The salary cap has squeezed the fun out of the NHL's trade market in recent years, but a series of blockbuster trades this week had fans buzzing and two general managers say there will be more activity.
Thanks to the squeezing of the league schedule to accommodate the two-week Olympic break, which begins Feb. 15, Brian Burke of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings expect to see two periods of horse-trading - one in the last few days before the break and the usual one up to the March 3 trade deadline.
That is despite the fact the biggest prize - superstar Ilya Kovalchuk - is off the market after his trade from the Atlanta Thrashers to the New Jersey Devils Thursday night.
"I think you're going to see lots of action," said Burke, who made a splash of his own this week with two blockbuster trades that involved 10 players and brought defenceman Dion Phaneuf and goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguère to Toronto.
"But when you're looking at rental players, you have to sort out who's buying and who's selling," Burke added.
What will add some extra spice to this year's deadline, along with the artificial deadline of the Olympic break, is the large number of teams who have yet to decide if they are buyers or sellers.
"It's a competitive marketplace because, other than a couple of teams in the Western Conference that are way ahead, there are a lot of teams jammed up," Holland said. "There's 11 points between third and 13th place in the west and the same thing in the east."
Before last night's games, there were six points separating the eight teams that sat between sixth and 13th place in the Eastern Conference.
That is a fight for three playoff spots. In the Western Conference, there are 11 teams involved in an 11-point spread between third place and 13th, which covers six playoff spots.
In addition to the large number of would-be contenders, there are also some underachievers and overachievers who need to prepare themselves for a playoff run.
The Red Wings, for one, have been bobbing in and out of the eighth and last playoff spot all season because of injuries to key players. Also on the underachiever list are the Flames, who made two big trades this week, the St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins and maybe, if their inconsistency continues, the Philadelphia Flyers.
But breaking down who is a buyer or seller among the underachievers is difficult. Only the Blue Jackets will be a seller because they are out of realistic playoff contention. But not all of the other teams will be buyers.
The overachievers list is much shorter - the Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville Predators, Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators - while the longest list of all is the undecideds. That camp includes the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders, Bruins, Ducks, Coyotes, Predators, Blues, Wild and Colorado Avalanche.
Also short is the confirmed sellers list: Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers, Columbus and the Leafs.
Burke actually puts himself on two lists - the buyers and sellers. He is willing to take on big contracts because the Leafs have the financial means to bury them in the minor leagues as long as they come with a first-round draft pick. But he also has a couple of veterans, such as forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, he knows he can trade for a minimum price of a second-round pick.
Holland readily admits the Wings are among the underachievers. But, he adds, that is only because they were hit by a string of serious injuries to some of their best players. By Tuesday, he hopes to have forward Johan Franzen, a 30-plus goal scorer who has been out since the third game of the season, and defenceman Niklas Kronwall back in the lineup. Once those players return, the Wings will be over the $56.8-million salary cap, which means the only moves Holland will make will be to shed salaries.
"Our trades are going to be bringing back Franzen and Kronwall," Holland said. "If we get those two guys healthy, I can't make a trade that would be better."
Also in that category is the league's hottest team, the Senators, who have won 11 games in a row. They recently welcomed two-thirds of their top line back from injuries in Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson. The Sens also have cap issues, although GM Bryan Murray would like to add a top-six forward.
The Kovalchuk trade, meanwhile, took much of the lustre off the trade market. One GM thinks Thrashers GM Don Waddell, who says he is now a buyer because his team is still in the playoff hunt, got a good return in the trade (a package of players, prospects and a first-round draft pick) for what is surely a rental player - but that he could have had more if he waited until March 3. Kovalchuk is expected to sign elsewhere next season but Devils GM Lou Lamoriello is gunning for a Stanley Cup.
Now the top commodities are Hurricanes forward Ray Whitney and a list of maybes - Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle, Predators defenceman Dan Hamhuis and Thrashers goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Burke says he will not ask Kaberle to waive his no-movement clause but an offer from a contender such as the San Jose Sharks or Chicago Blackhawks could change things. Hamhuis is a good defenceman, but he is headed to free agency, so Preds GM David Poile has to make a decision. Whitney could be the subject of a bidding war between the Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Another decision for Poile is what to do with goaltenders Dan Ellis and Pekka Rinne, who are both set to become free agents. He plans to talk with their agents during the Olympic break, and if one of them signs, the other could be traded (with the Blackhawks a potential destination).
One destination for the odd goaltender out could be the Blackhawks. Hawks GM Stan Bowman is looking for a defenceman but some think he is quietly shopping for a goaltender. Cristobal Huet is inconsistent and Antti Niemi has played well but has no playoff experience.
The Flyers are expected to be aggressive buyers because they lost the Kovalchuk sweepstakes. There is a lot of pressure on GM Paul Holmgren to make a good playoff run, especially since he coughed up two first-round picks for defenceman Chris Pronger last summer.
Also facing some pressure is Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, who dropped out of the running for Kovalchuk. But his reluctance to meet Waddell's price indicates his bosses are willing to be patient.