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(David Zalubowski)
(David Zalubowski)

NHL notebook

Avs prove quick turnaround possible Add to ...

Rarely does a trade that happens before Christmas in the post-lockout NHL fall into the "interesting" category, let alone qualify as a blockbuster. There's just too much salary-cap gridlock for that to occur.

The most significant deal occurred five years ago this week, when the San Jose Sharks pilfered Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins for a trio of players, only one of whom remains in Boston - Marco Sturm, and Sturm's time with the Bruins is coming to an end, even if it didn't happen officially Thursday the way so many had speculated.

In his five years with the Sharks, Thornton produced exactly 500 points for San Jose, an astonishingly consistent offensive output and the kind of scoring numbers that only a handful of NHL players are capable of producing.

Say what you will about the Sharks' playoff struggles, most of their NHL compadres would gladly swap their own performances for San Jose's since the lockout ended. Ever since Thornton's arrival he has become the face of the franchise, the player that makes things happen for the Sharks, Thursday's emotional 4-0 win over the Ottawa Senators notwithstanding.

Accordingly, the timing was somewhat curious this past week when, on the fifth anniversary of the memorable Thornton trade, the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche made a small but significant deal that could be critical in terms of how the 2011 playoffs unfold. Washington filled one of the two question marks in its line-up by landing shutdown defenceman Scott Hannan from the Avs.

In exchange, they gave up the as-yet-to-be-realized potential of Tomas Fleischman, who had 51 points in 69 games last year, when he was threatening to break into the NHL's scoring elite. Instead, Fleischman hasn't consistently been able to play as a top-six forward with the Caps and thus became expendable after Washington determined it needed to land an experienced defensive defenceman sooner rather than later.

Hannan had a brief moment of fame when he was named to Canada's gold-medal winning 2004 World Cup team - prestigious company for a reliable worker. Since then, he has been mostly plying his trade anonymously. Colorado overpaid to get Hannan as a free agent back in the days when the Avs were a free-spending organization under Pierre Lacroix. Lacroix's successor Greg Sherman has done a nice job of shedding salary, getting younger and still overseeing a quick turnaround for a franchise that won a Stanley Cup as recently as 2001 and only spent one year at the bottom of the NHL standings (which landed them Matt Duchene).

Pause to digest that fact for a moment, all you Leaf and Senators, Flames and Oilers' fans - struggling with various degrees of disappointment in the way your teams are playing at the moment.

In the past 14 years, the only time the Avalanche fell below 95 points in the standings was in the 2008-09 season, when the bottom fell out after Joe Sakic's retirement and they plunged all the way down to 69 points, which got them the third pick in the 2009 draft. One other time - 2007 - 95 points wasn't good enough to make the playoffs, even though the Avs were the hottest team in the league in the final 20 games and just got nudged out on the last weekend by Calgary.

Last year, thanks largely to the play of Duchene, Paul Stastny, Chris Stewart and others, Colorado bounced right back into the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. A pretty nice collective body of work there and proof that even with a minimal payroll, slumping attendance and a comparatively anonymous front office/coaching staff, smart managing can trump all the bombast and bluster in the world.

Fleischman will get a chance to play as a top-six forward with the Avs and if their recent track record - of making reclamation projects such as Peter Mueller work is any indication - it might be the perfect place for him to blossom.

Long-term, the deal will probably work out very well for them.

Still, you can see why Washington was willing to pull the trigger on the deal. Once he gets used to the system, Hannan could be a difference-maker for a Washington team that apart from Tom Poti, was relying on a wet-behind-the-ears defence corps of talented, but inexperienced blue liners: Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, John Carlsson and Karl Alzner.

There is nothing flashy about Hannan but Washington didn't need more flash. It needed more substance. And while the goaltending issue will always hover there - can either Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth get them out of the first two rounds? - it is unlikely that GM George McPhee has much of an appetite to make a change there. Both have enough potential - and have shown enough flashes of ability - to render the point moot.

But if Hannan can make the adjustment and be the right fit, they may well look back on this week as the final piece of their championship puzzle.

And if the fit isn't quite right, well, by the Feb. 28 trading deadline, they should know and then there'd still be a chance to make further adjustments to their defence corps at that point.

A SAVVY MOVE: Marc Savard didn't score a point in Boston's 8-1 rout of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but he did return successfully to the Bruins' line-up for that impressive victory, his first appearance since last year's playoff cameo, in which he got into seven games and actually scored the OT winner in the first. But it was too soon coming back from post-concussion syndrome and this time around, the Bruins wanted to do it right. So much of dealing with post-concussion syndrome depends upon how a player feels on any given morning - and improvements come in slow agonizing increments. But post-game, Savard sounded pleased with developments, which means he should be ready and able for Saturday's date with the Maple Leafs. The Bruins made Savard's contract fit under the cap by shuffling off defenceman Matt Hunwick to Colorado. Hunwick's presence then gave the Avs enough defensive depth to trade Hannan and his $4.5-million contract to Washington.

HOSSA HURT AGAIN: Marian Hossa, one of the NHL's most reliable workhorses in his time with the Senators and Atlanta Thrashers, cannot keep out of sick bay in his current home, Chicago. Hossa was limited to 57 regular-season games last year, missing the first two months of the season; and after an exceptional start in which he led the NHL in scoring a fortnight in, has been on the shelf twice already this season. With all hands on deck, Chicago still has enough talent to compete for the Stanley Cup again this year, even after losing useful supporting parts such as Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd to the Thrashers, but the Blackhawks' depth is greatly tested when core players such as Hossa are missing. Ladd and Byfuglien were eighth and 10th respectively last year on the Blackhawks' scoring list, but the opportunity to play a significantly greater role have them running one-two for Atlanta this year. Ilya Who?

AND SPEAKING OF ILYA WHO: In Kovalchuk's first 50 regular-season games for the Devils, dating back to last year's trade, he has scored 14 goals. In his first 49 games for the Thrashers, Niclas Bergfors, the principle forward going Atlanta's way from New Jersey, has scored 14 goals. Officially, the deal also included Johnny Oduya, Patrice Cormier, plus a first-round pick that Atlanta subsequently swapped to Chicago to get all those ex-Hawks now making a difference for them this season. Not bad horse trading for a franchise not known for its bartering successes in the not-so-distant past.

 

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