OTTAWA – Ottawa Senators forward Chris Neil was excited to learn of the impending deal to end the NHL lockout, but he understands there are some fans who might not share his exuberance.
News that a tentative contract had been reached between the NHL and the players’ association on a ten-year collective bargaining agreement broke early Sunday morning.
Although players are excited to back on NHL ice, Neil realizes many fans are disillusioned with the game.
“We know there’s been some damage done to the game, but as players we’ll do our best to get the fans back,” he said. “We have some of the best fans in the league and hopefully they’ll come back, but we understand that we’ve lost some.”
Senators forward Zack Smith added that fan apathy was one of the players’ biggest concerns throughout the labour feud.
“Our fans were on the minds of a lot of players,” said Smith. “Hopefully we can get a lot of them back. I’m sure the hardcore fan will be back, but we’ll need to work hard to get others back.”
Smith, who spent much of the last four weeks playing in Denmark, said he had no idea the two sides were so close to an agreement when he went to bed Saturday night.
“I went to bed pretty early,” said Smith. “It was pretty awesome news to wake up to. I was definitely relieved and then started getting pretty excited.”
As news of the agreement broke, players reacted quickly on Twitter. Ottawa defenceman Marc Methot has been waiting since July to slip on a Senators jersey.
“Oh boy, it’s ridiculous how fired up I am right now. All kinds of emotions. Finally, I get to throw on the jersey!” tweeted Methot, an Ottawa native acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the off-season who has been vocal throughout the lockout in his disappointment at having his homecoming delayed.
The 27-year-old is likely to be counted on for some significant minutes as one of just four returning veteran defenceman on a blue-line that is a concern heading into the abbreviated season.
In addition to Methot, the Senators still boast Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips, but will need to find a way to fill the void left by the season-ending hip injury suffered by Jared Cowen while playing with the American Hockey League’s Binghamton Senators.
Gonchar, in the final year of his contract, put up impressive numbers with three goals and 26 assists in 36 games while playing with Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the KHL. Both Phillips and Methot have been skating in Ottawa.
The Senators were counting on the addition of Mike Lundin to add some support to the defence corps, but the 28-year-old fractured a finger while playing in Sweden and will be sidelined for at least a couple of weeks, leaving the door wide open for a few prospects from Binghamton.
It’s likely that Mark Borowiecki, known for his physical style of play, as well as Patrick Wiercioch and Andre Benoit will all be given a chance.
Benoit, Binghamton’s captain, is a minor-league veteran and has nine goals and 13 assists in 31 games, while Wiercioch has eight goals and nine assists in 29 games. The two have served as the top defence pairing in Binghamton, which could be seen as a benefit to Senators management.
But any deficiencies on the blue-line should be made up in goal, where the Senators are deeper than they’ve ever been.
Craig Anderson, who was solid in last year’s seven-game playoff loss against the New York Rangers, is expected to see the bulk of work as the returning No. 1 goaltender. Ben Bishop will likely get the nod as the backup, although an argument could be made for Robin Lehner, who has had a breakout season in the AHL.
Bishop has the advantage of a guaranteed NHL contract, while Lehner is still on a two-way deal.
Up front, the Senators also have reason to be excited.
First and foremost is the return of Daniel Alfredsson, who pondered retirement at the end of last season. The Senators captain announced he would return in the summer, but as the lockout dragged on the 40-year-old again hinted at retirement if the season was cancelled.
Jakob Silfverberg, Binghamton’s leading scorer, could be given an opportunity on Ottawa’s top line alongside Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek or the second unit with Alfredsson and Kyle Turris.
The Senators also added Guillaume Latendresse through free agency. Latendresse has missed much of the last two seasons due to injury, but has shown an ability to produce offensively in the past.
Peter Regin, signed to a one-year deal, will also be looking to redeem himself after missing much of the last two seasons with shoulder injuries.
The Senators have plenty of depth on their third and fourth line with Smith, Neil, Colin Greening, who also saw time on the first line in 2011-12, Erik Condra, Jim O’Brien and Kaspars Daugavins.
With such a condensed season, players realize the importance of every game.
“It’s going to be a rat race right to the end of the season,” said Neil. “The bottom line is that we’re not going to be able to take too many nights off and it’s going to come down to paying attention to the details.”