It took some real doing but Senators general manager Bryan Murray landed one of his key free-agent targets Tuesday when he got veteran defenceman Jason Smith's name on a two-year contract. While he isn't the puck-moving blueliner that Murray is so desperately seeking, Smith brings an added dose of veteran leadership to the Ottawa dressing room.
We're talking about a guy, you see, who's spent the past six National Hockey League seasons wearing the captain's C on his jersey in Edmonton and Philadelphia . Most recently, he led a young Flyers team to the Eastern Conference final last season.
"This is the ultimate character guy that was out on the free-agent market," said Murray. "He's been a captain, as we know, but more importantly, he's just a guy that competes every single night. He blocks shots, he hits people, he plays the game in a hard way and he's very difficult to play against."
He was also hotly pursued. Murray had to fend off several other suitors before finally convincing Smith to put on a Senators jersey.
"We've been talking to him for awhile," said Murray. "I have to say that, a couple of days ago, it didn't look like we were in the hunt there. It looked like he had a couple of deals that were bigger and maybe better than ours.
"All credit to Jason, however, that he saw Ottawa as a real good hockey team and place where he wanted to play. We kept working at it this morning and it took a little bit of effort to get it done and I’m happy that we did."
Turns out Smith was equally delighted with the chance to move his career and his family to the nation's capital.
"It’s a great and exciting opportunity," said the 34-year-old Smith. "You look at the quality of the players on their roster and the success that the team’s had in the past and it’s a great opportunity to do good things and I’m just looking to be a part of that.
"I had offers from other teams. But as a family option and an opportunity moving forward, Ottawa was something that was very interesting to me and my family and that’s why we made the decision to be a Senator."
Smith said he spoke a few days ago with defenceman Chris Phillips
, one of the Senators' longest-serving veterans, and liked what he heard about playing in Ottawa.
"(Phillips) said a lot of positive things about the city and about the organization," said Smith. "It’s nice to get that second opinion from somebody who’s been there. Everything I’ve heard from players who have spent time there in the past… they’ve had nothing but good things to say about it, that’s for sure."
As a bonus, Smith gets to return to a Canadian market. He enjoyed previous stints with the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs during his 14-year NHL career.
"Playing in a Canadian city is special," he said. "There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of intensity in the building every night and it’s a lot of fun playing in that situation."
Murray envisions Smith in a top-four defenceman role and believes he'd be the ideal partner for Andrej Meszaros, who remains an unsigned restricted free agent.
"One of them’s a shutdown guy, the other’s a skill guy who can do things with the puck," said Murray. "I think (Smith) is a top-four guy based on that.
"Very definitely, we think Andrej has a huge upside and we’re hoping we can get something done with him.... We just need him to be more consistent and I think the best way to do that is get him a partner that’s consistent and hard working and makes some demands of his teammates. I think Andrej will benefit from Jason a great deal."
Smith relishes the opportunity to lend a veteran's hand.
"It’s something that I enjoy," he said. "Any time you get to be around good young players and help in their development and push them and see them improve as a player as well, you can only get better and I’ll do whatever I can to help the team do well.
"If I wasn’t willing to work and be a better player in this league, I wouldn’t want to play anymore. I still like the challenge and I want to continue to get better myself."
Murray, meanwhile, vows he won't give up in his pursuit of a puck-moving blueliner, though he agreed keeping Meszaros on board would fill a good chunk of that need. With goaltender Alex Auld
, agitating forward Jarkko Ruutu and now Smith in the fold as new acquisitions, Murray believes it's been a good off-season already. But he knows the job isn't finished yet.
"We’re going to continue to work on our team," said Murray. "I think we have a good team. There’s some people who perceive us as having taken a step backwards but I think we’ve taken a step forward. We’re going to tinker with the team as long as we have to here to make sure the coach (Craig Hartsburg) is happy and everyone is happy."