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Florida Panthers' Jay Bouwmeester, left, slams Montreal Canadiens' Michael Ryder into the boards during a game in Sunrise, Fla., on Nov. 16, 2006. (HANS DERYK)
Florida Panthers' Jay Bouwmeester, left, slams Montreal Canadiens' Michael Ryder into the boards during a game in Sunrise, Fla., on Nov. 16, 2006. (HANS DERYK)

Eric Duhatschek

More smoking than fire Add to ...

In the end, the NHL's 2009 entry draft was more about smoke than fire, with only two prominent players changing teams and half-a-dozen others still on the board, awaiting word on their respective futures.

This slow-go development, which is becoming more pronounced every year, is tied inextricably to the upcoming free-agency period, and the uncertainty about how the market is about to unfold. If the dollars paid out this year are down from the ridiculous sums commanded by players over the past two years, then the trade dynamic will change as well.

It was hard enough for Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray to get good value for Dany Heatley, at a $7.5-million (all currency U.S.) annual salary-cap charge, this past week. If players of Heatley's stature start to take deep discounts, starting July 1 - and the expectation is that Marian Hossa's annual salary if he signs an extension with the Detroit Red Wings could average just north of $4-million a season - then it becomes even more difficult to peddle a player signed at the height of the NHL's wild post-lockout growth spurt.

On the other hand, if teams continue their pattern of overpaying for free agents, then anybody left in the starting blocks once the premier unrestricteds go off the market, may revisit the Heatleys, the Vincent Lecavaliers and so forth - and last week's exercise in tire-kicking could turn into something far more tangible.

As GM after GM will tell you, the only real reason to make deals at the draft is if you're after draft picks in return. The Anaheim Ducks received the equivalent of three first-round choices for defenceman Chris Pronger Friday night.

Calgary paid comparatively less (a third-rounder) on Saturday morning to land Jay Bouwmeester, a younger player than Pronger, with less of a proven track record, but still a highly-sought-after commodity. If Flames general manager Darryl Sutter can get Bouwmeester to sign on the dotted line before Wednesday's opening day of the free-agent season for a salary in the $6-million range, then the modest cost will be well worth the investment.

On Friday night, when Sutter was asked about the team's rumoured interest in some of the big-name players available on the NHL trade market, his for-the-record, tape-recorded, I-know-I-heard-it-correctly-response was: "There are big names out there. None of them involve us - and we're not interested in any of them."

On Saturday morning, he went ahead and pulled the trigger on the biggest deal of the day, landing Bouwmeester.

Presumably, something changed for Sutter overnight; because it would be hard to dispute that Bouwmeester, who led the NHL in ice time last season, averaging 27 minutes per game, wasn't one of the prize catches out there.

Provided the Flames can sign him, he would significantly upgrade their blueline, which already boasts two other prominent and expensive players, Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr. Sutter kept insisting that fitting Bouwmeester's possible contract into the team's salary cap would be child's play - or least something that anyone with a passing familiarity with Grade 10 math would be able to figure out.

Okay, we'll try. Currently, seven players (Phaneuf, Regehr, Jarome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff, Olli Jokinen, Cory Sarich and Daymond Langkow) gobble up $37.7-million worth of cap charges, in a year when the salary cap came in $56.8-million.

Sutter did perform a little salary cap sleight of hand by convincing the Phoenix Coyotes to absorb Jim Vandermeer's $2.3-million annual contract - an unimaginably stiff sum for a player on the fringes of the roster.

Even so, the Flames will likely need to move out more salary to accommodate Bouwmeester, or potentially face the same issues they did down the stretch last year, when they played up to three men short some nights because they couldn't fit 18 position players into their game-night lineup and stay compliant with the salary cap.

So Sutter's work isn't finished by a long shot, and one can only assume that Bouwmeester came highly recommended by Sutter's younger brother, former New Jersey Devils coach Brent, who coached against him in the Eastern Conference for the past two seasons, where he emerged as a dominant player with the Panthers.

Darryl Sutter's plan was to meet with Bouwmeester face-to-face to convince him of the merits of signing with Calgary - and even if he can't get a deal done by Wednesday, doesn't figure to give up easily. Like him or not, the one thing Sutter does is make moves.

The Bouwmeester deal stirred up an otherwise somnambulant second day, in which all the sound and fury of the previous week amounted to little of any consequence. Heatley didn't get traded. Lecavalier didn't get traded. Tomas Kaberle and Phil Kessel almost got traded for each other, but the deal fell apart at the last minute. The blood-letting in San Jose, if it comes, will have to wait until after July 1.

Meanwhile, in Calgary, the mantra doesn't change. The Flames need to turn all those first-round playoff exits into something more.

For all of his skating ability and his knack for making a good first pass, Bouwmeester has never played a playoff game, in either the NHL, or in junior. Brent Sutter, the new coach, has had success internationally, but also saw his Devils teams stumble out of the playoffs in the first round in each of the past two years.

Unlike the rest of the stand-pat NHL, the Flames were prepared to roll the dice and make some moves. Only time will tell, however, if they were the right ones.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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