PHILADELPHIA – Jason Spezza may be forced to decide how desperately he wants to be traded away from the Ottawa Senators.
General manager Bryan Murray left the 2014 NHL Draft on Saturday with his captain and star center still on the roster, unable to complete a trade that would accommodate Spezza’s request to leave his only NHL team.
Murray revealed Saturday he was close to an agreement with Nashville Predators general manager David Poile the night before; however, the Predators are one of the 10 teams to which Spezza has said he will not accept a trade and the proposed deal fell through as a result.
"“David talked to me and we couldn’t go there," Murray said after the draft was completed. “I told [Spezza’s agent] Rick Curran that today, I had a deal sitting there if I wanted to do it, but [Nashville] was on the list of no-gos.”
After the potential Spezza trade fell through, Poile wasted no time improving his forward group by acquiring James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling on Friday.
Murray suggested Saturday that the pieces Poile used to acquire Neal were on the table in a trade offer for Spezza, and the Anaheim Ducks could have been a potential destination until they acquired Ryan Kesler from the Canucks.
"[The Predators] have done their James Neal trade, so that has gone away," Murray said. "Anaheim’s gone away with Kesler, so the field narrows a little bit."
The Predators remain in the hunt for a first-line center, but Poile has little interest in trying to convince a player who is not enthusiastic about joining his team to change his mind. Poile said he spoke to Curran and was told Spezza would not play for the Predators, and at that point, the issue was dead in Poile’s mind.
“I’m not going to pitch somebody if they don’t want to play for us,” Poile said. “This game is hard enough as it is. You’ve got to be fully committed.”
For a second straight day Murray evoked the possibility of Spezza returning to the Senators next season in spite of his trade request. Though Poile doesn’t want to try to court a player who doesn’t want to be in Nashville, Murray appears perfectly comfortable having Spezza return to Ottawa if no trade can be finalized.
“I’m sure it’s disappointing for him; it’s disappointing for me because I’d like to accommodate him if I could, but he does have a year left on his contract,” Murray said. “If that’s the case we’ll have a pretty good player for next year.”
Murray might be trying to force Spezza’s hand in order to get him to loosen the list of 10 teams to which he can't be traded. Murray admitted that with the number of potential destinations for Spezza diminishing, having a bit more wiggle room to work with might be beneficial.
“They might need to have a little change in approach as well as I do,” Murray said.
It was believed that Kesler’s presence on the trade market along with Spezza may have been clogging things up, and that Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny being available as an unrestricted free agent as of Tuesday might be having the same effect. Teams have been free to speak with potential unrestricted free agents since Wednesday, and clubs speaking with Stastny that miss out on signing him could turn their attention to Spezza.
However, Murray is skeptical, largely because of the inactivity he experienced at the draft.
“I have no idea on that, honestly,” Murray said of Stastny’s impact on trade talks. “I kept hearing that Kesler was a big fish out there and people were going to get him and come around. I talked to four or five teams that I don’t think were very involved in the Kesler deal, but nothing ever materialized afterwards.”
So what now?
Unless Murray can find a trade by Tuesday, the Senators will enter unrestricted free agency with a big question mark on their roster and payroll.
Murray has two top-six forwards headed toward unrestricted free agency, Ales Hemsky and Milan Michalek, though he said Saturday the door is not closed on Michalek possibly returning and that the parties will speak again Tuesday.
Those are two potential holes in Murray’s top six in addition to the possibility of Spezza not being back, though he would likely fetch at least one scoring forward in return. Murray said he needs to find four forwards to add in free agency or otherwise, and he has to do it with the looming shadow of Spezza’s situation.
“Part of your decision is what can you spend, where does it fit and what do you get in return for a certain player?” Murray said. “If you don’t know that, then it’s harder.”
Murray will also need to adjust what he was expecting in return for Spezza. He originally wanted a first-round draft pick as part of the package, something he didn’t get Friday because teams were unwilling to part with an asset of that caliber.
“I think going forward there will be discussion, I believe there will be,” Murray said. “[Spezza] is a quality player in the NHL. If we can do something we’ll do something, whether it be a pick or, from my point of view I’d like to get a couple of guys to put on the ice.”
Murray appears resigned to the fact he will have to wait and see what his colleagues around the NHL plan on doing, and he has no intention of changing his approach to how he handles Spezza’s trade request knowing that he has a year left on his contract and the possibility exists to have him return and fulfill that commitment.
“I don’t think there’s anything else I can do,” Murray said. “As far as approach is concerned, I called the teams or took calls from teams that were interested, we talked about the return, the type of deal we wanted to make. In a couple of cases there was real interest and it went away.
“So I don’t know whether it was because of the draft and on the day of the draft, picks are very valuable, whether that was part of it or it was something different. But we’ll continue to talk and over the course of time I’m sure people that miss out on July 1 may come knocking, but we’ll have to wait and see.”