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Senators caught between rebuild and playoff push

Zack Smith and Erik Condra both sit in the top 10 in team scoring this season. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

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Zack Smith and Erik Condra both sit in the top 10 in team scoring this season. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

When Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray puts his ear to the ground these days, he hears the rest of the Eastern Conference creeping up the standings. And riding a four-game losing streak going into his team’s game Friday night, Murray doesn’t have much time to figure out exactly what team he has this season.

And it’s important that he does that right away. Because with the Feb. 27 trade deadline looming, Murray is a GM who is more betwixt and between than perhaps any other. That’s kind of a good thing, considering the Senators were viewed by almost everyone as bottom feeders in the Eastern Conference this season, and here we are with roughly two months to go and the Senators are sixth in the conference. On one hand, they’ve played more games than everyone else and those games will be made up at some point. But on the other, teams such as the Washington Capitals, Winnipeg Jets and Tampa Bay Lightning have spent the season throwing away their chances of making the playoffs.

So what’s Murray to do? Does he go out and make a trade for an impact player such as impending unrestricted free agent Tuomo Ruutu of the Carolina Hurricanes or does he stick to the rebuild philosophy and hope that’s enough to get his team into the playoffs this season? If they do make it, are the Senators a team that could make a little noise and go on a run or are they first-round road kill?

The best thing about all of this is every playoff game the Senators play this season will be a bonus. People knew Erik Karlsson was good, but not this good. People knew Daniel Alfredsson was a proud veteran who didn’t want to fade away with mediocre play, but who would have thought he would come back so strongly? Yeah, guys such as Colin Greening, Bobby Butler, Zack Smith and Erik Condra were NHL players, but nobody thought they were going to have this kind of impact.

For his part, Murray maintains that as eager as he’s been portrayed as wanting to add a player such as Ruutu, he hasn’t even spoken to Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford yet about any kind of deal. The dilemma Murray faces, though, is the longer he waits, the greater the chance he’ll have to pay a higher price for Ruutu. As one agent put it, right now there are a lot of teams that want to make a deal, but there are few sellers and of the players who are available, the asking price is far too high at the moment.

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But before we start getting all giddy about Ruutu, let’s put this into perspective. First, someone will almost certainly be willing to overpay for Ruutu before the deadline, just as they will for the likes of Ales Hemsky, Hal Gill and the plethora of other mid-level players who will be available as Feb. 28 draws near. But keep in mind that Ruutu is on pace for 41 points this season and has played 16 playoff games in his career in which he has a grand total of one goal.

Murray has made it clear, however, that top prospects such as Mika Zibanejad, Mark Stone, Matt Puempel and Jakob Silfverberg are off limits. “We have one or two young guys in our system that we might be willing to trade,” he said. “But there is no way we’re going to be trading that kind of asset.”

If Murray makes a deal, it will likely be for more of a role player in exchange for a mid-level prospect. That could take him out of the running for Ruutu, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem for the Senators is they likely won’t know whether they’re in or out of the playoffs until long after the deadline, perhaps even to the last weekend of the season.

Ruutu would undoubtedly make them a better, deeper team going into the playoffs, particularly since some of their young players have predictably begun to fade, but would he be enough of an upgrade to get the Senators out of the first round of the post-season?

That’s debatable. But what is certain is the Senators appear to be on the right path for a long-term rebuild regardless of whether they end up on the north or south side of the Eastern Conference this season. They have served notice that they are much better than everyone thought they would be and that their route back to contender status is going to be much less circuitous than first projected.

And Murray knows it doesn’t make a lot of sense to mess with that.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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