instead, he’s sticking with the rebuilding plan Ottawa began when it cleared its roster of veterans and salary in the days leading up to the trade deadline.
“I thought about it and we’re still talking about one role on our team, but the good thing that’s happened here is we had our development camp going on before this and I see possibilities with the young people,” Murray said Friday afternoon from Scotiabank Place. “Our plan, starting at the trade deadline last year, was to put some young people on our team and compete because of energy and maybe not experience and that’s what we’re going to try to do.
“I’ve talked to (Senators owner) Eugene Melnyk several times about that and again this morning to make it very clear from him, and from me, the direction is firm in what we’re trying to do here. Patience will be a little bit required, but I think we’ve got some upside to the number of young people and that’s sort of the route we decided to go.”
The Senators entered the day with about $19.5 million available under the $64.3-million salary cap for the upcoming season and 17 players under contract.
Murray took care of a few items of business before the end of the 2010-11 regular season.
The biggest was inking his No. 1 goaltender in Anderson, acquired in February from the Colorado Avalanche, to a four-year, $12.75-million deal to prevent him from hitting the free-agent market.
They also locked up veteran defenceman Chris Phillips for another three years at $3 million per season.
Also on Friday, forward Francis Lessard, 32, received a one-year, two-way deal.
But Murray has made no secret that their biggest need is more offence up front after Ottawa was the second-lowest scoring team in the NHL last season with 192 goals.
However, the Senators were reluctant to splash out a lot of cash. They still have a couple of restricted free agents that Murray expects to work things out with in Erik Condra and Bobby Butler. And he also didn’t close the door on unrestricted free agent Ryan Shannon.
A week earlier at the NHL entry draft, Murray decided to take a chance on the so-far unfulfilled potential of winger Nikita Filatov, trading the Senators’ third-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for the 21-year-old Russian with an eye to having him play among Ottawa’s top two lines.
There wasn’t a lot of scoring help available and given their recent history with big-money free-agent signings, the Senators’ decision to keep the purse strings tight may be a good one.
Kovalev produced just 32 goals 76 points in 131 games and frustrated former coach Cory Clouston and Senators fans with his inconsistency before being dealt at the trade deadline.
The Senators are hoping that underperforming defenceman Sergei Gonchar improves after a dismal first year in Ottawa in which he was supposed to be an offensive quarterback. Instead, he had just 27 points and a minus-15 in 67 games before winding up the year on the injured list with a concussion.
That’s why Murray wasn’t tempted to get in on the bidding for the services of a player such as Jaromir Jagr, who eventually signed a $3.3-million deal with the Philadelphia Flyers.
“Our decision was to not go that way, not to go to an older player that costs money and that probably wouldn’t want to come here anyway because he’d see all of the young people he’d have to hang out with (in rebuilding),” Murray said.
The Senators were in the market for a backup to Anderson. Curtis McElhinney finished the season in that role before being allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent.
“(Auld) has played well in the league,” Murray said. “He’s a guy that understands the role and understands that we’ve got Robin Lehner waiting in the wings to come and play within a year. And I didn’t want to go for term for the backup guy and Alex was very receptive to that.”
It’s Auld’s second time around in Ottawa and the second time Murray has turned to him to help the Senators’ goaltending department.
He has been with eight different NHL teams and first joined the Senators on July 1, 2008, splitting duties with Martin Gerber before the latter was waived.
That year Auld went 16-18-7 with 2.47 goals-against average and .911 save percentage before being dealt the following off-season to Dallas for a sixth-round pick.
Auld, who hails from Thunder Bay, Ont., served as backup to Carey Price in Montreal last season. He went 6-2-2 with a 2.64 GAA and .914 save percentage.
He spent time in Florida while Anderson was also part of the Panthers organization.
“There’s obviously familiarity in the team and with the city and the relationship with Bryan dates back to when I was drafted by the Panthers in ’99,” Auld said in a conference call from Florida, where he owns a home near Anderson. “At the end of the day, it just made the most sense.”
Auld faced the rebuilding Senators toward the end of the regular season, losing in overtime to a group of largely “unknown” players.
“It’s a group of guys that work hard and that’s exciting,” he said.