Vermette is Sens' fall guy

The Senators are going to arbitration with forward Antoine Vermette. SUN MEDIA/Errol McGihon

The Senators are going to arbitration with forward Antoine Vermette. SUN MEDIA/Errol McGihon

DON BRENNAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:49 AM ET

When they needed a penalty killed, he was one of the first players tapped on the back.

When they needed to win an important faceoff, he was usually their go-to guy.

And when they needed a goal in a shootout, well, No. 20 was called upon more than any of his teammates.

Yet when it came to talking turkey, it appears the Senators virtually ignored him.

Now, they can look away no longer.

Unless a deal was reached late last night or one gets struck some time this morning -- very much a possibility, either way -- Antoine Vermette (and/or agent Allan Walsh) will today stand before an arbitrator opposite Senators GM Bryan Murray (and/or another team representative) as both sides pitch their case in a contract dispute over the worth of the 26-year-old forward.

The "briefs" are unknown, but it's believed Vermette is seeking a deal in the $3-million-plus (all terms US) per season range, while the Senators would prefer to give him a salary in the $2-million-plus neighbourhood.

Vermette made $1.07 million last season, his fourth in the NHL.

The arbitrator will have up to 48 hours to set the salary, at which point the Senators can elect to walk away and allow Vermette to become an unrestricted free agent. There's a better chance Damian Rhodes will return to be the team's goalie.

Should the sides fail to reach a last-minute agreement, the Senators will likely argue points Vermette has heard before. Such as, why they don't see him as quite yet as the Top 3 or 4 forward he believes he should be considered. Vermette, who is annually declared the fastest skater at the team's Skills Competition and owns a dazzling array of moves, feels he has only touched the surface of an offensive potential that saw him score a career high 24 goals and 53 points last season.

In limited chances on the first line, he has not grabbed that ball and ran with it.

On one hand, it's still somewhat surprising that Vermette and the Senators are at this impasse. Mike Fisher (September), Dany Heatley (October), Jason Spezza (November) and Chris Kelly (last month) all received new long-term contracts from the Senators in the past year. Yet when Walsh was reached on July 5, the day Vermette had to file for arbitration, he said negotiations on a deal for the St. Agapit, Que., native had yet to begin.

CAP CONSTRAINTS

Murray can claim he has had his hands full this spring trying to squeeze all parts under the salary cap. And as a restricted free agent, Vermette wasn't going anywhere. But there appears to be enough available money still in the kitty to keep Vermette happy, without taking him through a process that could get ugly and leave him sour.

An opinion as to why a deal was not done as of yesterday:

Yes, during the regular season, Vermette was fifth in team scoring, despite having the 11th-most ice time (17:34) and sixth most among all forwards. Yes, he averaged 3:39 of time on the penalty kill per game, next most after Chris Phillips, Anton Volchenkov and Kelly, and he did score three goals and three assists while short-handed. Yes, he led the team in shootout attempts (eight), which means he was asked to decide a game more often than Heatley, Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson or any other Ottawa player. And yes, his sizzling faceoff percentage (56.7%) was among the best in the entire NHL.

BRUTAL PLAYOFF SERIES

But like many of his teammates, Vermette had a brutal playoffs. In the four-game opening-round sweep at the hands of the Penguins, he had zero points while seeing an increase in ice time to 20:32, less than just Phillips and Heatley. The only other Senators to be held off the scoresheet were Phillips, Martin Lapointe, Dean McAmmond, Christoph Schubert, Brian Lee and Alfredsson, who only played two games and on a knee he should have been off. Vermette was also minus-4 during the playoffs, which was tied for second worst on the team.

Given "showtime" opportunity to prove his claims that he was more than a perfect complement to Kelly as a third-line player and penalty killer, he failed to produce.

The belief here is that Murray, outraged at the way the Senators disappeared meekly from the 2007-08 campaign, is still determined to do what he can to give the team more of a facelift. The belief here is that he has tried and will continue to try to peddle Vermette for a grittier player and, not wanting to be the Lightning north, attempt to give his team at least one defenceman with some offensive talents.

The belief here is that no matter what happens today, Vermette won't be a Senator by the time the season starts.


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