COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Phoenix Coyotes needed a big, stay-at-home defenceman to fill in while Ed Jovanovski is out with an injury. The Columbus Blue Jackets wanted more speed and financial flexibility.
Both sides got what they wanted a couple of hours before the NHL trade deadline ended on Monday.
The Blue Jackets dealt their last original player, defenceman Rostislav Klesla, to the Coyotes for left wing Scottie Upshall and defenceman Sami Lepisto. Columbus also included minor-league forward Dane Byers, who was acquired from the New York Rangers in November.
“When Ed Jovanovski got injured, we felt very vulnerable on our blue line, especially in the defensive-matchup, penalty-killing role,” Coyotes GM Don Maloney said. “We searched for what we hoped was a top-four defenceman who could match up against good players. This deal really came up today and it was a case where we had to give to get.”
The Blue Jackets and Coyotes are both fighting for spots in the crowded Western Conference playoff race.
“They were looking for a left-handed, bigger, stronger shutdown-type of guy. That sort of fit their need,” Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson said. “And we wanted to improve our mobility and maybe give us some offence.”
Klesla, hampered by injuries the past two seasons, was the expansion club’s first-round pick (fourth overall) in the 2000 player draft. The 28-year-old had three goals and seven assists in 45 games this year with a plus-10 rating.
Klesla has size (6-foot-3, 221 pounds) to help the Coyotes’ blue line. Jovanovski is recovering from an orbital-bone fracture.
“It’s been a long time. I’ve really enjoyed my time in Columbus,” Klesla said on TSN. “I met a lot of great people. The only thing that wasn’t great was that we weren’t able to bring a winning team. I wish them the best.”
The Coyotes felt that the deal would be a tonic for Klesla.
“It’s a fresh start for him,” said Maloney, who has Klesla’s first coach with the Blue Jackets, Dave King, on his coaching staff. “We felt we had a good insight into the player and the personality and the fit with our group because so much of what we do is chemistry and mix. We look at him as a tandem with Mike Rozsival that can match up with anyone in the West and straighten up our penalty killing a little.”
Klesla has three years remaining on a contract that pays him almost $3 million a year, through the 2013-14 season.
“Well, it was hard to move Rusty,” Howson said. “(He is) a good person, really good in the community, been a really good player for us. That wasn’t an easy deal. It was just a case where the needs fit each team.”
Just before the deadline, the Blue Jackets also dealt left wing Tom Sestito to the Philadelphia Flyers for former Columbus centre Greg Moore and centre prospect Michael Chaput.
The Blue Jackets need quicker players to plug into coach Scott Arniel’s attack. In addition, Howson was looking to add to the club’s depth while stocking up on younger players.
Upshall, 27, was a No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft (sixth overall). He had 16 goals and 11 assists this season and 80 goals and 85 assists in 340 career games with Nashville, Philadelphia and Phoenix. The Blue Jackets, badly in need of players with an edge, coveted a player who was tough in addition to having offensive skills.
Upshall last week was suspended two games by the league for a hit on Flyers defenceman Oskars Bartulis. Upshall received a two-minute boarding penalty, and Bartulis left the game with a shoulder injury.
Lepisto, a 26-year old from Finland, has four goals and seven assists this year and five goals and six assists in 131 career games. He was a third-round pick (66th overall) in the 2004 draft by Washington.
Upshall, making $2.25 million this year, is an unrestricted free agent after the season. Lepisto, a restricted free agent after the season, is making $800,000.
“(The trade) will give us some flexibility as we move forward into the long-term future,”Howson said. “But this was about now, really, in trying to give our team a little boost as we try and make the playoffs.”
Byers, 25, scored 12 goals with 22 assists in 64 American Hockey League games with Springfield and Connecticut this season.
Columbus had wanted to swing a deal for a bigger name, perhaps Dallas’ Brad Richards. That didn’t pan out.
“We had some discussions on some of the bigger name players,” Howson said. “We made some overtures and talked about some players. We weren’t in the ballpark, I guess—nobody ended up really being in the ballpark. The cost was high and there’s just some players who weren’t going to be included in our proposals. I’ll just leave it at that.”
AP Sports Writer John Marshall in Phoenix contributed to this report.