Vermette ready to 'role'

DON BRENNAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:13 AM ET

Antoine Vermette has picked up some loose change on his way to what could very well become a pot of gold.

The Senators and their lone francophone foot soldier avoided an arbitration hearing in the wee hours of yesterday morning when the sides agreed on a two-year deal worth $5.525 million (all terms US).

With a salary of $2.762 million this season, the versatile Vermette is currently slated to be the fifth-highest-paid player on the team. He'll drop at least one rung on the ladder when the Senators reach an inevitable agreement with restricted free-agent defenceman Andrej Meszaros.

"I'm happy, Ottawa is where I want to play hockey," said Vermette, who made $1.07 million while compiling career highs in goals (24), assists (29) and points (53) last season, his fourth in the NHL. "I love the city. I love the fan base and the support we have here. We have a good team and I have some good friends on the team.

"All that being said, I have a chance to see what my role (will be) in the next two years and go from there."

"Role" and "go" are the key words.

While the Senators have mostly utilized Vermette in a secondary role or a defensive tandem with Chris Kelly, new coach Craig Hartsburg will likely look at ways to disperse the attack in 2008-09. And unless GM Bryan Murray swings a blockbuster, the best bet is Vermette will be given more of an opportunity to post some numbers.

Spending more time alongside a Jason Spezza or Daniel Alfredsson could potentially turn Vermette into a 35- or 40-goal scorer, considering his strong skating skills and offensive talents. If so, the Senators will have to bump his salary considerably with a contract extension or lose him as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2010.

That is, if they don't risk alienating Vermette's many fans by trading him first.

"We are all pleased that we got it done at the number we did," said Murray, who finally shook hands with Vermette's agent, Allan Walsh, around 1:30 a.m. "It seemed to take a long time to get it done, over the last couple of weeks in particular, but to get it done before the arbitration hearing is real good.

"We actually had talked longer term. The arbitration for us was going to be (for) two years and that's the years we wanted. I think he has the potential to be more than he has been (as a goal scorer) to this point in time. He believes that sincerely and I think that was a stumbling block as much as anything in doing a longer-term deal. We see a certain player at the moment. We have to recognize that he projects a little higher than that, but that became a little bit of an issue going through (negotiations).

"I believe that within three years, you'll see a better offensive player than he is (now)."

As for the present, getting Vermette at $2.7 million is somewhat of a coup for Murray, who could have been forced to dish out around $3.5 million for the 26-year-old former second-round pick. With available cap space around the $6.5-million mark, the Senators can satisfy Meszaros and still have about $3 million going forward.

JUST FOR KICKS

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk yesterday confirmed his interest in putting a Major League Soccer team in Ottawa when the league expands three years from now.

"Major League Soccer has done an impressive job of bringing an exciting brand of professional soccer to North America," said Melnyk. "The popularity and passion for soccer is deeply rooted within our community and we firmly believe our city is more than ready to embrace an MLS team."


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