An early Chris-mas?

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:17 AM ET

The Senators have taken a step in the right direction to try and keep Chris Phillips.

Ottawa's assistant captain confirmed to the Sun his agent, Stacey McAlpine, has opened contract talks to try to keep Phillips from becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer.

While it's not known if GM John Muckler and negotiator Kevin Billet have tendered any offers, Phillips is happy the club has begun talks.

"Anytime there's communication, that's positive," said Phillips yesterday following a 60-minute workout at Scotiabank Place in preparation for a visit by the Toronto Maple Leafs tomorrow."Other than that, I really can't say much. I'm not going to get into numbers or anything.

"They've had some discussions. We'll see where they go and, hopefully, we'll be able to get something done. I want to stay here. That hasn't changed."

Phillips, 28, will be paid $2.204 million this season. It's fair to say that he'll be seeking more than the $2.625 that defenceman Joe Corvo is making.

A league executive predicted recently Phillips would be in the $3.5-million range on the open market.

Phillips' role has increased dramatically this season. Not only is he wearing an 'A' on his chest, he's also playing an average of 22:01 per night and is in a shutdown role with Anton Volchenkov against top players like Jaromir Jagr (Rangers), Mats Sundin (Toronto) and Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh).

The price for defensive defencemen has gone up. Willie Mitchell signed a five-year, $17.5 million ($3.5 million per year) with Vancouver last summer, while Jay McKee was given a four-year, $16 million contract by St. Louis.

The Senators might be able to get Phillips a bit cheaper if they were to offer a long-term deal.

The Senators know Phillips wouldn't last long on the unrestricted market. Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe has been pestering Muckler to see if the club is willing to move Phillips, a Fort MacMurray native.

It's doubtful the Senators would move him at the trade deadline, but because of his status teams are going to keep calling right until the Feb. 27 deadline.

If he goes to market, it's believed the Boston Bruins would be among a group of teams chasing Phillips, the Senators' first-round draft pick in 1996.

The Bruins would be able to re-unite Phillips with Zdeno Chara ... the two were paired for four seasons in Ottawa.

The Senators also have to negotiate with unrestricted free-agent blueliner Tom Preissing ($600,000), along Anton Volchenkov ($1.5 million) and Christoph Schubert ($550,000), who are both in the restricted category.


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