For going on 10 years now, a succession of Edmonton Oilers' general managers have found themselves in the same desultory position at the NHL trading deadline: Obliged to sell off player assets to get help for some future date when their fortunes might finally turn for the better.
The future is inching ever closer – and not just in Edmonton, where the Oilers appear poised to snap a decade-long playoff drought, but elsewhere across Canada. On Friday morning, with less than a week to go until the 2017 NHL trading deadline, four teams in addition to the Oilers – the Montreal Canadiens, the Ottawa Senators, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames – were all clinging tenaciously to playoff berths in the oh-so tight NHL standings.
Compare that with last year, when not a single Canadian-based NHL team qualified for postseason play, a development that created so much anxiety that it's a wonder the government didn't launch a royal commission.
The last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup was the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. Two years ago, there was a brief flicker of hope. Five teams – the Canadiens, Senators, Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks – all made the playoffs, but only two advanced to the second round, where both Calgary and Montreal were summarily dismissed. Before that, you had to go all the way back to 2003-04 to witness five Canadian teams compete in the postseason. One – Calgary – made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final before losing.
Thankfully, the payoff for last year's across-the-board blundering was significant in Toronto and Winnipeg, where the Leafs and Jets both landed generational talents (Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine) in the annual NHL entry draft. Edmonton landed its Messiah two years ago in Connor McDavid who, in just his second NHL season, is leading the league in scoring.
In addition to raising hopes for Stanley Cup playoff success, the presence of all these Canadian teams in the playoff mix has also changed how they approach the NHL trading deadline. The Oilers, for example, are shopping rather than selling – for a back-up goalie, for help in the faceoff circle and, maybe if it all falls into place, for experience up front to help mitigate all that raw youth that will be seeing postseason action for the first time.
But knowing Edmonton's window to compete for a championship is just barely inching open, Oilers' general manager Peter Chiarelli has made his strategy clear: He is not going to pull out all stops this year, trying to land a short-term fix that might enhance his team's playoff chances.
Instead, he is judiciously seeking a tweak or two, and hoping the impending return of defenceman Darnell Nurse and the continuing development of top prospect Jesse Puljujarvi in the minors ultimately can give his team a necessary late-season push.
"There are areas we can tinker with, and I think the team deserves it, based on being in the playoff conversation," Chiarelli said last week. "But we made a lot of moves in the summer [primarily trading Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson] and they're coming around. I'd rather see them play out.
"Things can fall in your lap … but I don't see us being heavily involved in [the rental] market. I just don't think it's the right time for this team. Having said that, there are some areas where we can improve, and if you get into the playoffs, you never know. But that's the approach we're taking."
In the salary-cap era, the job of an NHL GM has become increasingly complex, with so many of the decisions needing to be filtered through payroll commitments. The most public manifestation of their jobs involves player trades which, mostly, occur right now, before the trading deadline, and then again in June, in and around the draft.
Last year, both the Canadiens and Oilers made blockbuster deals on the same June 29 day – Montreal shipping P.K. Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber and Edmonton moving Hall to New Jersey for Larsson. Nowadays, those types of razzle-dazzle, franchise-altering deals almost always occur in the off-season when GMs with tangible assets to shop can interest all 30 teams in their available players.
The problem at the trade deadline is the list of suitors can be far shorter. Most teams simply don't have the payroll flexibility or roster depth to add a warm body, no matter how talented.
It's why, for example, the Colorado Avalanche – who have been listening to offers for two of their good young forwards, Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog – are unlikely to deal either in the next few days, unless a team steps up with a bold unexpected offer.
The Colorado player most likely to move is Jarome Iginla, the future Hall Of Famer, who has never won a Stanley Cup championship in a 20-year career and would like one last crack at it before he retires.
In all probability, Iginla will also be the most recognizable name to change teams at this year's trading deadline. Chances are the player who will have the greatest impact on a playoff contender's championship aspirations might be one of the two big centres being offered around – Arizona's 6-foot-6 Martin Hanzal and Tampa's 6-foot-7 Brian Boyle. Edmonton is a team in need of faceoff help, especially if the Oilers play Anaheim in the first round. Boyle would be a good fit if Tampa makes him available.
Toronto is in a position similar to Edmonton's – in the early stages of a methodical rebuild that probably doesn't include any major 11th-hour additions either. Montreal has been shopping for help ever since the coaching change – from Michel Therrien to Claude Julien – and has been linked to Colorado and Duchene. Duchene was a member of Canada's 2016 World Cup championship team, which included Julien as an assistant coach, Weber on the blueline and Carey Price in goal, giving the Canadiens a keen insight into his character and strengths. Duchene has pure, raw speed and if the path to the Stanley Cup final goes through either Pittsburgh or Washington, two teams that play the game in high gear, having a player with track-club speed would be helpful and enticing.
But giving up the sort of assets Colorado GM Joe Sakic would want in return makes completing a deal more problematic.
Ottawa suddenly also needs help up front because of its injury issues and Duchene, from Haliburton, Ont., would also be a good fit with the Sens. But if the cost is one of Ottawa's premium young defenders, it will be a tough deal for general manager Pierre Dorion to make.
Winnipeg, four points back of Calgary in the race for the final wild-card berth, appears to be in a holding pattern. Vancouver, eight points back, might be the only real seller among Canadian teams, with three assets – goaltender Ryan Miller and forwards Jannik Hansen and Alex Burrows – all drawing some measure of interest from the contenders.
In an era when every team must supplement its high-priced core with contributions from players at the bottom of the roster, teams are generally loathe to part with their youth, even for a trade that could provide an immediate short-term return.
"At the end of the day, only one team holds a parade," said Flames' general manager Brad Treliving. "If you're talking hockey deals – for players with term left on their contracts that are going to generate multiple pieces back – those are June deals. You can include 30 teams at that point, rather than dealing with five, six or seven now, because when you get into June, where there are no cap issues, your field is bigger.
"And there are going to be disappointments in the playoffs, so maybe a team that you hadn't even thought about comes with an offer."
Calgary was the first team to wade into the trade market this season, making the sort of small, strategic addition that will probably characterize this year's trading deadline. If you imagine the trade deadline as a series of stock-market transactions, the Flames bought low on defenceman Michael Stone who, only a year ago, put up 36 points for the Arizona Coyotes, playing mostly on the first pair with Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The cost for Stone, a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent, was modest – a third-round pick in 2017, and an additional a fifth-rounder if he signs an extension with Calgary in the summer. To make Stone more affordable under the salary cap, Arizona also retained one half of his $4-million annual salary.
Calgary was a seller in Treliving's first two years on the job, and he got remarkable value last spring for the likes of Jiri Hudler (second- and fourth-round picks) and Russell (a second-rounder who would have been upgraded to a first had Dallas managed to win two playoff rounds).
But like Chiarelli, Treliving is also treading cautiously.
"We're still in a precarious spot," Treliving said, "so you make the determination: 'One, where do we want to help ourselves, and two, what's a price that makes sense?' Moving forward, I'm still in the mode of, 'what are the prices?' Similar to what we did on defence, if we could tweak it to help us up front, that's what I'm looking at right now."
As for Chiarelli, with the prospect of having McDavid in his lineup for years to come, he is trying to be patient – and keep the rising expectations of his fan base in check.
"I don't think we're quite ready to contend for the Cup," Chiarelli asserted. "You never know because it happened here in 2006, but I just don't see us being big players in that regard. I'm not going to really mortgage it heavily this year.
"From a planning perspective, it doesn't make sense."