OTTAWA - There were plenty of smiles and laughs going around at the Senators' practice Wednesday, but there was no masking the seriousness of the shakeup going on inside the floundering NHL team's dressing room.
The Senators, dead last in the Eastern Conference and in 29th place overall, broke from routine and held their workout at a local outdoor rink, much to the delight of a couple of hundred school children who took a break from the classroom in order to watch the action and gather autographs and photos with their heroes.
While it thrilled the onlookers, the excursion also served to lighten the mood, at least temporarily, of a team that for the second time in less than a week watched one of its longest serving and most popular players depart the dressing-room door via a trade.
"We expected some stuff to happen, but nothing this drastic this soon," centre Jason Spezza said after watching his best friend on the team, centre Chris Kelly, get shipped off to the Boston Bruins for a second-round draft pick. That trade came a night earlier following the Senators' 4-3 shootout loss to the New York Islanders–Ottawa's 18th defeat in its past 20 games.
Last Thursday, it was Mike Fisher who departed, traded to the Nashville Predators for a first-round pick and another conditional pick, and the shakeup has only just begun.
"I didn't think (Kelly) would be a guy that was going to get traded and I think we're at the point right now where anybody could get traded," Spezza said. "They're just trying to shed some salary and start from scratch."
In last place in the Eastern Conference and 29th overall the Senators have officially entered rebuild mode, the result of a season in which they've won just 18-of-57 contests and will miss the playoffs for the second time in three years. They haven't been beyond the first round since making the Stanley Cup final in 2007.
With Kelly and Fisher now gone, only Spezza, captain Daniel Alfredsson, defenceman Chris Phillips and right-winger Chris Neil remain from the team that lost to Anaheim in that final and that number is likely to get smaller.
General manager Bryan Murray, whose own contract is up following the season, said after dealing Kelly that with the exception of Alfredsson and all-star defenceman Erik Karlsson, any player is pretty much in play ahead of the Feb. 28 trade deadline.
If the Senators didn't realize that before last week, they do now.
"It's tough to take seeing guys that have been mainstays around this dressing room for a long time be moved out," Phillips said. "We know it's reality in the game today, but it doesn't make it any easier."
The Senators now have two first-round picks and two second-round picks for this year's draft and have cleared salary cap space in removing the contracts of Fisher (a US$4.2-million cap hit that runs for two more seasons) and Kelly ($2.125-million cap hit through next season).
However, with 25 games still to go in the regular season, what that leaves in the lineup likely won't make for pretty viewing for fans, but will make for more frustrating nights among the players who stay.
"You can either do it or not do it and it's hard to do, but we're doing it," Murray said. "We're going to re-tool the budget, we're going to re-tool the organization and…there's going to be some painful nights.
"I've talked to Edmonton, I've talked to Colorado about going young and how difficult it is at times, I've talked to managers about what to do and don't do and I think we all feel the pain at times."
Phillips, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, has a no-movement clause and it's expected he'll soon be approached to waive it once a suitable deal is in order.
"I don't know if there's more room for me (to stay) or more chance of being asked to go (after the Fisher and Kelly trades), I'm really not sure," Phillips said. "I'll see what happens here in the next 10 days or so."
Despite that, Phillips insisted Wednesday that he would prefer to be part of the rebuild rather than any relocation.
"I know people will call me crazy for saying that, but I think you need some veteran guys that have been around to help," he said.
Although already 24, right-winger Erik Condra made his NHL debut in Tuesday's loss and, with defencemen Chris Campoli and Sergei Gonchar (both lower-body injuries) doubtful for this weekend's games, more fresh faces could be in the lineup—something Senators fans are going to have to accept under the rebuild.
For the next little while, it's going to be about the kids as it was Wednesday under the watch of about 200 Grade 3 to Grade 5 students from Bayshore Public Shore, who cheered as the Senators had some fun playing 3-on-3 and practising shootouts.
Afterward, they stuck around to sign autographs and pose for pictures before jumping on the bus back to Scotiabank Place, where they will face Kelly and the Bruins on Friday.
"It was awesome just hearing the kids scream and say your name over a thousand times to get your attention," left-winger Nick Foligno said. "It's a lot of fun and we had a lot of fun being out here. I remember being a young kid like that, too, and being so excited when you had a professional athlete come around, so it's nice to give back."
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