Put yourself in the shoes of an NHL general manager, 24 days from the trade deadline - and not his fantasy shoes by the way, where Sidney Crosby can be traded for Alex Ovechkin and six-for-six blockbusters are common. Try it in the real world, where the decision for so many teams comes down to this: When so few players are made available, how high do you bid for the handful of big names (Jeff Carter, James Van Riemsdyk) that might be pried loose? Or do you do the safe thing and add a couple of useful supplementary pieces who might come cheaply because their value is depressed, such as the deal the Minnesota Wild pulled off Friday morning, getting shootout specialist Erik Christensen from the New York Rangers in exchange for minor-leaguer Casey Wellman.
A lot of last year's trade deadline deals fell into the latter category, small moves that yielded small rewards. Dennis Wideman was moved in the Florida Panthers' fire sale, as were Radek Dvorak and Chris Higgins. Jason Arnott, Rusty Klesla, Scottie Upshall, Max Lapierre and Dustin Penner all found new homes. None made much of an impact, except for maybe Higgins, who produced a modest eight points in 25 playoff games for the Vancouver Canucks.
Many also came with the sort of wear-and-tear that obliges potential buyers to be very wary. For example, the Calgary Flames acquired a broken-down Freddie Modin from the Atlanta Thrashers and he simply wasn't able to contribute (zero points in his only four appearances). Similarly, the Washington Capitals grabbed a broken-down Marco Sturm from the Los Angeles Kings who'd grabbed him from the Boston Bruins and he did little (scoring one goal in 18 games for the Caps, after notching four in 17 for the Kings).
Flames GM Jay Feaster knew Modin from winning the Stanley Cup with him in Tampa. Kings GM Dean Lombardi knew Sturm from drafting him in San Jose. Both were aware of what they were getting character wise. Character was not the issue, but it required the respective managers to take a leap of faith and guess if the mileage on the odometer would make them useful additions. They weren't.
So here we are in 2012 and GMs will be asked to make the same tough calls with trade targets that include their share of warts. Ales Hemsky, frequently injured but highly skilled and a player that can still occasionally make something out of nothing, seems like he's no longer a fit with the Oilers and their emphasis on youth. The Kings made a pitch for him last year, but the belief was that Edmonton wouldn't deal him unless prospect Braydon Schenn was in the mix, so it didn't go through. Hemsky's value may be down because he hasn't played as many as 72 games since the '09 season (22 in 2010 due to shoulder surgery; 47 last year, 37 and counting this year. At 6-foot, 184 pounds, he would probably be a good fit with Detroit, a team he sunk back in the 2006 playoffs. Management there has long memories; they will remember Hemsky when he was at his best (17 points in 24 playoff games during Edmonton's trip to the final).
All the focus in Columbus will be on Carter, who is on an 11-year contract, with a per-year cap charge of $5.273-million - not bad if you see him as a front-line 40-goal scorer, a total he has managed just once in his first seven years. The thinking is Columbus wants to recoup its investment in Carter, which was two top-10 picks, Jacob Voracek, 7th overall in '07 and Sean Couturier, 8th overall last year. Carter was activated from injured reserve Thursday and is scheduled to play for Columbus Friday night in Anaheim. Thus far, this year, he's played 30 games (17 points) and missed 21.
Columbus also has a couple of less expensive pieces available. For anyone not prepared to meet Edmonton's asking price for Hemsky, there's Kristian Huselius to ponder. Huselius has been hurt all year and is a pending UFA, but played for Kings' coach Darryl Sutter in Calgary and is a skilled, if meek, scorer. The advantage of taking a chance on Huselius is it's low risk and potentially high reward if his groin issues ever clear up. In the four years between '07 and '10, Huselius had 77, 66, 56 and 63 points for Calgary, then Columbus, but he has managed to get into just two games so far this season. Sami Pahlsson and Vaclav Prospal are the Blue Jackets' other unrestricted free agents up front.
Carolina is listening with interest to offers for hard-nosed Tuomo Ruutu, a potential UFA, who cost Carolina Andrew Ladd a few years back. Sutter likes his Finns and Ruutu is a more skilled version of Ville Niemenen who helped Calgary get to the 2004 final (and was really good, eliminating San Jose in the third round). Another possibility in Carolina would be Jussi Jokinen, a good shootout guy and terrific in the '09 playoffs for Hurricanes (11 points, including 7 goals, in 18 games).
Tampa is moving up the standings again, but the feeling is the Lightning would move Ryan Malone, one of the few players remaining from the 2008 buying spree engineered by former owners Len Barrie and Oren Koules. Malone has had his share of injury issues this season; he's a big-bodied forward, slowing down though, and the attraction will be his 16 point playoff performance for Pittsburgh in their Cup year. Malone has three years remaining on the seven-year, $31.5-million that carries an annual cap hit of $4.5-million but was front-loaded so the remaining years of the deal are fairly attractive in terms of cash paid out - $3-million, then two final years at $2.5-million. Malone's no-movement clause ends after next year, at which point it becomes one of those limited no-trade clauses in which he can submit a list of 12 teams to which he would not accept a trade to.
