OTTAWA - It was a no-brainer for Bryan Murray.
The Ottawa Senators general manager continued ensuring his team will be competitive for the foreseeable future by signing star centre Jason Spezza to a US$49-million, seven-year contract extension Friday.
"The decisions are really simple," Murray said. "You can now give term and make a commitment to the players you want to keep or you can fight them over the next couple of years, whether it be come July 1 in some cases or in Jason's case, go to arbitration and do all that."
Murray and owner Eugene Melnyk have quickly acted to lock up the core of the team that advanced to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in June.
Top defencemen Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov and goaltender Ray Emery all signed on for at least the next three years in the spring and summer. In September, centre Mike Fisher received a five-year, $21-million contract and last month, Spezza's friend and linemate, Dany Heatley, signed a six-year, $45-million deal. Captain Daniel Alfredsson also has four years left on his contract.
Spezza's deal could keep the 24-year-old forward, slated to become an restricted free agent at season's end, with the NHL club through the 2014-15 season.
"I believe if you want to have a good hockey team, and we do here, and you recognize that there are core players on your team that bring great value around the league as well as on your team, then if possible, you want to keep them and so that's what I've been trying to do," Murray said.
Spezza is happy that Murray is keeping the team's core together and said it was one reason he wanted to sign a long-term deal.
"We should have a good team every year," he said. "We've kind of built this team over the last few years to get to where we are and I want to be a part of the fruits of what we kind of hope will happen now if we keep playing and keep getting better as players."
Murray also suggested the signing serves as good bait in helping any future acquisitions.
"And we know that good players attract other good players, and that is very important," he said. "People will want to play in Ottawa, I'd like to think, because we've now signed Jason and Dany Heatley and Mike Fisher and we've got Alfredsson, we've got a couple of our defencemen, we've got our goaltending core, so our team now, without any excuses whatsoever, should be a competitive team on an annual basis."
The signing removes a player from the free-agent ranks who would've likely attracted an offer sheet from another club. Given the big dollars waved at Thomas Vanek (seven years, $50 million) and Dustin Penner (five years, $21.25 million) by the Edmonton Oilers last summer, Spezza could have possibly received even more than he took from the Senators.
Where the deal leaves Ottawa's highest-paid player this season, defenceman Wade Redden, who's in the final year of a deal that pays him $6.5 million, is still up in the air.
Murray said he expects to begin preliminary talks with Redden shortly, but it's believed Redden would have to take a pay cut to remain.
Murray said he initially spoke with Spezza's agent, Rick Curran, about a month ago about re-signing Spezza early, but negotiations only got serious Thursday. By early Friday morning, they'd reached an agreement.
Spezza is making $5 million this season under his current deal.
The new contract is split between $33 million of salary and $16 million in signing bonuses paid out over the first five years of the deal. In total, Spezza will earn $8 million in each of the first five seasons of the agreement, $5 million in 2013-14 and $4 million in 2014-15.
His average annual salary of $7 million will count against the salary cap.
"It's tougher nowadays to keep everyone together and the team's done a good job so far of locking everybody up," Spezza said. "We've got a good opportunity where we have most of the core together now for a long time, that's obviously something that's exciting because it's going to give us a competitive chance."
Since Heatley's arrival at the start of 2005-06, he, Spezza and Alfredsson have often played together and, when they have, they form one of the league's top lines.
They were key contributors to Ottawa's run to the final last spring and figure to feature prominently in any future success.
"It's awesome," Heatley, who's recorded consecutive 50-goal seasons with Spezza supplying much of the ammo, said of Spezza's new deal. "I'm really happy for him and it's a great thing for the team going down the road. I've really enjoyed playing the last two years with him."
The Senators watched this past summer as free agency stripped their biggest Eastern Conference challenger of two key parts when centres Daniel Briere and Chris Drury left the Buffalo Sabres to join the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, respectively.
"It's great, it shows the commitment this organization has to trying to keep a winning team and he's a big part of the puzzle," said Alfredsson. "I think a lot of teams saw what happened to Buffalo last year. Especially with Heatley and Spezza, a lot of people saw what they've done for the team and what they can do in the future. It means a lot for the fans."