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No perfect formula for building a contender

Peter Mueller #88 of the Colorado Avalanche and Wojtek Wolski #86 of the Phoenix Coyotes await a face off during the first period of the NHL game at Arena on Thursday night.

Christian Petersen/2010 Getty Images

There are two ways to look at the 2010 NHL trading deadline, which entered the history books this past Wednesday.

One is to think that NHL general managers actually reviewed recent history and came to an astonishing conclusion: All that jockeying, all those moves, all that frantic action in the past rarely translated into playoff success; and that the winners were usually the sellers, who took advantage of the frenzy in order to exact big-time prices for marginal merchandise.

For years, the trading deadline has been the opposite of a clearance sale - the one day a year when prices are marked up and still, the shoppers line up madly for the chance to bid on a Nathan Paetsch here or an Alexandre Picard there.

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That's the kinder assessment and one which proved to be true in a number of important precincts, such as Chicago and San Jose, where the respective general managers Stan Bowman and Doug Wilson did their work early and essentially told their teams that they were good enough, as constructed, to win a championship without last-minute reinforcement.

Of course, the other way of viewing matters is that this year, it was a splintered auction; and that there were really two trading deadlines as a result of the NHL's 16-day Olympic break. If you factor in the deals leading up to that first artificial deadline - which included two legitimate blockbuster deals, one for Ilya Kovalchuk, one for Dion Phaneuf; and a couple of others that involved significant players Olli Jokinen and J.S. Giguere - then you'd probably conclude it was business as usual in 2010.

The aforementioned four deals more interesting than anything completed at the actual trading deadline; but the sheer volume of players changing sides this past Wednesday, made it another year in which the biggest cheers came from the marketing departments, who know that in-arena program sales will be jump-started for a short time anyway.

The absence of first-round draft choices changing hands was a telling sidebar. A year ago, the Calgary Flames were willing to give up a No. 1 pick in the 2010 entry draft to land Jokinen from the Phoenix Coyotes. Jokinen was a poor fit in Calgary and when they finally found a taker for him - thank you New York Rangers' general manager Glen Sather - they were forced to take back two slumping players, both of whom make too much money (Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins) relative to their current rates of production. The Flames made this move with the unflinching belief that they were a playoff team and thus the pick would probably be in the 20s. Now, it looks as if they're sinking fast in the West and the Coyotes may pluck a prospect in the top dozen or 14.

Only the Toronto Maple Leafs' miscalculation was worse - giving up two first-rounders for Phil Kessel, who at least is still in the organization and could score 30-plus goals per season for them for the foreseeable future. If the player the Boston Bruins selects with that pick - Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin - becomes a Patrick Kane or a Jonathan Toews-type player, then the post-mortems can be conducted. Until then, it's still just a theoretical exercise.

More and more, the majority of the 30 NHL GMs understand the value of draft picks - and how the game, as it is currently played, permits the most talented of the young players to come in and have an impact almost right away.

There is no perfect formula for building a contender - and every time a young team moves into playoff contention, it means an older team is on the wane - but the smartest teams are the ones that understand how it is better to bottom out and then re-assert themselves rather than forever plug away in the middle, good enough to win about as often as they lose - but with no real chance to challenge for a championship. You can't tread water indefinitely; eventually you drown.

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So San Jose, for example, added a depth defenceman in Niclas Wallin prior to the Olympics and then stood pat, on the assumption that the changes to the supporting cast made in the off-season (primarily Dany Heatley, but also Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol) will help them achieve what they couldn't last year. Ultimately, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov needs a better playoff (and who knows what the effect of his Olympic meltdown will be?) but the Sharks' play this year indicates they at least have a chance with the team as it is currently constituted.

It was the same in Chicago, where the Blackhawks traded Cam Barker to the Minnesota Wild for Kim Johnsson and a prospect, thus addressing their salary-cap issues for next year, while adding a player that will contribute more in the short term, as they push for a playoff spot. Their own goaltending questions (Cristobal Huet or Antti Niemi?) remain, and if one or the other or both are found wanting, then it'll be a position they'll re-address in the summer.

In either case, the GMs pondered the options and said thanks but no thanks to the available warm bodies on offer.


Upsets are what fuels interest in the NHL playoffs, which are always most exciting in that opening round, when nervous contenders can feel the heat early - and aren't always able to respond. Last year, it was the Sharks going down to an eighth seed, Anaheim.

Is there such a major surprise in the offing this year?

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It's hard to see it in the East, given that Washington, Pittsburgh and New Jersey all made themselves better in the last month and - their point totals notwithstanding - appear to be the class of the conference at the moment. Ottawa and Buffalo are jockeying for top spot in the Northeast, a prize worth winning if only because it guarantees that you can avoid one of the top three in the opening round. Washington will go in as the No. 1 seed; it will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh can catch New Jersey for top spot in the Atlantic Division, which would give them the No. 2 seed.

