When NHL players went off the Olympics and the season stopped, Phoenix Coyotes general manager Don Maloney felt the league come to a complete halt.
“You’d think at this break there’d be a lot of dialogue—there really wasn’t,” he said. “I think everybody just said, well until the players get back and at least start practising, everybody left their foot off the gas and said, ‘OK, let’s get back at it.'”
Once those GMs got back at it, they were faced with the uncertainty of the stretch run and the reality that all but a handful of teams are in the mix for a playoff spot. The unknowns are plentiful and the surprises already underway as the clock ticks down to Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET.
“The most unpredictable time in the NHL is 24 hours around July 1 and 24 hours around the trade deadline,” Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said.
That became clear Tuesday when the Vancouver Canucks traded goaltender Roberto Luongo to the Florida Panthers and a flurry of other moves were made.
The Philadelphia Flyers got defenceman Andrew MacDonald from the New York Islanders; the Anaheim Ducks made three moves, trading goalie Viktor Fasth to the Edmonton Oilers for two picks and winger Dustin Penner to the Washington Capitals for a fourth-round pick that they flipped to the Dallas Stars for injured defenceman Stephane Robidas.
The Montreal Canadiens also got defenceman Mike Weaver from Florida in exchange for a fifth-round pick. And the Oilers traded Ilya Bryzgalov to the Minnesota Wild for a fourth-rounder.
Even if the Chicago Blackhawks stand pat and the Central Division rival St. Louis Blues hold tight after getting goaltender Ryan Miller and forward Steve Ott from Buffalo, several teams may contact the Sabres, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, New York Islanders and Panthers looking to try to get Jaroslav Halak, Matt Moulson, Ales Hemsky, Mike Cammalleri or Thomas Vanek.
Those are the only teams that could be considered true sellers. The buyers they need are everywhere around them.
“There’s 25 of us looking at the other five teams saying, ‘How can we help ourselves?'” Maloney said in a phone interview last week. “There’s a lot of teams calling those teams. And then it’s one thing to say, ‘I’d like to get one of these higher-end players,’ but you have to have the cash and the cap space to do it, which creates another whole challenge.
“If you ask me, ‘Do I think there’s going to be a ton of deals on Wednesday?’ I don’t know. I really don’t.”
Unpredictability and volatility are two of the key words to consider after such an eventful day on the trade market. No one really knows what to expect.
“It’s hard to say,” Rutherford said in a phone interview Monday. “There may be a bunch of deals made for lesser players, for like role players or fourth-line players or depth defencemen or things like that. A bunch of those could be made, which would mean there’ll still be a lot of deals.”
Thirty trades were consummated in the days leading up to last year’s deadline, including 17 on April 3 itself, and just 24 of those included at least one everyday NHL player. Gambling website Bodog.ca set the over/under for 2014 deadline-day deals at 16.5.
If that includes a handful more major deals like those that happened Tuesday, it would counter a recent trend of the salary cap stifling movement. GMs like to point to the cap as one reason why it’s just more difficult to make moves this time of year.
From that perspective, this season makes that task even tougher. Teams can only spend up to US$64.3 million this season, down from $70.2 million a year ago after the conclusion of the lockout.
While that seemed to put a tighter squeeze on over the summer during free agency, the lasting effect is there and it could potentially slow things at the deadline.
“It’s a little bit tighter this season,” Stars general manager Jim Nill said last week in a phone interview. “A lot of teams really had to adjust their rosters to get down to this year’s cap. And that hasn’t changed. A lot of teams are up against the cap, a lot of teams because of long-term injury are up against the cap. It’s much tighter this season than in past seasons.”
According to the CapGeek salary cap website, eight teams have no actual cap space and can only add players using long-term injured reserve allowance space. The Toronto Maple Leafs are close to that and are expected to have about $1 million available once they activate Dave Bolland off LTIR.
Jarmo Kekalainen’s Columbus Blue Jackets, who go into Tuesday night just one point out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, aren’t using any injury allowance and have just over $2 million in room. But not every trade partner can say the same.
“It’s just that everybody’s probably a little closer to the cap, and that makes it more difficult. It has to be money-for-money more than some teams just having all kinds of room,” Kekalainen said in a phone interview. “Obviously when you slash almost 10 per cent off the salary cap, it’s going to affect the trades.
“The consideration has to be with most teams that you have to move money out to take money in.”
Ray Shero and the Pittsburgh Penguins, reported to be involved in talks for Canucks centre Ryan Kesler, might have to play that game, too, because of the major question of whether defenceman Kris Letang will be able to return before the end of the regular season after suffering a stroke. Backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun is back practising after missing the entire season to this point with a blood clot, and winger Pascal Dupuis is out for the year with a knee injury.
CapGeek estimates that the Penguins have $1.195 million under the ceiling, but Letang going on LTIR and Vokoun coming off would change everything.
“I’m not exactly sure what we have cap-wise, to be honest,” Shero told reporters in Pittsburgh last week. “They’re moving parts in terms of this LTI, in terms of the Vokoun situation, the Letang situation.”
Even without that kind of volatility, many teams well below the league-imposed salary cap like the Stars, Coyotes and Ottawa Senators, have their own internal budgets to worry about.