THE FOLLY OF THE THREE-POINT GAME: In January, 48 out of 180 games went to overtime or a shootout, meaning 48 times, a single game produced three points in the standings - two for the winner, one for the loser - while the other 132 games produced the standard two. If the NHL is truly insistent that every game requires a winner and a loser, fine. But they can't keep making some games more valuable than others. The rest of the world puts a greater value on regulation wins compared to shootout or overtime wins. They use the three-point system in the Olympics, at the world juniors, in Russia's KHL, in other Euro hockey leagues, even in the English Premiership. Hey if it's good enough for Chelsea and Man U, it should be good enough for the NHL.
But nobody in a position to do something about the system wants to change anything because it accomplishes two things for the league. First, it creates the illusion that about 24 teams are competitive because they are all at or above the new fake .500, which is the only way to describe a system that lumps regulation and overtime victories into a single category, but considers regulation and overtime losses two completely different animals. Secondly, it keeps the playoff races alive in most years right down to the wire. Even though the nonsense of having some games produce three points in the standings and others just two is completely irrational, the league will continue to do it because the alternative is what you have in major league baseball, with half the league out of playoff contention by the all-star break and two thirds done by the start of September. All those empty stadiums in the final month for major league baseball's also-rans? That's commissioner Gary Bettman's worst nightmare, and the reason the point system isn't going to change any time soon.
THE SAM GAGNER SHOW: Sam Gagner, whose eight points in a single game Thursday night tied an Edmonton Oilers' franchise record shared by Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey, jumped 90 places in the NHL scoring standings with that outburst, moving from 200 to 110. Gagner had 22 points going into the game. Good tweet about it from teammate Ryan Whitney, who also produced his first goal of the season: "What a sick night. When he got his 8th point Darryl Sittler's heart rate must have just skyrocketed. 8 points now is like getting 14 in 80s" ... Of course, the temptation immediately was to scroll down to the bottom of the NHL scoring stats to see who might have fewer than eight points all season. Yep, Scott Gomez, everybody's favourite punching bag, seven assists in 20 games. Gagner's father, Dave, who works for the Vancouver Canucks, once had six points in a game back in 1994 playing for the Dallas Stars. Wouldn't it be weird if the rumours came true and the Chicago Blackhawks actually acquired Gagner between now and the trading deadline to add offensive depth? Gagner played his junior hockey in London with Patrick Kane, another small but skilled forward, who happens to be in one of the deepest scoring funks of his career (four goals in the past 33 games). Chicago and Vancouver seem destined to meet in every playoff year and that would create an interesting family dynamic between pere et fils ... Gagner had his big night, playing mostly with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' regular linemates, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. Nugent-Hopkins, closing in on a return from a Jan. 2 shoulder injury suffered against the Blackhawks, has managed to hold onto the rookie scoring lead, despite a month on the sidelines. He had 35 points in 38 games; New Jersey's Adam Henrique is next at 34, although coming hard is Vancouver's Cody Hodgson, the rookie of the month for January, who cracked the 30 point barrier this week. It's possible that Gagner's big night will give the Oilers reason to pause and re-think their strategy relating to his long-term future with the team. He is, after all, just 22. If the line as currently formed can develop any kind of consistent chemistry, Nugent-Hopkins could then anchor a solid second line. Up front, more than anything, the Oilers need better scoring balance ... The Red Wings will get an interesting test now, depending upon how long starting goaltender Jimmy Howard is out with a broken pinkie figure. Detroit thinks the injury isn't serious and Howard could be back playing within a week or two. In the meantime, Ty Conklin will get a handful of starts and the time off probably won't hurt Howard, 44 appearances this season. Only Nashville's Pekka Rinne, at 46, has more ... According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Predators have the NHL's most challenging schedule coming out of the all-star break, given that their remaining opponents have collectively posted a .596 winning percentage. At the other end of the spectrum: The Florida Panthers, aiming to break that decades-long playoff drought, have the easiest at .532.
AND FINALLY: How to turn a public relations gaffe into a worthwhile fundraiser? When the Kings get back from their annual Grammy road trip, 75 fans and a guest will have the opportunity to have Pancakes with Penner on February 13, 2012 at the Westchester International House Of Pancakes from 8:00-10:00 a.m. According to the official press release, the lucky winners - who will pay anywhere from $10 to $75 to participate - will be provided with an all-you-can-eat breakfast featuring pancakes, bacon, eggs, coffee, and juice, along with assorted prizes. Space is limited only because of the size of the IHOP in question. Penner was the object of much ridicule on Twitter when he announced last month that he'd hurt his back, tucking into a stack of his wife's "delicious pancakes." Penner, incidentally, made the comment with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Humour doesn't always transfer well to the blogosphere and the fact that Penner is stuck at three goals in 38 games doesn't help his cause much either. The Kings are currently playing him on the second line with Mike Richards and Jarrett Stoll. If that isn't an organizational cry for scoring help, it's hard to know what is.