Traditionally, the NHL trading game requires one important domino to fall before things really heat up and it happened on Thursday night following a frantic day of negotiations. Thank you Los Angeles Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets. You can both take a bow for getting the ball rolling, the Kings acquiring Jeff Carter and his 11-year, $58-million contract for defenceman Jack Johnson and a first-round pick.
Random thoughts on that possibility, beginning with what may happen next - the very real chance that the Kings could trade Dustin Brown, their team captain and a player previously considered an untouchable by the organization. Anyone who’s had any dealings with Brown will tell you this about him: he’s a polite kid, bordering on shy, and dripping with character. He is a wide body - only six feet tall, but 209 pounds, and can play the power-forward game, which he does, but not consistently enough, at least not this year.
In 2007-08, Brown broke through with 33 goals in what was a career-high 60-point season. In the early stages of a scorched-earth, everything-through-the-draft rebuild, that made the Kings identify him as a core puzzle piece going forward. They signed him to a bargain-basement six-year, $19.05-million following that season, and since then, they’ve seen him largely plateau. The last three years, he’s managed 53, 56 and 57 points - good, but not great numbers, and if he’d had the sort of galvanizing effect on the dressing room that a Jarome Iginla or a Jonathan Toews can have, then that would be enough, probably more than enough.
But Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter, who spent a lot of time meeting with GM Dean Lombardi these past few weeks, made an interesting comment the other day - calling out both Brown and Anze Kopitar, and noting how they seemed “stale” playing together.
Stale is an interesting modifier, a word that isn’t used all that frequently in the NHL, although it probably should be. But stale is what the Kings look like right now, and no matter what your walk of life, generally the only way to remedy staleness is by making important and dramatic changes to your routine. And it looks as if the Kings determined that they need to inject more life and zip into their dressing room, or otherwise, run the risk of missing the playoffs altogether, which would probably cost the organization’s movers and shakers their jobs.
Hence, the gamble to add Carter and the possibility of more moves to come. The Kings may not be a Stanley Cup contender just yet, but they should be better than this, if only because they play so well defensively and goaltender Jonathan Quick is in the midst of another exceptional season, the third in a row in which he’s going to win 35 or more games.
If Brown is in play for the Kings and if Columbus GM Scott Howson follows through on his promise to keep wheeling and dealing (he plans to be “very busy, very active”), it could lead to an interesting final 72 hours before Monday’s deadline comes and goes.
Looking back, sometimes the most interesting part of any trade is the players that weren’t included in the deal. For example, the Kings were able to make the Carter deal without surrendering highly regarded young goaltender Jonathan Bernier.
As with Cory Schneider in Vancouver, Bernier’s name has been out there for some time because the Canucks, Kings and maybe the Nashville Predators are the only teams in the league with an both established starter in goal and an intriguing backup, waiting for his chance to be a No. 1. If the Kings decide not to move Bernier, you’d have to think it is because they fear what Quick may ask for in his next contract negotiations.
For all that ails L.A., goaltending hasn’t been an issue, or at least not until just the last couple of games when Quick looked a little gassed against the Phoenix Coyotes and the Colorado Avalanche. But, even so, his GAA is 1.96 and his save percentage .931, exceptional numbers that would have looked good a decade ago in the dead-puck era or in the 1950s.
Bernier got into 25 games for the Kings last year (11-8-3, 2.48 GAA, .913 save percentage), but he won’t come close to that this season. Sutter likes to ride a No. 1 - he did it in Calgary with Miikka Kiprusoff and he’s doing it with Quick now; and the only risk there is burning him out when the games mean the most. As for Columbus, Howson made it clear that he’ll get around to addressing his goaltending in time, but not right now. It’s a smart strategy, knowing that many more goaltending options will present themselves in the summer, when teams aren’t in the playoff races and hanging onto all their available netminding talent, if only as insurance in case of injury. If Howson can stockpile enough assets - draft choices, young players - than he’ll be in a position where he can make a bold and aggressive move to get the goaltender that the Blue Jackets desperately need.
Howson’s ability to flip Carter after such an inauspicious stint in Columbus is also worth noting. It’s like buying a car; discovering it’s not exactly what you thought you were getting; and then flipping it almost right away and happily learning that it didn’t depreciate as much as Consumers Reports said it would. In the original deal with Philadelphia, Carter cost the Blue Jackets two first-rounders - Jacob Voracek and Sean Couturier - plus third-rounder Nick Cousins, who is playing well in the Ontario Hockey League this season. Howson essentially got two first-rounders back, Johnson and L.A.’s choice either this year or next, which likely won’t be in the top 15. So that’s a net loss if you consider that Couturier went eighth overall last year and is already playing in the NHL. On the other hand, it is unlikely that Howson could have flipped Voracek to the Kings for Johnson straight up last summer, so that’s a net gain. Ultimately, it comes out close to even, which is an amazing achievement considering all the baggage, financial and otherwise, that accompanies Carter.
From L.A.’s perspective, Carter figures to be highly motivated, wanting to prove that he is still capable of scoring 40 goals in a season, be a good team player and help a team win.
The lesson on the Columbus side is that they’ll need to think harder in the future about how a player fits into their city and franchise. Johnson may be a better fit in that regard - born in Indianapolis, played in Minnesota for Shattuck St. Mary’s, but is essentially a Michigan guy now: two years in the U.S. national development program, two years at the University of Michigan. Moving to Columbus gets him closer to home; and he may blossom there, a player who was once thought to have Norris Trophy-potential, who has become a good, but not great NHL defenceman, someone who consistently posts ugly plus-minus numbers.
