Predictably, when NHL general managers gathered in Toronto last week for their semi-annual meeting to discuss rule changes, there was the usual amount of face-to-face trade talk as well. It resulted in a couple of minor deals – the Toronto Maple Leafs getting additional depth at forward by acquiring Peter Holland from the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks fleshing out the bottom half of their roster by re-acquiring Kris Versteeg from the Florida Panthers.
Versteeg was a victim of the first Blackhawks’ salary dump after they won the 2010 Stanley Cup. He just never fit in wherever he landed – not in Toronto, not with the Philadelphia Flyers and not with the Panthers, where you figured it might work, just because he was working for ex-Blackhawks’ general manager Dale Tallon again.
Some of Versteeg’s issues may have related to a slow recovery from knee surgery last March to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. For a player whose game revolves around speed, it is a particularly difficult injury to get back from. Players can be medically cleared to return to the lineup, but that is not the same thing as getting physically up to speed again with the pace of the game.
Moreover, Versteeg – while showing flashes of scoring ability – likely isn’t an ideal top-six forward, even though at $4.4-million per season, he is being paid like one. It’s why the Blackhawks were able to get the Panthers to eat half his salary. At $2.2-million, Chicago general manager Stan Bowman can justify playing Versteeg on his third line, where he can kill some penalties, score some even-strength goals and provide the sort of depth that they lost when Michal Frolik was let go from last year’s championship team.
Anaheim moved Holland because Rickard Rakell had moved ahead of him on the organizational depth chart and are in an intriguing position of strength in goal, given how many teams have significant holes to fill at that position right now. The Ducks lost last year’s first-year sensation, Viktor Fasth, to an undisclosed injury for a time, which paved the way for them to promote Danish rookie Frederik Andersen. Andersen was only sensational, going 6-1 in his first seven starts, with a 1.66 GAA and a .943 save percentage before Fasth got back into action, which forced them to send Anderson back down. The Ducks also have the reliable veteran Jonas Hiller, who is on an expiring contract, and arguably the best young goalie prospect outside the NHL in John Gibson, learning his trade down in the minors.
So the Ducks are loaded between the pipes and it wasn’t surprising to see the Nashville Predators – who are without starter Pekka Rinne – make inquiries there about a goaltender. It’s a dilemma of sorts for the Ducks, however, because they are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender again this year, after finishing second overall in the Western Conference’s regular-season standings a year ago.
If you think you can win it all, could you legitimately take a chance and trade away Hiller, even if you risk losing his rights next summer for nothing? Or do you keep him, just because he likely gives you the best chance to win in the short term, and the other goalies in your organization have fewer than 50 games of NHL experience amongst them?
The answer: If someone offered a significant return, they’d have to think about it. If not, they’ll muddle along with the status quo and see how things unfold.
The Ducks are already in a strong position heading into next summer’s entry draft. They’ll have their own first-round pick, plus the Ottawa Senators as well (as part of the compensation for Bobby Ryan). And the pick that the Leafs sent them for Holland could be upgraded to a second-rounder if he plays 25 games for Toronto, which seems likely based on where coach Randy Carlyle had him slotted for Saturday’s date with the Buffalo Sabres.
Eventually, the Leafs will get Nazem Kadri back from suspension and Tyler Bozak and Dave Bolland back from the injured reserve list, which will drop Holland down the depth chart. The Leafs wouldn’t have made the deal if they didn’t think Holland could play in the NHL right now.
Nashville, meanwhile, is pulling out all stops to stop the bleeding in goal. Carter Hutton, Magnus Hellberg and now Marek Mazanec have all started for them since Rinne was hurt. Mazanec made 39 saves against Chicago Saturday for his first NHL win, as the Predators returned home after a seven-game, 17-day road trip that left them just barely hanging on in the Western Conference playoff race. Probably the most heartening part of the victory was not that it came over the defending Stanley Cup champions, but that seven different players managed to score goals in the game, something that hadn’t happened for Nashville in almost four years.