This past offseason was expected to be a slow one for the rebuilding Ottawa Senators. With a very weak free agent class, that meant larger contracts would have to be handed out to lure in the few catches available. No Sens fan had the Stanley Cup in mind for the upcoming season, so Ottawa was expected to stay the course and build from within, avoiding the bidding wars to come. Of course there were some holes to fill such as the backup goalie position. The Sens decided on bringing back the reliable, if not outstanding Alex Auld. Bryan Murray also made one other surprising free agent move, by acquiring tough guy Zenon Konopka for one year at $700,000. This move puzzled many as the Sens had numerous 4th line candidates from within their own organization. Why bring in a 30 year old veteran who has no long term future on the team and who would take away a roster spot from a potential prospect.
Konopka does have a history in Ottawa, having played for the 67s from 1998-2002. It’s a well known fact that Bryan Murray like his local guys, which could explain the signing. However, the question still remained why sign an enforcer when the Sens already had the services of Chris Neil and Matt Carkner. As it turns out, both of those players have been out of the lineup for extended periods of time leaving Konopka as the sole tough guy on the team some games. Even with both in the lineup, Konopka has remained the go to guy for fights. This has proven to be a good thing for Ottawa. Chris Neil is more effective on the ice than off, providing energy every shift as well as having the most hits on the team thus far. As for Matt Carkner he’s a defenceman and having him in the box for five doesn’t do the team much good defensively. Konopka allows both those players to put their enforcer habits on the side and play their game that most benefits the team.
The downside to Konopka is that he is prone to taking the odd bad penalty (e.g. the instigator he received near the end of the SO loss to the Devils). He also has a reputation with the refs and will usually not get the benefit of doubt from them leading to some questionable penalties. Nevertheless, he does provide other strong suits besides being an enforcer. He is one of the best faceoff men in the game, currently having a very nice 59.3 FO%. This is definitely a great skill to have. Since he plays on the 4th line, he’ll usually hover around 7-8 minutes a game and possession is key. Winning the faceoff is the first step to doing that. As well, faceoffs are essential to both special teams. Konopka is used by MacLean on the penalty kill, especially with faceoffs in the Senators zone and he has done a good job on it so far this season. He has also found some powerplay time as well. He earned his first powerplay goal since 2005 against the Penguins with less than 6 seconds to go with the whole play having started off with his faceoff win. You also can’t help but think he’s helping all the other centremen on the team improve their faceoff skill during practices as well.
In addition to the skills he brings on the ice, Konopka brings a distinct personality to the team off the ice. He’s very outgoing and if you’ve ever met him (I have), you’ll probably end up liking him a little bit more. He after all does have a hate for the Leafs which is never a bad trait when you play for the Sens. Konopka also has a reputation of being a great locker room guy. That’s never a bad thing for a young team. This was evident for anybody who watched the Sens TV video of him interviewing his teammates after Movember and referring to Jared Cowen as Seinfeld. He definitely brings a sense of humor to the team. So I’ve got to give a thumbs up to Murray on this signing. For a guy who’s making under a million on a one year deal, Konopka has done a great job thus far with the role given to him. Sure he’s ended up a healthy scratch every now and then (that’s usually expected of a 4th line player), but he’s also managed to chip in a surprising 3 goals so far as well. I can easily say this was one free agent acquisition that worked out for Ottawa.