In his weekly notebook, Eric Duhatschek ponders Mike Fisher's present, Jason Spezza's future, and what the heck the Pittsburgh Penguins can do now without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the foreseeable future.
Once upon a time, the big debate in Ottawa, as it related to Mike Fisher, was: Could he legitimately play as a No. 2 centre? Or was he just a really good No. 3? Now, in the aftermath of Thursday's deal that saw him flipped to the Nashville Predators for a first-round draft choice, that discussion is so yesterday. Fisher has been elevated up the depth chart again. He'll play as the Preds' new No. 1 centre, bumping Marcel Goc down the depth chart. Marcel Goc? Exactly. Without a doubt, Barry Trotz is the coach of the year in the NHL.
Fisher might be the first player in NHL history that put Nashville at the top of his list of preferred destinations when it came to trade possibilities. Maybe the Preds need to start a match-making service targeting professional hockey players and country-music stars. The Predators rarely figure into the NHL trade mix in a big way because of their budget restrictions. The only time they were ever major players before was the year that Paul Kariya joined them as a free agent and Peter Forsberg - still relatively in his prime - was acquired as a rental from the Philadelphia Flyers for a playoff push that resulted in the usual first-round exit.
Since then, it's mostly been one star after another exiting Music City. The Preds moved last year's No. 1 centre, Jason Arnott, to the New Jersey Devils before the season began in a salary dump; and signed Matthew Lombardi as his replacement. But Lombardi has been out all year with a concussion leaving the Predators without a real front-line centre for two thirds of the season and counting.
Fisher should be a good fit with the Preds because his all-around game fits nicely with the philosophy Trotz preaches. GM David Poile put it nicely: Fisher plays a playoff style all year. Nashville, without any kind of a talent upgrade, was probably good enough to make the playoffs and lose in the first round again. Now? Maybe Fisher makes enough of a difference that the Preds could be a post-season dark horse. Last year, they pushed the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks hard in the opening round. One of these days, they are going to turn all those heartening close calls into an upset victory or two. Maybe even this year.
THE SPEZZA WATCH: Senators general manager Bryan Murray is pretty clear that his team is in full rebuilding mode, meaning he will be gobbling up all those free cell phone minutes long before the Feb. 28 trading deadline rolls around. Chris Phillips is almost certainly on the way out of town; as are Alex Kovalev and Jarkko Ruutu, who represent their three key unrestricted free agents. Goalie Pascal LeClaire is unrestricted too, but given his injury history and recent form, unlikely to command any interest.
Milan Michalek might be a more attractive commodity if he's made available - how about reuniting him with brother Zbynek on the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that could use a top-six forward? The Penguins had 85 of their 165 goals of the lineup the other night when they knocked off the Los Angeles Kings in overtime - and the airlift from AHL Wilkes-Barre featured four new faces: Ryan Craig, Nick Johnson, Brett Sterling and Joe Vitale.
Of greater interest, however, is the status of Jason Spezza, he of the $7-million annual cap hit and the no-trade clause. Spezza's contract makes a deal problematic, and not necessarily just because of the dollars that he is owed. (For the record, it's four more years after this one, with the next two at $8-million, and then the third year at $5-million and the final year at $4-million. In terms of actual dollars out, it adds up to about $3-million less than the overall cap hit on a contract that was front-loaded just like Dany Heatley's.) Some teams - put the Los Angeles Kings at the top of the list - can afford to take on that sort of money, especially as the dollars dwindle down in the years ahead. The larger problem is Spezza's ongoing health issues. He's just back in the lineup after missing five weeks recovering from a separated shoulder.