July 12, 2012
Neil a Senator for life
By DON BRENNAN, QMI Agency
OTTAWA - Moments after the Senators officially locked up their toughest player for four more seasons, GM Bryan Murray declared he is in the marketplace for a reasonable facsimile.
And yes, the sigh of relief you may have just heard probably came from Chris Neil.
If the season started today, nobody would feel the loss of departed free agents Matt Carkner and Zenon Konopka more than Neil, the Senators’ 33-year-old right winger who will be paid $5.75 million after the expiration of his current deal next season to not just produce, but also protect his teammates until 2016.
Neil, the franchise’s all-time penalty minutes leader, had plenty of assistance in the enforcer role before Carkner and Konopka were allowed to bolt.
Murray stated Thursday he’ll soon have more.
“There’s pressure (on Neil), no question,” said Murray. “We hope to help him. Now, we have to address that vacancy somehow, and we’ll try to do that.”
However, Murray doesn’t see anything on the list of remaining unrestricted free agents that tickles his fancy. So he’s turning to Plan B.
“I think that at some point here in the near future, I have to address it in another form, whether it be by trade or whatever,” said Murray. “But it’s probably a trade.”
Neil’s annual salary will actually drop slightly from the $2 million he’ll earn in 2012-13. Not that he minds, as the Senators will now pay him $1,916,667 a year until he’s 37.
The Senators’ sixth-round pick in 1998 readily accepted that option rather than test the open market next July 1.
“I love the city, love the organization, and to be able to have the opportunity to play here another four years, it’s unbelievable,” said Neil, who relishes his off-season role as honorary chairman of Roger’s House. “I talked to Bryan after the season about trying to get something done before (next) season started, just so free agency wasn’t weighing on my mind through the season, so I could just show up and play hockey, do what I do best. Just go out and play.
“So to be able to get something done, obviously I’m excited about it and I hope the team is excited about it, too.”
Neil will become the third player to suit up for 1,000 games as a Senator if he averages 67 appearances a year over the length of his contract. Given the way he recklessly throws his body around and fights all comers, the feat would be nothing short of remarkable.
Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips are the only Senators to reach the 1,000-game plateau.
“To be able to give myself the opportunity to do that, it’s going to be awesome,” said Neil. “I’ve been very fortunate with injuries and stuff, that I’ve been able to play through some stuff and get a ton of games under my belt. So another four years gives me a lot more games, and hopefully pushes me over that mark. That would be an unbelievable milestone.”
While Neil says he came into the league as a fighter, he has developed into a defensively responsible player who has hit the double-digit mark in goals five times, including last season, when he scored 13 times and added 15 assists. His bread and butter, however, is the physical game.
“The time I’ve been in Ottawa, Chris has become a better hockey player,” said Murray. “He’s understanding of the role, and he’s second to none in the league, in my opinion.”
Indeed, Neil is regularly among the league leaders in hits, and if there was a category strictly for devastating bodychecks he would likely sit at the top of it year after year. He also remains one of the best pugilists in the NHL.
“Fighting, for me, is part of the game,” said Neil. “There’s nothing better than going out to a hockey game and seeing a good tilt on the ice. I think it always will be part of the game.
“Obviously the day of staged fighting is coming to an end, but I’m all for two guys battling in front of the net, and if they don’t like the way one another hit each other, or they hit the goalie or whatever, instincts take over. That’s where you see some really good fights.
“Carks and Zee were big parts of the team last year. Great guys that fit in well. You hate to see guys like that go. But we’ve got guys that can step in. We’ve still got lots of toughness here.
“Obviously it adds a little more pressure on me, but I look at last year and most of my fights were against heavyweights, anyway,” Neil added. o. But we’ve got guys that can step in. We’ve still got lots of toughness here. “Obviously it adds a little more pressure on me, but I look at last year and most of my fights were against heavyweights anyway,” Neil added. “That’s what kind of makes me a unique player. I can dabble in the middleweight and I can step up in the heavyweight. I can do both. I think with my size, middleweights think they can hang in there, and you’re able to catch some heavyweights off guard.”
ICE CHIPS: How popular is Neil in Ottawa? Whether it’s an accurate indication or not, when a photo of him signing his extension was placed on the team’s Facebook page, it generated 2501 “likes” in the first four hours ... As it currently stands, the Senators have four players eligible to become UFAs next summer: Alfredsson, Sergei Gonchar, Peter Regin and Mike Lundin.