The Oct. 22 trade of left winger David Booth and center Steve Reinprecht from the Florida Panthers to the Vancouver Canucks for right winger Mikael Samuelsson and left winger Marco Sturm was a rare significant early-season deal, the type not usually pulled in a salary cap system.
Since the imposition of the cap system in 2005, early-season trades involving players carrying expensive contracts (i.e. more than $3 million per season) have become scarce.
The biggest name moved in an early-season trade under the current CBA was Joe Thornton on Nov. 30, 2005, when the Boston Bruins dealt him to the San Jose Sharks for Sturm, defenseman Brad Stuart and center Wayne Primeau.
No early-season trade since has come close to matching that deal, as it was generally considered extremely difficult to move expensive players until later in the season, usually at or near the trade deadline. Even then, most of those players were in the final year of their contracts and eligible for unrestricted free agency at season's end.
The Booth deal, however, was a different story. While he’s not the same caliber star as Thornton, Booth's contract has a cap hit of $4.25 million per season with three years remaining. This is exactly the kind of contract considered nearly impossible to move at this time of year.
Several factors made the deal work. The Canucks needed second-line depth and had two players (Samuelsson and Sturm) who weren't working out, while the Panthers no longer considered Booth part of their future and wanted to dump his salary.
Most importantly, the two clubs managed to make the dollars fit. By moving the combined salaries of Samuelsson and Sturm ($4.75 million) and burying Reinprecht’s $2 million cap hit in the minors, the Canucks had more than enough cap space to comfortably absorb Booth's contract without pushing themselves above the cap ceiling.
The move raised expectations more early-season deals involving expensive players were coming, but such deals have failed to materialize.
It's not as though there aren't any teams in dire need of help via the trade market.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are in danger of seeing their playoff hopes crushed only two months in and are rumored to be shopping everyone but team captain Rick Nash.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are believed to be searching for a veteran goaltender, while the Calgary Flames would love to move the salaries of Rene Bourque and Matt Stajan.
It's believed the New York Islanders are looking to move inexpensive goalie Evgeni Nabokov ($570,000), though he has a no-movement clause, and the Carolina Hurricanes have been in need of offensive depth since the season began.
The problem, as always, remains not only trying to find the right fit in terms of players, but also the right fit under each team's salary cap.
If the current CBA allowed for teams to split the salary of a traded player, it would result in more flexibility and an increased likelihood of trade activity throughout the season.
Some GMs have raised the issue of implementing a provision that would allow teams to split a portion of a traded player's salary, but the league rejected it, claiming it's up to GMs to manage their cap space responsibly.
Perhaps the next CBA will allow for teams to “eat” a portion of a player's salary in a trade. In the meantime, GMs have to be creative to find the right fit, both in talent and dollars.
Still, the trade market is again expected to heat up between Nov. 24 (American Thanksgiving) and the NHL’s holiday roster freeze, which kicks in Dec. 19. But there’s no guarantee we'll see notable, higher-salaried talent on the move, let alone multi-player deals.
Instead, we’ll likely see more “one-for-one” swaps of lesser lights, such as Columbus’ trade of Kris Russell to the St. Louis Blues for blueliner Nikita Nikitin, or a player carrying a modest salary being moved for a draft pick or prospect.
Just like every other post-lockout year, making the dollars fit remains the biggest stumbling block in early-season trades. Expect most of the trades involving “name” talent to occur, as usual, close to the trade deadline.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.