OTTAWA – The Ottawa Senators have already written off their playoff hopes for this year, but that didn’t stop general manager Bryan Murray from addressing a long-standing thorn in his team’s side before Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline.
Murray obtained goaltender Pascal Leclaire and a second-round pick in the upcoming draft from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Antoine Vermette.
“Obviously, it’s difficult and disappointing to have go give up Vermette. He’s been here for quite some time and a good player,” Murray said from Scotiabank Place following the 3 p.m. ET deadline. “But I think the first thing we had to try to accomplish here was to get better in one particular area and that’s goaltending.”
The acquisition of the 26-year-old Leclaire, who’s currently out injured after undergoing ankle surgery six weeks ago, was the first move around the league on deadline day and it proved to be the only trade the Senators made, although they also re-signed potential unrestricted free agent defenceman Filip Kuba to a three-year, US$11.1-million deal.
Leclaire, a native of Repentigny, Que., joins a goaltending situation in Ottawa that includes Alex Auld and rookie Brian Elliott. Both have struggled recently, re-opening an old wound among the fans and media in the nation’s capital who’ve long lamented the team’s lack of a proven No. 1 netminder over the years.
“We have solid guys, but to have a chance to get a top-end goaltender is a priority in any organization,” Murray said. “The ones that have success normally have that.”
Dominik Hasek, Ray Emery and Martin Gerber, claimed by the Toronto Maple Leafs on waivers Wednesday, have all failed to live up to the billing in the past, so Leclaire arrives to big, and possibly unrealistic, expectations.
“I don’t come in as the saviour or anything like that,” Leclaire said on a conference call. “Hockey’s a 20-player thing.”
He likely won’t get the chance to show his stuff in a Senators uniform this year. He’s only a week removed from being on crutches and is wearing a protective boot. He’s expected to be 100 per cent recovered by mid-to late-April.
“I doubt that I’ll play this year, but never say never,” said Leclaire, who’s scheduled to arrive in Ottawa on Thursday afternoon, before the Senators face the Edmonton Oilers.
“I’m pretty excited. It’s a great challenge for me. I’ve been hearing rumours all week and kind of reading about the chance to come to Ottawa. When it happens, it’s still a little bit of a shock, you never expect to get traded, but at the same time I’m pretty excited to coming into Ottawa.
“I know the organization from growing up in Montreal. It’s a team that’s always in the playoffs and it’s a world-class organization and they’re thriving on winning, so for me, it’s pretty exciting to be playing in an environment like that, especially going and playing in Canada will be pretty fun, too.”
Leclaire wasn’t having the best of seasons in Columbus. The ankle problem limited him to just 12 games, during which he posted a 4-6-1 record with a 3.83 goals-against average and .867 save percentage. The emergence of rookie Steve Mason made him expendable to the Blue Jackets.
The best of Leclaire’s four full NHL seasons came last year, when he went 24-17-6 with a 2.25 GAA, .919 save percentage and nine shutouts in 54 games.
Leclaire is making US$3 million this season, $3.6 million next year and $4.8 million the year after that. He’ll become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2010-11 season.
Leclaire has a history of injury problems, however. Since 2005, he’s spent a significant amount of time on the sidelines with neck (twice), back, knee, hamstring (twice), thumb and ankle injuries, but Murray felt once he’s fully recovered from his latest setback, that won’t be a concern.
Rather than waiting until summer to look for a goaltender, Murray thought the time was right now.
“There are a number of teams this summer that might be trying to upgrade their goaltending situation and you give up more probably at that point,” he said.
Vermette, also 26, had spent all of his five NHL seasons in Ottawa. After a career-high 24-goal season last year that earned him a new deal with the Senators which pays him $2.525 million this year and $3 million in 2009-10, he had struggled this season with just nine goals and 19 assists in 62 games.
“I don’t think it’s kicked in yet,” Vermette said from Scotiabank Place while his former teammates practised without him. “I’ve got to see it as a good opportunity on my side and look forward to joining (the Blue Jackets), even though at times you’re totally aware that it’s the team that drafted me and I grew up in this organization.
“I’m going to miss Ottawa.”
He’ll give the Blue Jackets a forward that can play either centre or wing and can kill penalties and play the power play.
“He was a popular guy in this room, so he definitely will be missed,” said Chris Kelly, who will get a new linemate for Thursday’s game after Peter Regin was recalled from AHL Binghamton to take Vermette’s place. “But you’ve got to give up some assets to get something.”
Meanwhile, Kuba’s new deal will keep him in Ottawa through the 2011-12 season.
The 32-year-old was expected to be on the move along with right-winger Chris Neil, since both players were eligible to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.
Both stayed put, but only Kuba reached a new deal that’ll keep him in Ottawa for the next three seasons at a cost of $3.7 million per year, a raise from the $3 million he’s making this year, his first in Ottawa since being acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of a trade for Andrej Meszaros last summer.
“Bottom line was, we liked him,” Murray said of Kuba. “He’s a puck-mover, a rangy guy, he doesn’t slam people into the boards, but he adds to our defence a fair amount and I think he’s a good piece to what we have here.
“I had more calls about Filip than probably anybody. There were several good teams involved and they thought I was wise in getting him done because they’re hard to come by.”
In 54 games this season, Kuba has two goals and 29 points and, on a team of minuses, leads the Senators with a plus-8 rating.
“I’m very happy to get it done. That was always my priority to stay here,” Kuba said. “I like the guys in the locker-room and it’s a class organization here and we have a lot better seasons coming than the last one.”
The 29-year-old Neil, who’s currently out with a lacerated calf, will now be free to test the market this summer. He’s making $1.2 million this season and is believed to be seeking a deal somewhere around $2 million per year.
Murray said he was hoping to do more before the deadline. Another member of the Senators rumoured to be on his way out was Christoph Schubert. Murray said he’d taken calls from three teams over the forward/defenceman, but nothing materialized.
“I thought maybe I would move one more player here, other than Neil, and get a pick for that,” Murray said. “But what I found as I called around, and I talked to 24 managers today was that prospects and picks were a very important commodity to clubs.”