There was an intriguing trade in the NHL last week – the Nashville Predators acquiring defenceman Michael Del Zotto from the New York Rangers in exchange for Kevin Klein – and it could set in a motion a mini-trade flurry, now that there are just two weeks to go until the Olympic break.
Way back in January of 2006, Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford made a deal with the St. Louis Blues to acquire centre Doug Weight before the NHL headed to Turin for the Olympics, so that Weight could get his family settled into Raleigh during the break. It ended up as a prescient move, one of those rare transactions that actually helped a team win a championship, Weight scoring 16 points in 23 games for the Hurricanes, who edged his former team, the Edmonton Oilers, in a seven-game Stanley Cup final.
The problem is that there are two conflicting schools of thought at work here.
The first involves the NHL’s salary cap and how every transaction needs to be filtered through its restrictions.
Even though rosters are frozen during the Olympics, every day that passes clicks another day off a player’s salary cap charges. It means that any team right up against the salary cap is far better off waiting until at or near the Mar. 5 trading deadline to make a move, on the grounds that it can maximize the quality of player it gets the longer it delays.
On the other hand, if a team has no issues with the cap, then it can afford to make a move now or soon. Even if a player is going to the Olympics – someone such as Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who will be among the most talked about candidates to switch teams before the deadline – just knowing where the final landing spot is going to be would make the transition from one team to the next go more smoothly.
Goalies can be notoriously difficult to trade in-season because most teams in a playoff position that think they can challenge for the Stanley Cup already have decent netminding in place – otherwise, they wouldn’t be in contention at this stage of the season, well into the second half.
Earlier in January, the Edmonton Oilers traded away one goaltender, Devan Dubnyk, to Nashville and then added another, Ben Scrivens, from the Los Angeles Kings. It leaves, reasonably, three teams in search of help between the pipes – the New York Islanders, the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues.
It was a mystery to many why, when Islanders’ general manager Garth Snow, acquired Thomas Vanek from the Buffalo Sabres in the Matt Moulson deal, he didn’t push harder to get Miller included in the deal. The Islanders are in that vast group of teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack, all of who still harbor playoff dreams, even if they’re having singularly mediocre seasons.
But there’s greater pressure on New York than most because the Islanders also surrendered first– and second-round picks to effectively rent Vanek for this season, hoping that his presence on the roster, and John Tavares’s, would help them solidify the gains they made last year, when they qualified for the postseason after a five-year absence. It’s not immediately clear what the Islanders could offer to rent Miller – wouldn’t a first-rounder in 2015, the Connor McDavid draft, be too risky? – but their goaltending has been in flux all year, with Evgeni Nabokov in and out of the injury bay, and Kevin Poulin forced to carry the load, but stuck with a save percentage under .900 and a goals-against average above 3.00.
St. Louis has long been rumored to be Miller’s final destination because the Blues legitimately have a team that could win it all this year. The incumbents there, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, both have decent numbers, but Miller would represent a significant upgrade.
Last week, on the Fan 960 in Calgary, we talked about Miller and I floated Minnesota as a possibility, only because of the uncertainty surrounding Josh Harding, who hasn’t played since before Christmas, as he tries to adjust the medication treating his multiple sclerosis. The Wild have done well to stay competitive in the West, despite Harding’s absence and having to muddle along without both Zach Parise (now back in the lineup) and Mikko Koivu. Miller has some national team history with both Parise and defenceman Ryan Suter, so that would be an easy transition for him. By next year, general manager Chuck Fletcher might even have the dollars available to sign him to a new contract, because Dany Heatley’s $7-million salary-cap hit will disappear off the books. Fletcher gave a pile of his prospects to the Sabres at last year’s trading deadline to secure Jason Pominville’s services. He would now be dealing with the new general manager, Tim Murray, as opposed to Darcy Regier, but the Wild still have a lot of prospects in the pipeline – certainly enough to satisfy whatever Buffalo might want in exchange for Miller.