You know this isn’t your father’s NHL, or even your older brother’s, when the league-leading Detroit Red Wings are cautiously approaching the trade deadline.
But the salary-cap NHL, approaching its third post-lockout trade deadline, has changed the way even the obvious Stanley Cup contenders are operating.
“In the old CBA, there were 8-10 teams that spent salary-wise what we did, so we knew if we traded some younger players away (at the deadline), we had the financial advantage where we could hit the open market July 1 and maybe replenish some of those things,” Wings GM Ken Holland said Wednesday.
“Now everybody is on a level playing field and it does alter your thinking.”
Holland was on an NHL conference call Wednesday that also featured fellow GMs Paul Holmgren in Philadelphia, Don Waddell in Atlanta and Brian Burke in Anaheim.
The Wings and Ducks are sure-bet Cup contenders, the Flyers are playoff-bound and the Thrashers will be touch and go. All four teams are just as concerned about their future as they are about the present heading into the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
“We’re all trying to win today but we have to remember there is a tomorrow,” said Waddell. “That’s something we have to keep in our mind.”
Even the mighty Wings.
“I think teams are going to have to make harder decisions about trading first-round picks and real good prospects,” said Holland. “I’m not saying it’s not going to happen but I think as we go along here it’s going to be harder and harder to do just because of the way that the CBA is starting to flesh itself out now.”
Don’t get him wrong. Holland wants to make a deal, hoping to add a forward who can help the offence and some defensive depth.
But the price has to be right.
“It’s something we’re internally deciding,” said Holland. “We kind of know some of our assets that we’ll trade, and there’s assets that we won’t trade, because of the importance of the way the CBA works.”
The Flyers could have a long playoff run but Holmgren, unless he’s keeping his cards close to his vest, also preached caution.
“We may just end up not doing anything,” he said. “I think the last thing the Flyers need to do is do something crazy for a short-term fix to try and give us a push in the playoffs. I just think we need to be patient here and look at the big picture.
“Last year we were the worst team in the league. I think we’re certainly a better team this year and I think our future is still bright because of some of our young players. We’d like to keep that intact if we could.”
The market has yet to be determined for big-name rental players (unrestricted free agents July 1). Last year Keith Tkachuk, Peter Forsberg and Ryan Smyth were the top rental players and moved for a huge price – some say way too much.
“We make more mistakes at the trade deadline than we make the whole rest of the year combined,” said Burke, speaking generally. “The pressure to win is so intense and unrelenting and unremitting that we as a group make horrible, horrible decisions at the trade deadline.”
Still, both Waddell and Burke believe it will be just as busy this year.
“All it takes is for one team to step forward,” said Waddell. “And that usually sparks other teams to try to match and stay even with them. I won’t be surprised if there deals that are made again this year that come with a very high price.”
That may have already happened with the four-player deal Ottawa and Carolina made Monday.
“That was a pretty big deal,” said Burke. “Usually a trade like triggers a chain reaction and Carolina and Ottawa’s deal may produce a flurry. Especially since all the GMs will be in one place as of Sunday night.”
Burke, however, didn’t make a deal of any real significance last year at the deadline other than pick up checking forward Brad May. The Ducks still won the Stanley Cup.
“But I’m not a big trade deadline guy and never have been,” said Burke. “You go over my whole career as a general manager I’ve never been a big trade deadline guy. I try to fix my team in the fall and try to leave it alone to grow and solidify … This year we’ll see what’s there. We do have assets. I think we can probably use the assets we have. We have some good young players and some picks.
“I think we may be able to do something on a hockey-deal basis that makes us a better team. That’s what we’re going to try and do.”
At least Burke, Holland and Holmgren know they’re clearly buyers. Waddell’s Thrashers could end up anywhere from third in the Eastern Conference because of a Southeast Division title to totally out of the playoffs.
And in the meantime he has to decide by the 26th what to do with star winger Marian Hossa, who is slated for unrestricted free agency July 1.
“If we don’t sign the player then we have to make the decision whether we’re going to trade that player or ride him out for the rest of the year and keep our team as strong as we can,” said Waddell.
What he made clear is that if he does end up dealing Hossa, it won’t be for draft picks. He wants players that can help him now.
“No doubt about it,” said Waddell. “If we’re just looking at draft picks, we’re going to take a step back and say, ‘Hey, those draft picks are going to be valuable to us 3-4 years from now and you’re not even sure what you’re going to get in the draft.”‘