The real untold story here - why were the Kings were not on Nash’s list of preferred destinations? - probably won’t be known definitely until Nash is finally moved. It’s bizarre how many times L.A. has made a splashy presentation to players, from Ilya Kovalchuk to Brad Richards, and been unable to land them. In the NBA, everybody eventually wants to play for the Lakers. Some day, some way, the Kings need to find a way to become that team in the NHL.
THE FAKE TRADE WATCH: Last week’s froth - imagining the a fake NHL trade website - actually turned out remarkably prescient, given how hard it is to nail deals down exactly right. Defenceman Pavel Kubina got traded from Tampa to Philadelphia, as predicted. Centre Antoine Vermette got traded - but to Phoenix, not Washington. The Kings’ Jack Johnson was also traded, not to Philadelphia for James Van Riemsdyk, but to Columbus for Carter, the ex-Flyer forward. Close anyway - and the rationale behind the deal was the same. L.A. needed scoring; and had defensive depth to deal. So this week, we’ll venture that if Columbus is really going to divest themselves of any and all available assets, let’s place Sami Pahlsson with the Detroit Red Wings (because they could use a defensive centre; because Mike Babcock used to coach him in Anaheim; and because he is a useful, skilled, former Stanley Cup champion who is only 34, and not done yet). Let’s put Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky with one of Boston, New York or Los Angeles, a player with enough skill and speed to jump-start a slumbering attack. And just for fun, let’s put both Brown and Nash in Toronto uniforms, which would represent the sort of seismic kerboom! that general manager Brian Burke loves so much. Sure, he’d have to strip his organization bare of young prospects to do it, but given how the Leafs have struggled; and how popular Nash would be (effectively, coming home), it would dwarf any and all other moves at the deadline. And this is supposed to be out entertainment, right?
THE FAKE .500: ... Is my term for the way three-point games distort the NHL standings, and keep so many teams in the playoff races until the bitter end. Anaheim’s recent surge has them above the fake .500 now at 26-25-4-6 which means that 13 of 15 teams in the Western Conference have “winning” records as of Friday morning. Silly. On Thursday evening’s nine-game schedule, five games were decided in shootouts, meaning that of the 18 teams in action, 14 picked up points. The only ones who didn’t were Toronto, Chicago, Tampa and Philadelphia.
FEASTER ON THE WARPATH: Flames’ general manager Jay Feaster went on a tirade Thursday night, warning that he’ll be open for business if his team doesn’t get its act together between now and Monday. A serious threat? Or more like the strategy Anaheim Ducks’ GM Bob Murray employed a few months ago, when he suggested everybody on his team, save the two player with no-trades (Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu) were available. Murray wasn’t ever going to trade Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry (or Cam Fowler or Luca Sbisa for that matter), but he did get the players’ attention and the Ducks have been on a roll ever since. Feaster’s strategy is complicated by the fact that his six highest-paid forwards (Jarome Iginla, Mike Cammalleri, Alex Tanguay, Matt Stajan, Olli Jokinen and Curtis Glencross); his four highest-paid defencemen (Jay Bouwmeester, Mark Giordano, Cory Sarich and Anton Babchuk) and his No. 1 goalie, Miikka Kiprusoff, all have no-trade clauses. Kind of ties your hands a bit. And since Feaster is on the record as saying Iginla and Kiprusoff aren’t going anywhere, it limits his options in terms of blowing up his team. More likely, Feaster was just trying to get everybody’s attention in the same way Murray did. Following Thursday’s overtime loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, Calgary is in a three-way tie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with the Kings and Dallas Stars. All have 66 points in 61 games played, with Dallas holding the edge in the first tie-breaker.
THE PLAYOFF RACES: Officially, three-quarters of the NHL season will be in the books by Saturday, which is when scoreboard-watching becomes less of an idle pursuit and more something worth pursuing. Teams can never exactly pick their poisons when it comes to first-round playoff match-ups, but there could be value in finishing first in the West, just in case the surging Coyotes overhauls San Jose for top spot in the Pacific, which would drop the Sharks from the No. 3 seed to No. 7 and set up a dangerous first-round meeting with whatever team finishes second overall. Vancouver’s chances of catching and overtaking the Red Wings greatly increased with Thursday night’s come-from-behind victory, which also ended Detroit’s 23-game home-winning streak and amounted to a three-point swing in the standings. It doesn’t help Detroit’s cause that they’ll be without centre Pavel Datsyuk until probably mid-March, which might be just enough time for the Canucks to overhaul the Wings in the interim.
Meanwhile over in the East, what a strange, upside-down season for the four Canadian-based teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. In October, it was reasonable to think the Montreal Canadiens - who came within a game of eliminating the Boston Bruins in the opening round last year - had the best chance of qualifying for post-season play. Now, with a quarter of the season remaining, there is a plausible scenario in which the Canadiens become the only Canadian team to miss out in the East. With the Florida Panthers fading and the Washington Capitals muddling along without left winger Alex Ovechkin, the Winnipeg Jets could sneak in and grab the Southeast Division title and the No. 3 playoff seed, where they sit today. The Ottawa Senators’ recent surge has helped them build a cushion again, and so the challenge might be for the Toronto Maple Leafs to emerge from their current slide and keep a second Southeast team from qualifying.
AND FINALLY: Ottawa’s goaltending depth will be put to the test now that Craig Anderson has been sidelined with a lacerated finger, part of a kitchen accident that will give prospect Robin Lehner a chance to shine. Lehner is the Senators’ goalie of the future and provided he can keep them afloat in the present, it may end up being a blessing in disguise for Ottawa. Anderson is one of only seven NHL goalies to have played above 3,000 minutes this season, all of whom are at risk of burning out, if they cannot catch a breather between now and playoff time. The others: Quick, Kiprusoff, Pekka Rinne (Nashville), Carey Price (Montreal), Jonas Hiller (Anaheim) and Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg). Among those seven, only Rinne’s Predators seem like playoff locks.