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The Washington Capitals took arguably the most attractive trade chip off the board two days before the NHL trade deadline, acquiring Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

More and more, the annual NHL trade deadline plays out like the movie Groundhog Day, producing the same numbing, repetitive storyline.

Just about all of the league's general managers have figured out it's smart to avoid the last-minute shopping rush, which means most of the deals that really matter get done ahead of the cutoff, Wednesday at 3 p.m. EST.

Operationally, this is a prudent strategy, ensuring a team doesn't run out of time or, in the old days, gets a trade gummed up by a malfunctioning fax machine.

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Eric Duhatschek: Canadian teams lead the wheeling and dealing as NHL trade deadline looms

The Washington Capitals arguably took the top remaining player off the board Monday night, acquiring defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues in a complex deal for draft choices that was summed up by one tweet this way: "If Shattenkirk solves the Riddle of the Five Wizards or slays 50 per cent of the magic dragons, the 2019 second-round pick becomes a potion."

Yes, it was that complicated.

Essentially, St. Louis landed a 2017 first-round pick, a conditional second-rounder plus prospect Zach Sanford for Shattenkirk, who is currently fourth among NHL defencemen in scoring and potentially the Blues' power-play quarterback going forward.

One day earlier, the first-place team in the Western Conference, the Minnesota Wild, acquired centre Martin Hanzal from the rebuilding Arizona Coyotes. If you also factor in the Sunday trade that saw Ben Bishop land with the Los Angeles Kings, it means the top available rentals at each position – defence, forward and goal – are already off the market, leaving the remaining shoppers to poke around for bargains, like at some Boxing Day clearance sale.

As always, the heaviest sighs were coming from Canada's two competing sports networks, TSN and Rogers Sportsnet, who will be on the air early Wednesday morning to chronicle where the remaining trade pieces might fall.

After the Ottawa Senators picked up forward Viktor Stalberg from the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers acquired defenceman Brendan Smith from the Red Wings Tuesday, Detroit's Thomas Vanek may be the best available rental remaining on the market. It really is that thin.

Thank goodness Rogers added a world-class eccentric, former NHL goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, to its broadcast team to lighten the mood and make the hours pass more quickly. Bryzgalov is intelligent, speaks his mind and is genuinely funny. Who knows? He might be able to launch a comedy career out of this, a Borat for the 21st-century puck crowd. TSN will counter with the Letterkenny dudes.

None of which really matters to the principal players in this auction, the 30 NHL GMs – some buying, some selling, most just holding their cards close to their vests. Five of the seven Canadian teams have made moves already, with only the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets still on the sidelines. Winnipeg isn't expected to do much. Edmonton had targeted a face-off man, but both Hanzal and Brian Boyle (to Toronto) have already been scooped up. If the Oilers can get a better backup goalie, that might be their top move.

Of course, the lesson of 35-plus years of trade-deadline madness is that only a handful of transactions ever really pay off in the end.

Hands up everyone who predicted that Marian Gaborik going from Columbus to Los Angeles would be the key move of the 2014 trade deadline. And yet Gaborik, who cost the Kings Matt Frattin plus draft choices that turned into Dominic Turgeon and Travis Dermott, scored 14 goals in 26 playoff games to help the Kings win their second Stanley Cup in three years.

The hope of pulling off that sort of transaction is why every GM keeps his iPhone charged on deadline day – and maybe has a backup on hand, just in case. Sometimes, a small investment can pay big dividends.

The other fact of life in the current age of NHL parity is you really never know what may happen once the playoffs start.

Washington is loaded again, but the Capitals ran away with the regular-season title last year and still stumbled out in the second round. Pittsburgh looks deep, too, but it has been two decades since an NHL team successfully defended a Stanley Cup championship.

In making a sneaky-smart move to land Boyle, Toronto's management team proved they aren't just adept at this rebuilding exercise, they can also read the standings.

The Leafs have done a fine job of minimizing expectations this season, thus allowing their rookie class to develop while facing little genuine pressure. But the Atlantic Division is a jumble of mediocrity compared with the Metropolitan, so if the Leafs can finish second or third, not only would they be in the playoffs, they'd have a reasonable chance of actually winning a round.

To give up a future second-rounder for Boyle – a player they might be able to sign in the off-season anyway – is an inexpensive investment given the possible upside of the move.

Remember: In a two-month playoff marathon, nothing is ever guaranteed, which is why hordes of hockey fans will still sneak a peek at their TV sets Wednesday to see how the rest of the auction plays out.

It is, after all, what Canadians do, an annual rite of approaching spring.

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