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Among pending unrestricted free agents, one of the most attractive rental defencemen is Vancouver Canucks’ Dan Hamhuis. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Among pending unrestricted free agents, one of the most attractive rental defencemen is Vancouver Canucks’ Dan Hamhuis. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Hockey

It’s fun to speculate, but beauty of the trade deadline is its unpredictability Add to ...

The NHL trade deadline falls on Monday – and right now general managers are feverishly trying to sort out what kind of market it’s going to be this time around, given how completely different the deadlines were in each of the past two seasons.

Will it be like last year, when the sellers had a field day and received great value for mostly marginal contributors?

Or more like two years ago, when the buyers acquired useful assets at comparatively bargain prices? The Los Angeles Kings added a star winger, Marian Gaborik, from Columbus, in return for a second-round pick, a conditional third-rounder and the contract of Matt Frattin. But Gaborik, who was about to become a free agent, would go on to become the NHL’s leading goal scorer in the 2014 playoffs, and the Kings won the Stanley Cup.

Those are the sorts of deals general managers dream about when they ponder how aggressive to be at the deadline, in all of its glorious frenzy.

So far, the early returns seem promising for the sellers, given how the Toronto Maple Leafs have already landed two second-round draft choices, plus a fourth, in their fire sale, when they moved out Shawn Matthias and then Roman Polak and Nick Spaling in two separate deals over a 48-hour period.

What’s driving the deal-making? “What we’re noticing now … is that, every year, there are going to be 22 to 24 teams still in the hunt for the playoffs at this time of year,” Dallas Stars’ general manager Jim Nill explained.

“In the past, it used to be you had 18 or 19 teams that knew they had a chance of making it. Well, I think we’re going to become an 88- to 98-point league, and it’s all going to be a crush can – we’re all going to be in the hunt for the playoffs at the deadline.”

Translation: When there are more potential buyers and fewer willing sellers, the law of supply and demand naturally takes over, with the sellers demanding ridiculous premiums for middling assets.

That was certainly true last year when, among others, the Calgary Flames landed second- and third-round draft choices from the Washington Capitals for Curtis Glencross. And the Leafs, Arizona Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes all commanded first-round draft choices in deadline trades with the Nashville Predators, Chicago Blackhawks and Kings, respectively.

The players who landed with the Preds (Cody Franson, Mike Santorelli) and Kings (Andrej Sekera) had minimal impact; the Cup-winning Blackhawks (Antoine Vermette) fared better, though Vermette, who ultimately scored a couple of big goals for Chicago in the final, was a healthy scratch early in his tenure.

Compare that with 2014. At the 11th hour, the Montreal Canadiens scooped up Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders, and only gave up a second-rounder in return. In Calgary, the Flames dangled a reputable goal scorer in Mike Cammalleri, but didn’t get their asking price – they let him move on as a free agent rather than accept a low-ball offer. The only team that received good value at the deadline was Tampa, which acquired what became two first-round draft choices plus the New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan in a trade for Martin St. Louis.

Some GMs believe 2014 was an aberration – it was all because the Vancouver Canucks were fielding offers from a handful of teams for centre Ryan Kesler. In the end, the Canucks held on to Kesler, trading him instead at the draft to the Anaheim Ducks.

But until teams knew they were definitely in or out on Kesler, they weren’t prepared to turn to their backup plans. And when Kesler didn’t get traded, it left a lot of teams scrambling in the final minutes to do what they could whatever the price.

Among the pending unrestricted free agents, the most attractive rental forwards this year appear to be Carolina’s Eric Staal, Boston’s Loui Eriksson, Winnipeg’s Andrew Ladd, Edmonton’s Teddy Purcell and Calgary’s Jiri Hudler, while Vancouver’s Dan Hamhuis, Calgary’s Kris Russell and Edmonton’s Justin Schultz are among the available defencemen.

Hamhuis once played for Barry Trotz in Nashville. Is he a fit with Washington? Ladd once played for Dale Tallon in Chicago. Is he a fit in Florida? Purcell began his career in Los Angeles, and the Kings need to replace the injured Gaborik. Could Staal go from playing with brother Jordan in Carolina to playing with brother Marc in New York? The Rangers could sure use another established centre to fortify their championship push.

There is a temptation to speculate about players joining teams where they have a connection, but the beauty of the trade deadline is its unpredictability. Every year, there are always players moving who aren’t on anybody’s trade board – and as Nill suggests, it has everything to do with parity and the urgency to win now.

“If you can get into the playoffs, you have as good a chance as anybody,” Nill said. “How soon do you give up on those assets to make your move?”

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