It was a busy week for Senators GM John Muckler, who signed free agents Martin Gerber and Joe Corvo ó along with his own players Jason Spezza and Ray Emery. But Ottawa said goodbye to free agents Zdeno Chara (Boston), Brian Pothier (Washington) and Dominik Hasek (retirement). Yesterday, Muckler sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with Sun hockey writer Bruce Garrioch:
SUN: You have always maintained that with the new system there were going to be changes. Do people have to accept that fact and that youíre going to lose good players?
MUCKLER: Itís not because we want change, itís because the system is making us change. The system dictates that the players are going to be distributed throughout the league and thatís going to bring parity. Thatís what they tell us. It seems to be working because every team seems to be changing players on a yearly basis. And, if you are a team that has as many elite players as we have, it dictates that you canít keep them all. Who is going to be the beneficiary? Well, itís going to be the other teams that are able to spend. Thatís where the balance comes with other teams. As far as (Chara) is concerned, we didnít want to get rid of (Chara) or trade him. That was the last thing we wanted to happen. It came down to balancing the cap. If you keep all your elite players at the salaries that they demand, then you have to take people out. This is a team sport and itís not just for the elite players. Yes, youíve got to try to keep as many of the elite players as you have. Thatís what we want to do. But, in the case of the CBA, thatís impossible.
SUN: Now ...
MUCKLER: Hold on a minute. Now, in talking to (Chara), this negotiation had been going on since last year. We never did get any number from (agent) Matt Keator regarding (Chara). My last meeting, after several meetings during the year, was in Vancouver. He wanted to know what our number was and I said, ĎĎIt hasnít changed. Six million a year for five years.íí He said if you canít come off that number, weíre going to unrestricted free agency. Right there we made a decision that we were going to go in another direction if we were turned down. We looked at the numbers and it was impossible to keep this team together and to keep (Chara) on the team. Thatís when we had to make a decision.
SUN: Did you feel you were forced into a position where you had to make a choice (between Chara and Wade Redden)?
MUCKLER: No, they made the choice for us. Redden actually would have come in at a lower salary if (Chara) would have stayed. His teammates wanted him here and we wanted him here.
SUN: Is it time to close the door on this one?
MUCKLER: Itís over. Weíve got to go forward. Would we have loved to have (Chara)? Yes. Am I upset ícause he went to Boston? No. I guess I understand a bit why he went there. So, (Chara) best of luck. Move forward. Weíre going to move forward and thatís the new system. We tried and tried and tried. We wanted to keep both guys, but we could only do it at a certain level.
SUN: How does this team improve if you are not able to keep your elite players?
MUCKLER: Everyone canít take our elite players. Itís a balancing act. I donít know whatís going to happen in the future, but I can see the NHL turning into the NBA as far as signing their elite free agents to multiple millions of dollars. And after that you only have so much left on the cap. Itís eventually going to come down to the fact players are going to have to realize thereís only so much money. Thatís the way itís going to be handled. Itís somewhat similar to that right now. I donít think the players realize what a difficult time a cap can become. Itís the GMís job to distribute the money in places where he has to so you can maintain the calibre of team you had in the past.
SUN: Do you think you still have enough elite players that youíre going to be a good team.
MUCKLER: Yes, but the trick is how are you going to be able to keep these guys beyond this year? I would just like to see the message sent for the general public to understand what is happening: I donít think people understand that cap system dictates change and trades are going to be done in a different manner now. You are not going to see teams receive the compensation that you think they should receive. Sometimes youíre not going to trade players because you want to trade players, itís because you have to trade players because you canít afford (their contract) and you have to remove that from your payroll. All those things are going to happen and at the same time you want to keep the best players you can.
SUN: You had pinpointed goaltending at the end of the season. I thought you were going to bring Dominik Hasek back. What changed your opinion on going that route?
MUCKLER: I considered both options. But when I had the opportunity to sign (Martin) Gerber, (bringing back Hasek) was something that came up in the discussions with his agent and in my talks with (Gerber). He wanted to know if we were bringing Hasek back and (Gerber) wants to be the No. 1 guy. I felt to be fair with (Gerber), (telling Hasek the club is going in a different direction) had to happen. I like Gerber. Iím not going to compare him to anybody. Iím just going to let him play because that stuff comes back to haunt you. I think he and Ray Emery will work well together.
SUN: What do you do to replace Chara?
MUCKLER: Well, you donít replace Zdeno Chara, but you try to do what you can to close the gap. I think what weíre trying to do is build a different type of defence. Corvo gives us another offensive guy who is a right-handed shot and I think what weíre trying to find is another offensive guy. Thatís what weíre working on right now. We want guys who are more offensive minded. What weíre going to be looking for next season is more offence from our defence to take some of the pressure off the guys up front to score goals. If you look at the Carolina defence, they were very mobile and they moved the puck up the ice very well. Thatís something we didnít do very well in the playoffs ... especially against Buffalo.
SUN: What about up front? What would you like to do up there?
MUCKLER: Thereís not much we can do. Weíre pretty well locked in with the guys we have. Once the IIHF and the Russians agree, weíd like to sign (prospect Alexei) Kaigorodov. Weíve already got (Jason) Spezza, (Dany) Heatley, (Daniel) Alfredsson, (Mike) Fisher, (Bryan) Smolinski and (Brian) McGrattan signed for next year. Weíre talking to guys like (Peter) Schaefer, (Antoine) Vermette, (Chris) Neil and (Chris) Kelly, and what weíre hoping is weíre able to sign those guys on multiple-year contracts. (Martin) Havlat, Iím not going to comment on. Weíll see what happens there this summer.
SUN: Is your improvement relying on the improvement of your core group of players?
MUCKLER: They have to be better, there is no question about it. I think the makeup of our team will be different than it was before. I donít think the speed level will go down and, in fact, Iíd like to add another defenceman with speed which might make us quicker. We scored the most goals in the NHL last year and I donít know whether weíll end up there this year. Everybody has to be a little bit better than we were last year. I like our team and several GMs I have spoken to like our club. I feel weíve got a lot of talent on this team and weíre going to have a team that competes. Weíve really only lost one guy (in Chara).