With one eye on the standings and another on the calendar, NHL general managers are getting down to work.
The trade market picked up a full two weeks before the Feb. 28 deadline as GMs got an early start on trying to improve their teams. Outside of the deadline, in-season trades have virtually been eliminated in the NHL’s salary cap era—at least until recently.
“The deals are happening a little earlier this year, which I think is a good thing,” Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford said Tuesday in an interview. “It makes sense for teams to get their players in and get them accustomed to their new teams. These deals will probably keep happening right through to the 28th now.”
A couple major deals got done early last season—Ilya Kovalchuk to New Jersey, Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguere to Toronto—but those transactions stood alone.
Trades both big and small are being made now and seem to be driven by a combination of factors.
Tight playoff races—particularly in the Western Conference, where third and 13th are separated by 10 points—are playing a part, as is the experience of years past.
Some managers have become wary of the frantic action that can be seen annually in the final hours of the trading period.
“It just gets confused, it’s like a cattle stampede at the deadline,” Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke told reporters in Boston on Tuesday. “You’re in your war room and you’re on one line, the assistant GM’s on another line, the third guy’s on another line and you’re trying to sort things out.
“People keep popping off the board—this guy moves to a team and all of a sudden you’re stuck with a lesser alternative that you’re not crazy about, but you do it anyway because you think you want to do something.”
There is no shortage of teams currently looking to get in on the action.
The Hurricanes sit eighth in the Eastern Conference and Rutherford expects the race to go right down to the wire. He’s currently sitting on a move that would give him more flexibility.
“We’ll consider making a deal here in the next few days that may position us better to do something closer to the deadline,” said Rutherford. “There are teams inquiring about some of our players, which is pretty natural at this time.”
Pressure is mounting in cities like Boston and Los Angeles, where GMs Peter Chiarelli and Dean Lombardi have made no secret of their desire to add a player or two.
In fact, it’s a sentiment that is echoing around the league. Burke believes the talk started intensifying after he sent Kris Versteeg to Philadelphia for a pair of draft picks on Monday.
“I know from talking to a couple other GMs that our trade set off a big surge in phone activity last night,” said Burke. “There’s only so many quality players at the deadline and I know there was a frantic response to this trade.
“I think it touched off some activity.”
In fact, the move didn’t even satisfy his own desire to make deals. He’s hoping to add another forward to help with Toronto’s own push for the playoffs.
“We’re not throwing in the towel here and we’re not done yet either,” said Burke.
The Canucks maintain their position in our weekly look at the NHL from No. 1 to No. 30 (with last week’s ranking):
1. Vancouver (1): You can excuse the odd loss from a team that hasn’t done much losing this season. It’s been interesting to hear players talk about the importance of continuing to beat up on teams they might face in the playoffs.
2. Philadelphia (2): The Flyers are ready for another run at the Stanley Cup. GM Paul Holmgren liked what he saw from Versteeg as an opponent in last year’s final and hopes the versatile forward can help push Philadelphia over the top this season.
3. Detroit (4): The Red Wings always seem to find a way to put themselves in the mix. Veteran defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom continues to play well—he was a combined plus-5 in back-to-back wins over the Bruins last week.
4. Tampa Bay (5): Steve Yzerman takes the spotlight this week even though the Lightning GM would prefer to remain in the background. Yzerman’s former team, the Red Wings, visits Tampa on Thursday.
5. Pittsburgh (3): More than anything, the Penguins could use some good news on the injury front. It’s goes beyond Sidney Crosby—AHL callups Dustin Jaffrey and Eric Tangradi are also among the infirmed.
6. Boston (6): Still a contender in the Eastern Conference, the Bruins were smarting after a pair of losses to Detroit. The pressure is mounting Chiarelli to bolster his lineup with a trade.
7. Nashville (11): Mike Fisher’s style of game makes him a perfect fit with Barry Trotz’s Predators. This looks like a team that is capable of winning a round or two in the playoffs.
8. Dallas (8): The Stars are getting a taste of life without Brad Richards. No, the team’s leading scorer hasn’t been traded (yet)—he’s out with an undisclosed injury after a mid-ice collision over the weekend.
