Spezza was also absent for 22 games last year because of groin problems. In the six years since the lockout ended, he's only played a full season once - 2008-09. The year before, 2007-08, wasn't bad either - 76 appearances; most teams will take that. But Spezza missed 15 and 14 games respectively the two years before that; had back surgery back in 2006, and as a result, there are some legitimate questions being asked in NHL circles about his durability.
Nowadays, players earning those sorts of dollars need to be productive and reliable if a team is going to make the commitment needed to acquire their rights. Spezza fits the former category - 475 career points in 464 career games, and he doesn't turn 28 until later that year, suggesting he is still in the prime of his career. First-line centres don't grow on trees; but if you take a big gulp and make that deal and then Spezza gets hurt soon after he arrives in his new home, well, that's how even impossible-to-fire GMs lose their jobs.
It's the same with the New York Rangers' Marian Gaborik, who rarely has a season like last year, when he was healthy (and productive) for virtually the entire 82-game run. This year, Gaborik was out early, and the Rangers overcame his absence pretty well. New York would likely only ever move him if they thought a) they needed the money to satisfy their young homegrown nucleus; and b) they thought they had a shot at Brad Richards on the open market in the summer.
Now that would be an interesting role of the dice for New York - put Gaborik in play, potentially land something of consequence in exchange; and then lure Richards to Broadway in an old-fashioned bidding war with the dollars-challenged Dallas Stars.
LEMAIRE RETURNING: The two hottest teams in the East are the Buffalo Sabres, who have played themselves back in the playoff picture; and the New Jersey Devils, who haven't. Do you think Devils' general manager Lou Lamoriello is kicking himself for not making his coaching change a month earlier, when the Devils might have had enough time to play themselves back into the race? Probably. New Jersey keeps winning, but there is too much ground to make up - still 13 points, even after their surge in the past month. But Jacques Lemaire is obviously the difference maker there - he won his 600th career game Thursday night - only the eighth coach in history to reach that milestone - and the full court press to keep him around next year will be on through the end of the year. One possible tipping point: Ilya Kovalchuk, who couldn't seem to do a thing right under John MacLean, is slowly coming around offensively. His overtime winner versus the Leafs gives him points in six consecutive games, although at 18 goals overall, he is going to finish with the lowest total of his career this season.
ETC ETC: In the same way that Edmonton's season was greatly undermined when they lost defenceman Ryan Whitney, who'd been all things to them all season before getting hurt, the bottom has fallen out of the Atlanta Thrashers' season when the largely unknown and terribly underrated Toby Enstrom broke his finger. Enstrom has missed six games and counting, could play either tonight or tomorrow, and will likely help Dustin Byfuglien rediscover his game when their defensive duo is reunited. Enstrom never gets any Norris Trophy love, but those that see him on a regular basis say there is likely no one else in the league that plays so well so anonymously ... Michal Frolik, ex of the Florida Panthers, will probably end up playing with Marian Hossa in Chicago once Hossa gets over the flu - and it could be a critical help in his overall career development. Frolik is young but inconsistent; Hossa a player with a strong sense of how to play the game at both ends of the ice. If the former learns something from the latter, the Blackhawks might see a one-dimensional scorer evolve into a quality, two-way NHLer ... Tampa is expected to play without Ryan Malone for up to two months with abdominal issues, meaning they will lose some of their size and grit for most of the rest of the regular season. They can probably manage without him, given their cushion in the standings. The issue will be how quickly Malone can get back up to speed upon his return ... One final note about Fisher. His contract resembles Spezza on a smaller scale, in that while his cap hit is $4.2-million, Nashville will pay him $4-million next year and then $3-million in the final year of his contract. In the Preds' dollar-constrained universe, the actual cash going out the door is more important than how it is counted on the books.