Sens brass must piece to­gether loom­ing free-agent puz­zle

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - SPORTS - KEN WAR­REN kwar­ren@post­ Twit­­ti­zenkwar­ren

Maybe we’re all ask­ing the wrong ques­tion on the Matt Duch­ene and un­re­stricted free agency front.

Per­haps the most press­ing query isn’t whether the Sen­a­tors will re-sign the newly ac­quired cen­tre be­fore he be­comes an un­re­stricted free agent in July 2019. That, as gen­eral man­ager Pierre Do­rion said of mak­ing the trade that saw Kyle Tur­ris, along with a top prospect and a pair of draft picks leave the or­ga­ni­za­tion, would ap­pear to be a “no-brainer.”

The more in­trigu­ing ques­tion could be whether the Sen­a­tors will re-sign cen­tre Der­ick Bras­sard be­fore he, too, be­comes an un­re­stricted free agent in July, 2019.

In an ideal world, the Sen­a­tors would lock up their top two cen­tres long-term, giv­ing them a for­mi­da­ble 1-2 punch that could pos­si­bly take them all the way into a new arena at LeBre­ton Flats.

Yet, the bud­get squeeze never ends. Can the Sen­a­tors af­ford to spend in the neigh­bour­hood of $13 mil­lion-$14 mil­lion to keep both of them here for years to come?

As it is, Do­rion will be spend­ing next sum­mer deal­ing with the high-priced puz­zles of Mark Stone and Erik Karls­son.

Stone will be a re­stricted free agent when the 2017-18 sea­son ends. As the points keep pil­ing up — he’s tied for fourth in the NHL with 12 goals — so will the con­tract de­mands. Stone is cur­rently play­ing out the fi­nal year of an team-friendly three-year, $10.5-mil­lion con­tract.

On top of that, there’s the notso-small mat­ter of sign­ing cap­tain Karls­son to a colos­sal ex­ten­sion be­fore his un­re­stricted free agency kicks in, also in July 2019. (Par­don the aside here. If Sen­a­tors owner Eu­gene Mel­nyk doesn’t want to talk about at­ten­dance prob­lems now, the crowds will dwin­dle fur­ther un­less he’s will­ing to fork over at least $10 mil­lion per sea­son for the world’s best de­fence­man).

The money for Karls­son and Stone has to come from some­where — or more ap­pro­pri­ately, has to be taken away from some­where — which brings us back to the Duch­ene/Bras­sard dilemma.

Like Stone, Bras­sard is cur­rently a bar­gain for the Sen­a­tors. While he car­ries a salary cap hit of $5 mil­lion, he’s be­ing paid only $3.5 mil­lion in ac­tual dol­lars this sea­son and next. If his five-year, $25-mil­lion con­tract didn’t work that way, Do­rion might not have had the fi­nan­cial wig­gle room to make the shrewd swap that sent Mika Zibane­jad to the New York Rangers back in the sum­mer of 2016.

Lined up with Stone this sea­son, Bras­sard has six goals and 15 points in 16 games, on pace to score 37 goals and 77 points. What’s the open mar­ket value for a 12-year NHL vet­eran cen­tre with those kinds of num­bers?

Mean­while, the Sen­a­tors aren’t go­ing to eas­ily skate away from Duch­ene, given that they gave up Tur­ris, 2017 first-round draft pick Shane Bow­ers, a 2018 first-round se­lec­tion and a 2019 third-round se­lec­tion in the ex­change.

There are many par­al­lels to the 2013 trade that saw Bobby Ryan come to the Sen­a­tors. Should Duch­ene pro­duce the way the Sen­a­tors hope — we saw snip­pets of his skill dur­ing the Swedish sweep — we could also even­tu­ally see some­thing along the lines of the seven-year, $50.575 mil­lion deal Ryan signed with the Sen­a­tors in 2014.

Again, the Sen­a­tors would like noth­ing bet­ter than to keep both Duch­ene and Bras­sard.

Yet if forced to choose be­tween the two, logic sug­gests the Sen­a­tors would go for the younger op­tion. When the 2019-20 sea­son be­gins, Duch­ene will be 28 and Bras­sard will be 32.

Bras­sard him­self talked about the NHL “be­ing a busi­ness” in dis­cussing the bit­ter-sweet­ness of los­ing Tur­ris while gain­ing Duch­ene.

Part of that busi­ness means a reg­u­lar turnover of bod­ies, while watch­ing the game lean more and more to­wards younger play­ers.

Sooner or later, the Sen­a­tors have to open the door to give top cen­tre prospects Colin White and/or Lo­gan Brown the op­por­tu­nity to live up to their po­ten­tial. The rea­son the Sen­a­tors felt com­fort­able in mov­ing Bow­ers, a cen­tre, is be­cause they felt they were well stocked with a for­ward prospect pool that in­cludes White, Brown, Filip Ch­lapik, Drake Bather­son and Alex For­men­ton.

At the risk of get­ting way ahead of our­selves, keep the fol­low­ing in mind for next sea­son: Bras­sard owns a lim­ited no-trade clause, whereby he can sub­mit a list of eight teams he would not be will­ing to ac­cept a trade to.

Do­rion de­serves credit for re­mov­ing po­ten­tial dress­ing room con­tract dis­trac­tions early this sea­son, sign­ing goal­tender Craig An­der­son to an ex­ten­sion and by trad­ing Tur­ris when it be­came clear the sides had a dif­fer­ent view of his fu­ture here.

Right now, the Sen­a­tors have the look of a play­off team, with the dan­ger­ous duo of Duch­ene and Bras­sard down the mid­dle.

Then comes next year, with its own set of fi­nan­cial hur­dles to step over.

Matt Duch­ene

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