Sens can't afford to lose Neil

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:15 PM ET

He stood in the visitorsí dressing room at the Air Canada Centre following a hard-fought, rare win in this lost season, looking every bit like the NHL warrior he is.

ďThere are 267 bones in the human body,Ē broadcaster Gordie Wilson said to him, less interested this time in being factually correct than making a joke. ďAnd you have an ice pack on every one of them.Ē

Not quite, but the point was made.

A bag of cubes was wrapped around each of his thighs and hips, another on his left arm. Probably†his feelings were still damaged, too, from having to say goodbye to some close friends the previous week.

Yet, as a key contributor with a game-high eight hits, he wore his classic victory smile.†

Minus the front teeth, of course.

They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And, by the guidelines of Eugene Melnykís new master plan, it is time for Chris Neil to get going.

It does make financial sense to trade Neil, the teamís all-time penalty minutes and pointed facial expressions leader.

But doing so would not only be one tough pill for the Senators to swallow, it would also be wrong.

Such a hit on their team toughness, they cannot take.

At $2 million per, Neil is now the fifth-highest-paid forward on the team. Some will tell you thatís a lot of coin for a third-liner. Then thereís the fact heís got two more years on his contract.†

But you canít put a price on loyalty, on dedication, on determination and on the pain both suffered and inflicted for the good of the cause.

In Ottawa, other players care deeply about their team. But Neil doesnít just wear his heart on his sleeve ó itís all over his bruised and battered body.

When there was still hope, he called out teammates in the newspaper for not giving enough of an effort. You can assume he also did so to their faces, behind closed doors. It was because Neil despises losing even more than he does Adam Mair, which is exactly what the young prospects coming up need to learn.

From having four Chrises in their lineup at the start of the season, the Senators could be down to none by Monday.

I didnít like the Kelly trade. Thought he was at a good price, and heís a good, versatile pro. Thought he, too, would be a good example going forward. Second-round pick is too iffy. Senators will be lucky if it turns out to be anywhere near the player Kelly is.

The Phillips saga is quite interesting. He should be applauded by Senators fans for the love he is showing the city and organization. He wants to pass up a chance to win the Cup ó and possibly millions heíd get on his next contract with a solid playoff run ó to help get this team back on its feet. You have to admire that when youíre not too busy thinking how crazy he is. The Senators will still be here in the summer, Philly. Thereís probably just as good a chance theyíll sign you at a discount price then as there is now.†

Believe Campoli will be gonzo any moment now. The Senators wonít be asking a lot for him, and he can help a playoff team. Depending on what happens with Phillips, and if they can somehow move Filip Kuba, there wonít be room for Campoli at the money heíll be looking for as a restricted free agent.

But Neil ... they just canít afford to lose his grit and grind, not to mention his right and left.

As of earlier this week, his 182 hits were seventh-highest in the league. Next Senator on the list was Phillips, who with 90 was tied for 133rd.†

Since first pulling on the Ottawa jersey in 2000-01, Neil has fought 157 times. Usually, itís for a teammate, for the team. Often, itís with a hand thatís still aching from the last brawl.

A relatively new-to-the-scene local reporter referred to Neil as ďgutlessĒ when Neil sent a message to a smaller player a few weeks ago. The guy lost some credibility that day. Neil has earned the right to pick his spots. He has fought guys who are much bigger and stronger for years. He is the exact opposite of gutless.

Thereís no question why Binghamton tough guy Francis Lessard was called up when he was. The team wants to see if he can fill Neilís role. God bless Lessard, but heís not quite the fighter, and heís not nearly as good a hockey player.

Alas, heís also about $1.5 million cheaper, and in the salary cap era, GMs feel they have to skimp where they can. The Senators shouldnít here, now, with Neil. Itís too difficult to find all he brings to the table, and he can play 12-15 minutes a night in the process.

ďI donít want to go anywhere,Ē Neil said after that Toronto game. ďThis is where I want to be, but itís out of my hands. Whatever happens, happens, but I want to be a part of turning this thing around.†

ďWeíve got some young guys in here and I think Iíd be a good role model.Ē

Same here.†

Donít deal Neil.

don.brennan@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/sundonib


Videos

Photos