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Duhatschek: Flurry of NHL trades separate contenders from pretenders

After three months of gridlock, and a whole of bunch of rumour mongering, finally some action Wednesday on the NHL trade front. Days after the Christmas trade freeze ended, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Nashville Predators pulled off an old-fashioned blockbuster, Columbus trading away disgruntled centre Ryan Johansen to the Predators in exchange for defenceman Seth Jones.

Usually, NHL teams in the salary-cap era are so risk-averse that few would roll the dice this way, gambling on two young players with massive, if unrealized, upside.

Johansen was chosen fourth overall in the 2010 NHL entry draft, while Jones went fourth overall in the 2013 draft, so both come equipped with impressive pedigrees. Johansen finally appeared to meet some of his early promise in a breakthrough season last year, when he finished 16th in the NHL scoring race, with 71 points in 82 games.

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But he has regressed this season and seemed a poor fit with the new coach, John Tortorella, who sat him out of a game last month to see if he could light a fire under him. It didn't work.

Nashville was far happier with Jones's progress than Columbus was with Johansen's. The problem there was the Predators' unprecedented depth on defence. Shea Weber and Roman Josi form arguably the best defensive duo in the league, and Nashville likes the chemistry that's developed between Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. That left Jones playing essentially on the third pair and getting some power-play time on the second unit.

Jones is 21, or two years younger than Johansen, and, in his draft year, there were some who believed he might win a Norris Trophy at some point in his future.

But as good as the Predators have been in developing goaltenders and defencemen in the past, they have been unable to do the same up front. Their best young forward, Filip Forsberg, also came to them in a trade.

If Nashville expects to make any playoff noise, it needs help up front – and the Predators had been linked for a while to the pursuit of a bona fide No. 1 centre, which is how general manager David Poile described Johansen after making the deal. There was no mention of his work ethic (considered to be an issue internally in Columbus); the way Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen carefully worded it was, "We have been through a lot with Joey [Johansen] over the years."

For his part, Poile called Johansen a "big young centre that can score, set up goals, win faceoffs. He's a No. 1 centre who is still growing his game and has the size and skill we have been looking for."

Columbus may eventually be looking for those qualities again now that Johansen is gone, but after a poor start to the season, it could land that sort of player in the 2016 NHL entry draft, which is full of high-end offensive talent.

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The Jones-Johansen trade largely overshadowed two other interesting bits of NHL business on Wednesday.

The Los Angeles Kings signalled that they were serious about another Stanley Cup run, adding defenceman Luke Schenn and forward Vincent Lecavalier from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for NHL rookie Jordan Weal and a third-round draft choice. The deal was made between Kings' GM Dean Lombardi and his former assistant in Los Angeles, Ron Hextall, who now runs the Flyers.

The Kings wanted Schenn because, over the past two years, most of their toughness on the blueline either left town (Willie Mitchell), retired (Robyn Regehr) or is on long-term injured reserve (Matt Greene). Schenn is a contemporary of Kings' star defenceman Drew Doughty; they were the second and fifth players chosen, respectively, in their NHL drafts (2008).

But whereas Doughty evolved into a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, Schenn's career stalled, first with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and then with the Flyers. The hope in Los Angeles is that Doughty's presence will have a positive influence on Schenn, who will likely be playing protected minutes anyway for a Kings team that has Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin playing ahead of him on the depth chart. Philadelphia retained half of Lecavalier's salary for the season, and Lecavalier said that this would be it for him, which makes the financial pressures less onerous on the Kings.

Presumably, coach Darryl Sutter remembers how effective Lecavalier was for Tampa when the Lightning knocked off his Calgary Flames in the 2004 Stanley Cup final and is hoping that he has some last hurrah left in him.

Los Angeles lost a lot of experience in the past off-season – Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams, Regehr – so Lecavalier may partially fill that void. Richards, meanwhile, signed with the Washington Capitals on Wednesday. The hope there is Richards can get his game back on track, after the Kings terminated his contract in the off-season and leaving him in limbo ever since.

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The Capitals, who see themselves as serious Stanley Cup contenders, hope that Richards's postseason experience, along with what Williams can provide, can make a difference come playoff time.

All in all, it was a fascinating day on the NHL trade front, the first real indication that in a year when no single Stanley Cup favourite has emerged, a whole bunch of teams are starting to think maybe it's their turn.

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