Are the Senators NHL's toughest team?

Zenon Konopka is a free agent the Senators should look to add as a third- or fourth-line centre.

Zenon Konopka is a free agent the Senators should look to add as a third- or fourth-line centre.

DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:43 AM ET

OTTAWA - The young, prized prospects in the Senators family grew a little Tuesday morning. A little taller. A little stronger. A little braver.

Yes, the kids now have a fourth big, tough brother watching their backs.

The signing of centre Zenon Konopka to a one-year, one-way contract at a bargain salary of $700,000 gives the Senators a guy whose 57.7 (620-455) winning percentage in the faceoff circles last season was fourth-best in the league. It gives them a veteran of strong leadership qualities who once carried the 67’s to a Memorial Cup tournament (2001) to which they weren’t expected.

It also gives them — with a new Capital Punishment quartet of Matt Carkner, Chris Neil, Zack Smith and Konopka — one of the toughest teams in the NHL.

“I’m excited,” said Konopka, who has led the league in penalty minutes the last two seasons — in 2010-11 with new teammate Chris Neil as his closest challenger. “We’ve got maybe the toughest guy in the league on our team. We’ve got one of the best playmakers in the league on our team, one of the best leaders on our team, and I think we have a world-class goalie.

“I think there’s got to be an argument (Carkner) is the toughest in the league, for sure. It’ll be nice to work with him, and Mr. Neil and Mr. Smith, and make sure that everyone feels comfortable on the ice.”

Nobody has more than Konopka’s 58 scraps in the past two seasons. But at 6 feet, 210 lbs., he’s more in the cruiserweight class of Neil (6-foot-1, 215 lbs.) and Smith (6-foot-2, 210 lbs.), while Carkner (6-foot-4, 240 lbs.) earned a reputation with a string of knockouts over fellow heavyweights in 2010-11. The one team that matches up to the Senators is the Boston Bruins, who are led into battle by Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton and Adam McQuaid. And we all know how well that type of game worked for the Bruins.

“I would put our team, toughness-wise, against anybody else, that’s for sure,” said Konopka, 30. “It’s going to be good for the young players, our skilled guys ... definitely make them more comfortable. It’s going to be a fun year. I’m pretty pumped.”

Senators GM Bryan Murray says new coach Paul MacLean wanted Konopka for his competitiveness, leadership and faceoff skills. Konopka, who will centre the team’s fourth line, will also get the opportunity to kill penalties.

Konopka’s agent, Kevin Epp, was talking to a “handful” of other teams when Konopka told him about a preference to return to the city where he captained a team for Brian Kilrea. Konopka, who has run a hockey school in Ottawa the last five summers and was once part-owner in a Bank St. bar-restaurant called Stout Bros, has a lot of friends in the capital. One of them is his skating coach, Paul Lawson, who lives in Braeside and works with Konopka both during the summer and the season.

“It doesn’t seem like that long ago that I went with (67’s teammate) Henric Alfredsson to the Ottawa Senators games, when I was playing junior here, and when we went to Buffalo to watch the Senators play the Sabres in a the playoffs,” said Konopka.

“It’s pretty special to me to have the chance to come back and be part of the community again, be part of such a great city and to play hockey in Canada. That’s definitely a bonus.”

Ottawa may be done on the free-agent market.

“For the moment I would say we’re pretty well complete,” said Murray. “But we’ll keep our eyes open.”


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