9. Anaheim (12): It looks like Francois Beauchemin might get another taste of playoff hockey after being traded out of Toronto. He should provide a steady defensive presence with a team on the rise.
10. Montreal (9): The Habs are pretty excited about taking part in this weekend’s Heritage Classic outdoor game at McMahon Stadium. Forward Michael Cammalleri is doing everything he can to get back in time from a shoulder injury.
11. Phoenix (13): Dave Tippett’s team has quietly put together a five-game winning streak to lead the Pacific Division. It’s worth noting that Ilya Bryzgalov has made 16 straight starts in goal.
12. San Jose (10): Losses in New Jersey and Florida halted an impressive 9-0-1 run. Goaltender Antti Niemi has come on after a slow start and will likely be the No. 1 man heading into the post-season.
13. Washington (7): Questions are starting to be asked about whether shifting the focus to defence was the right move. Something isn’t quite right with last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners.
14. Los Angeles (15): A nice weekend sweep in Washington and Philadelphia has them pointed back in the right direction. The Kings still have four games left on a marathon 10-game road swing.
15. Minnesota (14): The Wild are a team that gets it done by committee. Even though they don’t have one player who has hit 20 goals, they’ve got five with at least 14.
16. Calgary (16): Curtis Glencross presents the type of problem every organization wants to have. He’s red hot with goals in five straight games and could force the Flames to make a decision on his future with free agency looming.
17. Chicago (18): The acquisition of Michael Frolik looks like a nice move for GM Stan Bowman. That should add a little more scoring into a lineup that was decimated after winning the Stanley Cup.
18. N.Y. Rangers (17): One of the better stories around the league this season has been Brian Boyle, who has broken out in a big way with 19 goals. The six-foot-seven forward worked with former Canadian figure skater Barb Underhill to improve his skating last summer.
19. Columbus (20): Getting a healthy Ethan Moreau back into the lineup should help with the playoff push. Some had left the Jackets for dead, but the team has reeled off five wins in its last six games.
20. Carolina (19): They’re set to send Rod Brind’Amour’s No. 17 sweater to the rafters at RBC Center. He’ll forever be remembered as the first player in the organization to lift the Stanley Cup back in 2006.
21. Buffalo (23): Ryan Miller’s run of starts ends mercifully at 31 games. The Sabres are obviously feeling the pressure to win, but that workload appears to be a bit too much for last year’s Vezina Trophy winner.
22. St. Louis (21): A win over league-leading Vancouver eases the sting from back-to-back losses to Minnesota. It’s going to be tough to avoid missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons.
23. Atlanta (24): Craig Ramsay is desperate to start getting some wins. The Thrashers have only two in their last 10 games, but remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
24. Florida (25): Sending some early congratulations to Cory Stillman, who will reach 1,000 career games this week. After starting out in Calgary, he’s settled in the sunbelt—appearing in more than 400 games for Tampa, Carolina and Florida.
25. Colorado (22): Just like that, Peter Forsberg is gone and the team has dropped eight straight. As if things weren’t bad enough, Matt Duchene left Monday’s game with a hand injury.
26. New Jersey (27): Ilya Kovalchuk is a new man. Even though his streak of 40-goal seasons appears set to end at six, the US$100-million forward has been filling the net of late.
27. Toronto (26): There is still a serious urgency to Brian Burke’s rebuilding plans. It only took 24-year-old Versteeg six months to go from important building block to expendable asset.
28. N.Y. Islanders (28): Michael Grabner has vaulted himself into Calder Trophy contention by scoring in bunches over the last month. The Isles have become a tougher team to play against as a result.
29. Ottawa (30): Robin Lehner continues to bounce back and forth with AHL Binghamton. The Sens want the 19-year-old goaltender to play as much as possible, but it seems fair to wonder if a little stability might be more beneficial.
30. Edmonton (29): Steve Tambellini has told his players that it’s OK to get out of last place. The GM wants the team to focus on winning games rather than getting another No. 1 draft pick.