Barring upsets, what was a quarter-final last year - Pittsburgh-Washington - would then become a semi-final this year. Last year, the semis were the only round not worth watching - a couple of walkovers, with Detroit and Pittsburgh advancing past Chicago and Carolina. A Pittsburgh-Washington match-up would have the feel of a final before the actual final. TV programmers on both sides of the border would cheer for that development.


Although it was characterized in many places as a "hockey deal," one of the few that took place at the NHL trading deadline Wednesday, the Colorado Avalanche-Phoenix Coyotes' exchange - of Wojtek Wolski for Peter Mueller and Kevin Porter - had a financial component as well. Wolski, in the midst of his most productive NHL season ever, is on an expiring contract that will pay him $3.1-million this year and is eligible for arbitration, where he could get bumped up to $4-million or more per season. Colorado saw that potential and determined, in advance, that might be more than they were willing to pay Wolski. Mueller, meanwhile, earns just $850,000 and based on his negligible scoring numbers this year, isn't going to qualify for much of a raise, if any. The Avalanche figure to save about $3-million in the exchange. After scoring just four goals in 54 games for the Coyotes, Mueller counted his fifth in his Colorado debut vs. Anaheim, handing the Ducks their first home loss since Dec. 6 Wednesday night. Twenty-four hours later, Wolski was scheduled to make his Coyotes debut - against Colorado … Phoenix, according to general manager Don Maloney, had the Wolski-Mueller deal in the pipeline in advance of the deadline, but much of the rest of what he did came up on the fly. Phoenix, of course, is in the unique position of being owned and run by the NHL, which made for an odd trading-deadline dynamic. But the league left Maloney alone to do his work, requiring only that he stay within his pre-set budget. When asked, Brian Burke, the Leafs' GM, said he was fine with Phoenix being a meaningful player at the deadline - which was the correct position. Short of asking the team to stay under budget, had the NHL hamstrung the Coyotes in any meaningful way, it could kiss the market goodbye. That might happen anyway depending upon how the ownership mess sorts itself out. Last summer, Phoenix moved a player to Calgary - Nigel Dawes - fearing that what he'd get in salary arbitration might be more than what they'd want to pay. Something similar could happen with Wolski if it looks as if his demands are too high … The New York Rangers started the post-Olympic portion of their schedule without leading scorer Marian Gaborik, out with a groin injury. Anybody surprised? And while there are no indications how long Gaborik will be out, his history is to err on the side of caution whenever that problematic groin/abdomen injury flares up, which seems to be every year. The Rangers had won three in a row going into Thursday's date with the Pittsburgh Penguins, to stay in the middle of the race for the last three playoff berths in the Eastern Conference. How long that'll last without their only legitimate scoring threat is anybody's guess. Maybe it really is Olli Jokinen to the rescue … The Columbus Blue Jackets lost centre Derick Brassard to a hand injury in the final game before the Olympic break. The thinking was it might be healed in the past weeks, but Brassard wasn't in the line-up for Tuesday's game against Vancouver and may not play again next week … If you believe, as so many teams do, that a solid third line is needed to go deep in the playoffs, then the Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals acquired the best two available commodities for that role - Jeff Halpern going to the Kings from the Tampa Bay Lightning; Eric Belanger joining the Capitals from the Minnesota Wild. Halpern is a former Capitals' captain, who is coming off serious off-season knee surgery. Two years ago, he joined the Lightning at the trade deadline and performed exceptionally well - with 18 points in 19 games, including 10 goals. Belanger scores about a point every two games, not bad production from a bottom-six forward, who also excels in the face-off circle. Washington already had the NHL's second-leading face-off man in David Steckel (60 per cent); now they've added Belanger, seventh overall at 57.6. For a puck possession team such as the Caps, that's an important consideration … Unlike the Edmonton Oilers or Toronto Maple Leafs, the Carolina Hurricanes found all sorts of takers in their fire sale, a sign that they had more quality on offer. Two players, Matt Cullen and Niclas Wallin, were dispatched before the Olympic break - the rest left Wednesday and included Joe Corvo, the ex-Senator who should thrive in Washington's go-go system, where risk is tolerated more than virtually anywhere else in the NHL. Carolina's challenge in the short term will be winning without goaltender Cam Ward - Justin Peters looks as if he'll get a run of games here - and the only downside might be that their chances at a lottery pick slips every time they win another game. Carolina netted three second-rounders in all their trade machinations, two this year, one in 2011.

AND FINALLY: David Booth made his peace with Mike Richards in a weird sort of way. The two play against each other for the first time since Richards' hit to the unsuspecting Booth's head back on Oct. 24 caused a concussion that forced him to miss 45 games; a chance to play on the U.S. men's Olympic hockey team; and generally ruined his year. Booth. a player who'd picked up all of 76 penalty minutes in his first three NHL seasons, picked a fight with Richards early on in Wednesday's game between his Florida Panthers and the Philadelphia Flyers. Richards obliged him and after the fact, Booth told the Miami Herald that was the end of it. "I don't really know what I'm doing when I fight," Booth said. "It was just a lot of stuff built up, `what could have been had I been playing.' You think about that. But it's behind me now.''

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