“When you have such (a) tight market in regards to a team like us that maybe internally we have a certain amount that we can spend and that’s what we can spend, or a team that’s at the cap or over the cap, it makes fitting the pieces together (difficult),” Maloney said. “I really have to be careful about dipping too far into our future in regards to draft picks and young prospects for some short-term potential to help the team get into the playoffs, and I’m really conscious of being careful about it.
“I think there are other teams (thinking) the same thing.”
Nill and Kekalainen are thinking that way as general managers of other bubble teams in the thick of the playoff race. Some pending unrestricted free agents, like the Stars’ Ray Whitney and Vernon Fiddler, are off the table as a result because that’s not going to get either team closer to that goal.
As Kekalainen pointed out, getting a third-round pick for an established player is “definitely not worth” falling short. A year ago, he made a major move in trading centre Derick Brassard, young defenceman John Moore, injured grinder Derek Dorsett and a sixth-round pick to the New York Rangers for scoring winger Marian Gaborik and two defensive prospects.
Columbus missed the playoffs by a tiebreaker last year in the Western Conference and the second-year GM believes all the ingredients are in place to make the post-season a realistic goal this time around.
“Last year our team played so well and we were in the playoff hunt, almost trying to do the impossible. And we almost accomplished the impossible,” Kekalainen said. “That was something that we felt the team deserved a boost at that time. It’s not about just making a splash or trying to do something to look like you’re doing something.”
Making a move just for the sake of it doesn’t make financial or hockey sense for a lot of general managers, especially with the long term in mind.
Entering Tuesday’s games, Dallas occupied the final wild-card spot in the West. Nill is “banking” on his team making the playoffs, but it’s not in his plans to roll the dice on something significant just to improve those chances.
“We’re not going to risk making a move that’s going to set us back a couple years just to try to improve this year to get us over that hump,” Nill said. “We’re not going to jump into something where it’s just a short-term gain that’s going to cost us some prospects or picks.
“We’re not in that mode right now. And I really don’t think there’s a lot of teams in that mode to tell you the truth because it’s so close, it’s so competitive.”
Playoff races being so competitive—or at least looking so because of the tight standings—could change the kind of deals that happen before the deadline. If the Rangers are in the market to trade another winger in Ryan Callahan in the event they can’t get their captain re-signed, or if the Canucks are motivated to move Kesler, the cost could slant much more to current NHL players and not just a mix of prospects and draft picks.
If Maloney’s vibe on the deadline is right, hockey trades could be en vogue.
“All my conversations are all in the same (neighbourhood)—they’re really more hockey-related trades,” he said. “Like, ‘OK, we have this guy, you have this guy, can we make the money work?’ And that’s what’s going on right now.”
Kekalainen sees the dangers in making player-for-player hockey trades with competitors because it could come back to bite a team if a player keeps his former teammates out of the playoffs.
“I think if you feel confident that it’ll improve your team, then I don’t think it should have that much of an impact on the decision-making, Kekalainen said. “But it would be a little bit of a nailbiter if you make a trade with a team that you’re tied with and then move forward after the trade and see what happens, which team improves most.”
Down the line, that same debate can be had over prospects and draft picks. The Boston Bruins wound up with Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton from the Phil Kessel trade with the Maple Leafs, but Kessel’s production eventually made it seem lopsided in the other direction.
Even with some big names available, most teams will likely hold onto or at least protect their 2015 first-round picks with Connor McDavid seen as that draft’s big prize.
“It’s pretty subjective the way you evaluate the value of the picks. Somebody could tell you that it’s worth $10 million, and I could tell you that it’s worth (crap). It’d be somewhere in the middle,” Kekalainen said. “When you win the lottery and get Sidney Crosby, then that pick’s worth quite a lot of money. There’s so many different variables that go into that equation.”
Maloney said from the end of the Olympic break on, he views every game as though it’s of playoff importance.
For teams like the Sabres, Oilers, Flames, Islanders and Panthers, every game is another audition for next season. And the deadline is a chance to build toward that and beyond by selling off veterans who might not have a role in the future.
“We’ve got a number of guys that are UFAs that are veteran players that are going to elicit some attention around the league for teams that are preparing for a playoff run,” Oilers GM Craig MacTavish told reporters in Edmonton last week. “This is an unfortunate circumstance but we have to take advantage of the position that we’re in right now and try and accumulate as many assets as we can going through this deadline and open up some spots so our prospects down in the American Hockey League can get a look.”
Knowing Vanek won’t re-sign, Islanders GM Garth Snow is in a similar spot. The same can be said for Sabres GM Tim Murray with Moulson and Halak.
And though cap space is at a premium around the league, Nill doesn’t necessarily feel bad for his colleagues needing to unload more expensive players because that comes with the territory.
“That’s just part of the cycle, it’s the cycle of your team and we all go through it somewhere along the way,” Nill said. “There’s an advantage to that—they have assets that they’re going to be able to move to get more assets and give them an opportunity to get better. We’re all in different cycles with our teams and we all react differently to know those situations happen.”
Even in the cycle of standing pat, Nill doesn’t know if he or any of his fellow GMs are ever comfortable given the unknowns from injuries to sudden changes in the standings. Maloney knows that all he can do is grind it out through the deadline and then wait for the rest of the season to unfold.
“You have two or three good days and you’re feeling pretty good about your team, then you drop an overtime game to Winnipeg and you’re not feeling so good,” he said. “We expect to be a playoff team, and if we can help make that happen we’re going to do it, and if not then we’ll grab our popcorn and cheer like heck come March 6.”
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