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Screen Shots: Rich Clune, Phil Kessel and Ottawa's Hot Summer

Adam Proteau looks at the retirement of a fan favorite in Rich Clune, what Phil Kessel's future looks like and the changes to make the Ottawa Senators a team to watch in 2022-23.
Rich Clune

It’s time, once again, for an edition of Screen Shots – as always, a column in which we break down a few hockey topics that may not warrant a full column, but that nonetheless deserve our attention and analysis. Onward we go:

– The Toronto Marlies announced on Thursday veteran forward and team captain Rich Clune would be retiring after a 15-season professional career that included 139 NHL games and a Calder Cup championship in 2017-18. But a large part of his legacy was forged off the ice, where he bravely and openly discussed his substance addiction and mental health issues.

Clune was never the most talented player on the ice, but he was a leader because of his work ethic and dedication to improving the environment in the sport so that people who went through what he went through could speak about their struggles publicly and get the help they needed. He realized his dream of playing for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs for 19 games in 2015-16, but the 35-year-old spent most of his time riding buses in the American League, including the final seven years of his pro career with the Marlies. Some players may have resented such a career arc, but Clune was always a positive influence, which is why he became a fan (and teammate) favorite regardless of where he played.

In his retirement announcement, Clune revealed he’ll be remaining with the Maple Leafs organization in a player development role. That is a very astute decision by Leafs brass. Clune was a model member of the organization, and his experience and willingness to help younger players is precisely what Toronto needs. He and fellow new management hire Jason Spezza can continue to make an impact for the Blue and White, and be key components of developing talented youngsters for years to come. Best wishes to Clune.

– It’s now August, and there are a handful of notable unrestricted free agent players still without a new team and/or contract. Former Leafs center Nazem Kadri is the most notable in that group, but there's another former Leaf – winger Phil Kessel – who you’d think would’ve been in higher demand, yet who still is a UFA.

In a discussion with a player agent earlier this week, they noted that some UFAs may be strategically waiting until training camp opens, or when the regular-season begins, to sign a new deal. The thinking there is that, if there are injuries that take place during those stretches of time, teams will be in a better salary cap position, and thus able to offer UFAs more money than they can at the moment. This may be why UFAs like defensemen P.K. Subban and Calvin De Haan, and forwards Paul Stastny, Victor Rask and Sonny Milano are taking their time to join a new team.

However, when it comes to Kessel, it may behoove a playoff-contending team to sign him sooner than later. The 34-year-old, two-time Stanley Cup-winner struggled to post his usual amount of offense last season, but that may be because of the awful Arizona Coyotes team he was playing on. Only two seasons ago, Kessel scored 20 goals and 43 points in 56 games, and although he scored only eight goals in 82 games in 2021-22, Kessel did generate 44 assists. He still has something left in the tank, and if he’s utilized properly, he can be an asset for a Cup contender.

Kessel has earned more than $91 million as a player, so his next contract isn’t all about money. It’s about the right fit for him personally and on the ice, and really, there should be at least a few teams that can offer him a good fit as his pro career winds down. The team that does sign him could be getting a real bargain.

- We’ve said it before, but the Ottawa Senators have had a terrific off-season. Adding veteran forwards Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat may be the best one-two punch of new acquisitions of any NHL team, and even the trading of versatile forward Connor Brown – a player I’ve always thought highly of – can’t take the shine off of what GM Pierre Dorion has done with his roster this summer.

Dorion also landed veteran goalie Cam Talbot this off-season, and while Talbot is 35 years old, he’s coming off a solid season in Minnesota and expects to be Ottawa’s starting netminder this year. Tandem partner Anton Forsberg may have something to say about that, but there should be healthy competition for playing time, and that’s a positive for the Sens as well.

If there is a concern about the Senators, it’s their defense corps as a whole. Sure, they have star Thomas Chabot leading the way on the blueline, and youngster Jake Sanderson is poised to assert himself as an above-average NHLer, but they’ve got three thirty-something D-men in Nick Holden, Travis Hamonic and Nikita Zaitsev, and if the defense suffers any injuries, there’s not a ton of depth to help them get by.

As we’ve also said before, the Atlantic Division is likely to be more competitive this season, with Ottawa and the Detroit Red Wings looking to be seriously improved and set to challenge for a low playoff berth. Can we see the Sens finishing ahead of the Boston Bruins? Yes, yes we can. It may come down to Detroit and Ottawa for fourth place in the Atlantic, and that’s something Sens fans will be thrilled to see.

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