Steve Mason in Columbus made Pascal Leclaire, last season's No. 1, expendable. On Wednesday, Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson fetched a nice return for the goalie who posted nine shutouts a season ago.The emergence of rookie goalie
Howson shipped Leclaire, who is currently on injured reserve after ankle surgery, and a second-round pick to Ottawa in exchange for Antoine Vermette, a skilled forward who is having a disappointing season in Canada's capital, but has proven to be capable of putting up some solid numbers.
Vermette, who could fit in as the Blue Jackets’ top-line center between Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius, is signed through next season.
"With the emergence of Steve Mason, we felt we were dealing from a position of strength and we really have a weakness on our hockey club, which is in the middle of the ice," Howson said on NHL Live Radio, which was being streamed on the NHL Network. "We think Antoine can come in here and help us here. The important thing for us, too, was he is not only going to help us this year but also next year."
Vermette admitted on NHL Live Radio that it is emotional for him to leave Ottawa, where he has played all 359 of his NHL games since 2003-04. He said his goodbyes in the Senators dressing room after learning of the trade, but now admits he is looking forward to jumping into the Western Conference playoff race with the Blue Jackets, who are currently sixth with 70 points.
"The last few years I have been growing with one organization and it's not a pleasant time to see one guy leave, and in this case it's me," Vermette said. "You feel like you have been through some stuff here with the fans and everything, but you look at the other side and see a team like the Blue Jackets and see they are having a good year here. They are putting themselves in a position to make the playoffs and it's very exciting.
"Sometimes you see players go somewhere else, they're put in different situations and they take off," he added. "I hope to see that."
Leclaire, who is from Quebec, is signed through 2010-11, but he told www.ottawasenators.com that he does not expect to play again this season because he won't be due back until mid-April. But, he added, "never say never."
"I have heard the rumors all week and have been reading I had the chance to come to Ottawa," Leclaire told the team's Web site, adding he is walking without crutches now. "When it happens it is always a little bit of a shock. You never expect to be traded, but at the same time I'm excited to come to Ottawa. It's a great challenge for me and I'm looking forward to being there."
Ottawa GM Bryan Murray said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference that Leclaire's ankle is not a concern.
"We know what the injury was, how it's been treated and going forward it has been corrected," Murray said. "It was something that led to other problems and the other problems slowed him down at times, too. He has had the surgery on the ankle and they feel very strongly that everything is done."
Vermette has only 9 goals and 19 assists with a minus-12 rating for the disappointing Sens this season, but he set career highs in goals (24), assists (29) and points (53) during the 2007-08 season. He was also a plus-3.
Until recently, the Blue Jackets have been starved for goals.
Columbus had just one goal in each of its three games on a recent Western Canada road trip. The Jackets posted five in a win against Los Angeles on Tuesday night, but they are still 20th in the League with 2.64 goals per game.
Columbus also announced Tuesday that left wing Jason Chimera needed surgery to repair a groin injury and would be out four to five weeks. Vermette, who can play any forward position, could eat up Chimera's ice time as well as fill in on the power play and penalty kill. He is also good on faceoffs.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Vermette had not yet been told what his role will be.
"I had a brief talk with the management there," Vermette said. "They were excited to have me and I was excited to have a chance to talk with them. As far as my role, we didn't go too long on that. They just seem happy to have me on the team. It sounds like I'm going to have some good ice time. I don't know who I'm going to play with, but certainly they have some good players there."
A lot of analysts have been saying Vermette is the perfect player to play in coach Ken Hitchcock's system because he's as reliable on the defensive end as he is on the offensive end.
"I'm assuming they had some talk with the coach to see where I could fit there. I have no clue," Vermette said. "As far as I know they were very interested in my services. The last couple of months they were asking about me and as a player you always feel good about that. You feel welcome right away."
Leclaire could potentially solve Ottawa's goaltending situation, which hasn't been stable since the Senators run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007.
Ray Emery backstopped the Senators then, but he couldn't even get an NHL job over the summer and has been in Europe. Martin Gerber (now with the Toronto Maple Leafs) was supposed to be the No. 1, but his performance forced GM Bryan Murray to send him down to Binghamton of the American Hockey League.
Rookie Brian Elliott was doing well, but he has fallen on hard times lately. Alex Auld could have a future as Ottawa's No. 1, but with Leclaire likely in the mix next both Auld and Elliott will have to compete with a goalie who makes good money and has been a No. 1 before.
"It's difficult and disappointing to give up Vermette. He's been here for quite some time and is a good player, but the first thing we had to try to accomplish here was to get better in one particular area and that's goaltending," Murray said in a press conference Wednesday afternoon. "We have solid guys, but to have a chance to get a top end goaltender is a priority in any organization. The ones that have success normally have that. We felt we certainly had to do that if it was possible and became possible. I was able to get them to include a pick as well."
Leclaire seems genuinely excited to return to Canada to play.
"You can't really compare the Canada vibe and the Columbus vibe and that's not saying anything against what is going on in Columbus. The fans there are great," Leclaire told TSN on Wednesday morning. "The Canadian fans are a notch higher that's why I'm excited to play in the country. People live for hockey and for a hockey player that's all you can ask for."
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