Every NHL trading deadline differs from the one before and last year, the overriding theme was how many of the most important deals were done weeks or even a month before TSN assembled their multiple panels and began the nine hours of chatter and analysis.
That, obviously, isn’t happening this time around. Just about every general manager tells you the same thing - it’s quiet, eerily quiet, and it’s pretty clear why.
So often in the past, teams that have fallen by the wayside would move assets to contenders in exchange for help down the road. Well, look at the also-rans this year. Do the Edmonton Oilers need more draft choices? Does Columbus? And over in the East, the New York Islanders are sick of losing, the Toronto Maple Leafs are sick of losing, the Florida Panthers are sick of losing and while the Winnipeg Jets can buy time because all that previous losing was done in Atlanta, they’re sick of losing too.
The Montreal Canadiens can’t believe what’s happening with this slip-sliding-away season and still haven’t come to grips with the fact that they could be a lottery team if the corner doesn’t get turned in a hurry. The Tampa Bay Lightning are probably where they should have been a year ago, still in the relatively early stages of a rebuild that was masked by one of those fluke playoff runs that every team hits now and again.
And yet, no single team, no matter how forlorn their position, is putting the definitive ‘for sale’ sign up on the front lawn just yet - and if a couple eventually do, they will do so far closer to the Feb. 27 deadline; and only then if they can get tangible defined assets in return.
The new hard currency at the deadline isn’t draft choices - unless they’re No. 1s, preferably in the top 15 - but prospects already in the pipeline, the Jake Gardiners of the world, the player who came to the Maple Leafs last year as a relative unknown semi-throw-in, in the Joffrey Lupul-for-Francois Beauchemin deal, but was closer to being NHL-ready than many casual observers imagined.
Nobody, among the Blue Jackets , Hurricanes, Ducks and their ilk has the patience any more to wait for that medium-to-long-term prospect who might spend three-to-five years in the pipeline before he’s NHL ready.
Drafting and developing is always the surest ticket to success - you need only examine the performance of teams as disparate as the New York Rangers or the Nashville Predators for proof of that - but it has finally sunk in for many GMs, picking through the ashes of previous deadline fiascos, that the returns they received for all their hot properties weren’t necessarily so hot after all.
Those Thrashers/Jets got Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and the right to draft Daulton Leveille from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a rental, Marian Hossa, back in 2008. Even the Thrasher throw-in, Pascal Dupuis, who accompanied Hossa to Pittsburgh, ended up doing more than any of the players that went Atlanta’s way. And from the Ilya Kovalchuk trade, Winnipeg/Atlanta can boast Johnny Oduya, prospect/project Patrice Cormier and not much else.
It explains what is essentially a giant, league-wide re-think about the deadline and why Carolina signed Tim Gleason earlier February and is in the midst of making a big pitch to sign Tuomo Ruutu as well. Only if Ruutu insists on testing the free-agent waters will the Hurricanes move his rights. Columbus jumped in this week and did something similar, extending Vinny Prospal for one year at $2.5-million instead of offering him up at the deadline. The Blue Jackets like what Prospal’s done on a far more modest contract than the one that followed Jeff Carter to Columbus this past June.
Carter remains the most interesting trading piece out there, someone who’s burned his bridges in Columbus and needs a change of scenery. The fact that any team that picks up Carter also assumes a further 10-year contract commitment has frightened witless any number of suitors - that contract plus the fear that if Carter was going to pout through an entire year in Columbus just because things didn’t go his way, what happens if he isn’t a good fit in his new NHL home and decides to go on a work-to-rule campaign there too?
Risky, and GMs lose their jobs most often for taking on bad contracts that blow up in their faces. They can’t get them all right, but some mistakes linger longer than others, and anyone who makes the wrong call on Carter is going to discover that his successor will be the one left to clean up the mess.
HENRIK THE GREAT: Henrik Sedin’s Ironman streak didn’t end Thursday night after all, and in fact, the Vancouver Canucks’ captain scored a goal in the 5-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild. Sedin’s consecutive games-played streak now stands at 553, and the Canucks, who were outplayed by Nashville but won their previous game anyway, were full measure for defeating the slumping Wild, who did get Mikko Koivu back after he missed eight games with a left shoulder injury. With Phoenix knocking off Calgary in overtime, Minnesota slipped back into a three-way tie for ninth with the Flames and the Dallas Stars, all of them two points back, Dallas having played the fewest number of games, Calgary the most. But it is close and could go down to the wire and Koivu, the team’s captain, needs to galvanize the troops if the Wild hope to build on what is increasingly a vague memory - a 13-5-3 start, which left them atop the Western Conference standings back on Nov. 24. Usually, that lofty a placing a quarter of the way through the season almost guarantees a playoff spot. The way the Wild is slipping now, only Columbus’s and Edmonton’s place at the bottom of the standings are safe.
STAAL-ED: The star centre for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who is suffered through a frustrating injury-plagued season, will finally get back into the lineup this weekend. Sadly, we’re not talking about Sidney Crosby. Jordan Staal, who has been out of action since early January because of a knee injury, is practising again and will play Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets. Staal had a fabulous start to the season, when both Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were out, and even though he’s been limited to just 34 games, is No. 3 on the team in goal scoring with 15. His will be a welcome return for a team that lost Tyler Kennedy again, this time with a high ankle sprain.
MALONE ON THE MOVE? Staal is in no danger as the trading deadline looms, but Ryan Malone might be of some interest, depending upon where the Tampa Bay Lightning are in the standings on the 27th. Malone has missed three weeks with an upper body injury, but was fourth on the team in scoring (10 goals, 27 points) when he went out of the lineup. A big body with Stanley Cup experience, he could be on the move if Tampa falls off the pace.
AND FINALLY: How often does this happen in the NHL? Young goalie arrives for his full first season in the league and wows them, from start to finish, looking super human. Then Year 2 comes along and all of sudden, there are issues with his mortality after all. It is the Steve Mason story, but it is also the Blaine Lacher story, the Jim Carey story and the Tom Barrasso story. Barrasso was demoted to Rochester his second year after winning the NHL’s rookie of the year award, but eventually got his game back on track and won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Lacher and Carey disappeared from view; Mason’s future is at a crossroads and in Chicago, they are keeping their fingers crossed that Corey Crawford (33-18-6, 2.30 GAA, .917 save percentage last year after replacing Antti Niemi as the team’s starter) can get his game back on the rails soon.
Crawford was one of the bright spots on an underachieving Blackhawks’ team last season, a team that just barely qualified for the playoffs. Until just before the all-star break, the Blackhawks were vastly improved, even if the goaltending was just so-so. But then they lost a pair of back-to-back game to division rivals Nashville; have been in a swoon ever since; and their struggles elsewhere brought their goaltending issues into sharper focus. Crawford is scheduled to start Friday’s game against the San Jose Sharks, after watching from the bench as Ray Emery played the last two. Didn’t help. The Blackhawks have lost six in a row, evicted from the United Centre by the annual Disney On Ice show, and need to get more consistency from their netminders if they hope to have any shot at a deep playoff run.