It's been happening quietly and well behind the scenes, but with the NHL on hiatus for two weeks because of the Winter Olympics, at least a half-dozen general managers have been hard at work.
With parity ensuring that all but the bottom feeders are still in the playoff hunt with 20 games to go, it's been the six teams in the league's basement - the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Islanders, Florida Panthers and Columbus Blue Jackets - getting most of the attention as teams gear up for the 3 p.m. EST trade deadline on Wednesday.
"Since about Thursday or Friday, there've been quite a few calls," Columbus GM Scott Howson said yesterday.
While the NHL's usually well-hyped deadline has taken a back seat to a wildly successful Olympic tournament in Vancouver, GMs around the league say there was considerable anticipation among themselves for the league's trade freeze lifting at midnight last night. Deals could come fast and furious, too, as there are only 63 hours between the end of the freeze and the deadline.
What makes this year's deadline unique is that several of the biggest names have already been dealt. Beginning with the Leafs' big day on Jan. 31 when GM Brian Burke acquired Dion Phaneuf and Jean-Sébastien Giguère, there were 12 trades in the 13 days prior to the freeze, including one blockbuster in which Ilya Kovalchuk, tied for sixth in league goal scoring, went to the New Jersey Devils from the Atlanta Thrashers.
Even so, NHL executives say they still expect the next three days will be just as busy as in years past. In each of the last six seasons, at least 20 trades have been made on deadline day, with an average of 42 players changing teams a year.
The majority of those moved before the deadline this season will likely be pending unrestricted free agents - a group of more than 100 players, or nearly 15 per cent of the league, whose contracts are set to expire on July 1.
For teams like the Blue Jackets, which are all but out of the playoff mix barring a different sort of Miracle on Ice, getting draft picks and prospects for their rental players is the main goal.
"We're certainly not in a position to add right now unless it's to make an impact for the future and long term," Howson said, indicating his rentals - Raffi Torres, Fredrik Modin and Milan Jurcina - are the most likely players to be moved. "You'd rather not be here, but this is what it is and you have to do what's best for your team."
Howson added that he doesn't foresee the salary cap being a major hurdle for the buyers, given so much of the season is already in the bag. Player salaries are accounted for on a per-day basis, and out of a 193-day regular-season schedule, only 42 remain - meaning teams will be on the hook for roughly 22 per cent of rental players' salaries.
Even an inflated contract like that of Blues winger Paul Kariya - $6-million (all figures U.S.) - is less cumbersome given that $4.7-million of it has already been paid by St. Louis.
"Teams plan for this, and if they want to add, they've usually got room," Howson said. "What you do see is that some teams in the past, before a salary cap, might have added two or three players, but now it's only one or two because they only have room for that."
With almost no big names available, it's possible that the price for rental players - scoring forwards, in particular - ratchets up. There are few likely rental players who have produced much in the way of offence this season, which is good news for teams like the Hurricanes and Leafs, who have secondary scoring threats like Ray Whitney and Alexei Ponikarovsky on offer for futures.
With several playoff-bound teams anxious to add scoring, the lack of options could result in a bit of a bidding war for what are essentially depth talents.
Another position that bears watching is goaltender. There will likely be plenty of free agents in the summer and at least two contenders - the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals - are investigating an upgrade to their starter. In addition, the Montreal Canadiens have a tough call with their two pending restricted free-agent netminders - Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price - but could save that decision for the summer.
The Vancouver Canucks could deal youngster Cory Schneider, who isn't likely to get a shot at a starting job in the NHL behind Roberto Luongo, for more depth.
ON THE MARKET BUYERS AND SELLERS AT THE DEADLINE
Top 10 Sellers
Who's for sale:
Slava Kozlov, Pavel Kubina, Colby Armstrong
Ray Whitney, Joe Corvo, Scott Walker, Aaron Ward, Andrew Alberts
John-Michael Liles, Marek Svatos
Columbus Blue Jackets
Fredrik Modin, Raffi Torres, Milan Jurcina
Fernando Pisani, Tom Gilbert, Patrick O'Sullivan, Sheldon Souray, Ladislav Smid, Ethan Moreau, Steve Staios, Jason Strudwick
Tomas Vokoun, Rostislav Olesz, Dennis Seidenberg, Jordan Leopold
Marek Zidlicky, Owen Nolan, Petr Sykora, Eric Belanger
New York Islanders
Andy Sutton, Dwayne Roloson, Martin Biron, Doug Weight
St. Louis Blues
Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk, Alex Steen, Carlo Colaiacovo
Toronto Maple Leafs
Alexei Ponikarovsky, Lee Stempniak, Tomas Kaberle, Wayne Primeau, Garnet Exelby
Top 10 Buyers
What they want:
Los Angeles Kings
Depth on defence
Tampa Bay Lightning
Depth on defence
Depth on defence, goaltender
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