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Lubomir Visnovsky of the Edmonton Oilers puts the puck past Los Angeles Kings goaltender Erik Ersberg in the 10th shootout round. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
Lubomir Visnovsky of the Edmonton Oilers puts the puck past Los Angeles Kings goaltender Erik Ersberg in the 10th shootout round. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Eric Duhatschek

Little to get excited about out West Add to ...

Just how bland was NHL trade deadline day in the Western Conference?

At the end, the most intriguing question revolved around a historical curiosity: How could the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, long-time bitter rivals in the Battle of Alberta, make a trade for the first time in history?

Is nothing sacred?

It took them until the 11th hour yesterday, but the Oilers finally began a much-needed overhaul of their roster, moving out two more defencemen (Lubomir Visnovsky to the Anaheim Ducks and Steve Staios to Calgary). Add in the transaction that sent Denis Grebeshkov to the Nashville Predators last Monday, and three of the team's former starting six defencemen are now gone. (Sheldon Souray stayed behind, mostly because he developed an infection in his broken hand that reportedly will keep him out for the rest of the season.)

In all, the Oilers received a second-round pick for Grebeshkov, a third-rounder and defenceman Aaron Johnson for Staios, and defenceman Ryan Whitney and a sixth-rounder for Visnovsky.

In the end, Visnovsky was the best player traded in the Western Conference yesterday.

The Ducks, who also moved Vesa Toskala to Calgary in a swap of backup goalies, signalled they were making a playoff push - and general manager Bob Murray probably had the best day overall in terms of the way he shuffled contract dollars in and out.

Visnovsky has a contract that descends in dollar value as it moves along; Whitney's deal, which he signed back in his Pittsburgh Penguins days, is back-loaded and goes up in its latter years. The salary cap numbers work in Edmonton's favour, but in terms of the cash outlay, Anaheim is the big winner.

But dollars matter less in Edmonton, where the more pertinent stat is the date on the birth certificate.

Whitney is almost seven years younger than Visnovsky, and if he develops into the player his stature (6 foot 4, 219 pounds) and draft position (fifth overall in 2002) suggests he could be, he might be part of the turnaround in Edmonton.

Still, there is more work to be done for Oilers GM Steve Tambellini and the next chance to make progress will be approaching the June entry draft, where he'll have five selections in the first three rounds, including - barring a miracle turnaround in the final quarter - either the first- or second-overall pick.

Calgary, meanwhile, addressed a lingering concern for going on three years now by acquiring Toskala to act as Miikka Kiprusoff's backup. It is a tacit admission the decision to use an inexperienced backup - in this case, Curtis McElhinney - for all that time was an abject failure. Former head coach Mike Keenan had no faith in McElhinney the previous two years, and Keenan's replacement, Brent Sutter, wasn't committed to him either.

Toskala will cost the Flames upward of $1-million for what's left of this season - an expensive insurance policy when someone such as former Dallas Stars backup Alex Auld had been available on the waiver wire at a far-cheaper price. But GM Darryl Sutter knows Toskala from in his days running the San Jose Sharks and presumably felt the goalie could regain his form behind the Flames defence corps.

The Flames' moves were minor compared to their pre-Olympic blockbusters that sent Olli Jokinen and Dion Phaneuf out of town. Calgary now has no picks until the fourth round of the 2010 entry draft. All these roster tweaks to a team that fashioned itself a contender back in October smack of abject panic - and the realization its playoff hopes are rapidly slipping away.

Any talk of the future has been put on hold with a clear focus on the present: Make the playoffs, probably as a low seed, and then hope to register an upset along the way. Once in a while it happens, but most likely Calgary is first-round fodder for teams built in a more orderly fashion, along the lines of what Edmonton (belatedly) is trying to do.

You have to wonder how long it will be before the Flames find themselves in the same current predicament as the Oilers - with few blue-chip youngsters and just not good enough to do anything more than scrape into the playoffs.

Calgary's day of reckoning, you'd have to think, is coming sooner rather than later. Edmonton's, by contrast, is clearly at hand.

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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