Chris Neil has suited up for his final game with the Ottawa Senators.
It’s the end of an era, indeed.
In a move that isn’t a surprise after he played only a limited role under coach Guy Boucher last season, the Senators have informed the 37-year-old rugged right winger he won’t be back next season and, as a result, he’ll test the market as a unrestricted free agent on July 1 because Neil would like to play another year.
Though GM Pierre Dorion and assistant Randy Lee both know the value Neil brings to the table there’s no sense bringing him back if he’s not going to play and isn’t going to be happy with his role under Boucher.
Selected No. 161 overall in the 1998 NHL draft, Neil suited up for 1,026 career games with the Senators had 112 goals and 250 points. However, he has amassed 2,522 penalty minutes in his career and has played his role as somebody who would protect the other players on the roster perfectly.
Make no mistake, there are no hard feelings here.
Neil, who suited up for 53 games last season, had lengthy meeting with Dorion and Lee Tuesday at the Canadian Tire Centre. At the end of the day, they’re both doing what’s best for both sides and since Neil wants to play another season this gives him the opportunity to see what’s out there in the free agency market.
At the end of meeting the two sides shook hands and agreed to head their separate ways.
“They had a meeting with him and told him, ‘We don’t think you’re going to be happy with this role’,” Neil’s agent Todd Reynolds told Postmedia.
“Neil said, ‘Yeah, I don’t think I would be either and it’s probably not what I’d like to endure for a year’. (They agreed) let’s just mutually go our separate ways here and see if something better is out there for you where they’re going to give you eight, nine or 10 minutes a night possibly.
“That’s what he wants to do. He wants to play and still believes he can play and he wants to try to play for another year.”
Though Neil and his wife Caitlin have built up strong roots in the community, he just isn’t ready to retire. The possibility of an off-ice role with the Senators in the organization has been discussed in the past and that may still be on the table even if Neil does sign elsewhere to play next season or if he can’t find a job next year.
The Senators don’t want to stand in Neil’s way if he wants to play and still feels he can contribute elsewhere. There’s no question he has value and there’s a strong belief he’ll be able to get a one-year contract to play the same kind of role he did every night when he pulled on the No. 25 jersey with the Senators.
“It’s what he would like to do. He wants to return. Ottawa is home. He loves it and he wants to stay there. Ultimately, if there isn’t a good fit for you there then you’re forced to look elsewhere,” Reynolds said.
“He could do the Shawn Thornton thing this year, in and out of the lineup, play a few minutes here and there, but I almost get sense that he would rather not play than do that. If that’s all that’s out there for him then maybe it’s time to turn the page but if somebody says, ‘Hey, Chris Neil we’d love you for a year, here’s your role, go out there and compete and stir the pot’ then he and Cait would pick up and move a for year.
“It would probably be an adventure, something new and exciting, and then they’d come back to Ottawa.”
Reynolds said the meeting was positive because the two sides have a long history and have been good to each other.
“It went well. They had a really good talk by all accounts,” said Reynolds. “He’s accepted it. It’s a been a great ride there. He’s had a lot of years. There’s certainly no animosity, bitterness or anything like that. He’s great with it.
“But (Neil’s) like, ‘Hey, Todd I’d still like to play’. If there’s somebody out there then that would be great. If there isn’t then it’s been a great run. Things change and you have to respect that.”
Yes, the Senators and Neil have decided to turn the page but he can leave with his head held high because of a job more than well done.
BY THE NUMBERS
1,026 GP 112-138-250 PTS 2,522 PIMs
Dec. 10, 2016: Neil suited up for his 1,000th career NHL game against the Los Angeles Kings and all of those were with the Senators. Just for good measure, he even dropped the gloves with Los Angeles’ Jordan Nolan. That came after a hit he didn’t like on Bobby Ryan. “For me, it was an exciting day,” said Neil. “It was great to have my teammates here, who support me 100 per cent. They were just as excited about this game as I was. That’s how close we are in here. That means a lot to me.”
Dec. 14, 2016: Honoured for his 1,000th game at home before a game against the San Jose Sharks, Guy Boucher served notice what he Neil meant to the team. The coach gave Neil the opportunity to take a chance in the shootout as the fourth shooter against the Sharks. It was the first time in Neil’s career he had the chance and he nearly scored in a 4-3 shootout loss. “It was close,” Neil said afterward. “I looked over at the goalie after and he’s like, whoa! He didn’t expect that.”
June 3, 2007: Only hours after Neil’s wife Caitlin gave birth to the couple’s daughter Hailey Jean, the Senators’ winger was back in the lineup for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final against the Anaheim Ducks. Neil played a big role and even scored a goal as the Senators scored a 5-3 win over the Ducks for their only victory of the series. Neil tied it up 1-1 in the first period after Anaheim had taken the lead. It’s a moment that Neil has always looked back on and has been proud about.
Article written by Bruce Garrioch, on the Ottawa Citizen Website. Original article here.