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As minutes melt away to trade deadline, Blue Jackets are anxious

COLUMBUS, Ohio - When the Columbus Blue Jackets arrived at practice on Monday, they had numbers skating around in their heads: five points out the last playoff spot, 18 games remaining, 24 hours left to the trade deadline.

"In some ways it's a very exciting time and in other ways it's very nerve-racking," coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday. "I find the players at this time of the year, for the next 24 hours, they're rather distant. It's difficult to keep their focus right now."

No wonder. There are rumours flying all over North America about trades, if not involving Columbus players then certainly about the teams surrounding them in the standings.

The Blue Jackets find themselves in the thick of the playoff race - they started the week 11th in the Western Conference, breathing down the necks of the eighth-place Nashville Predators - for the first time in franchise history. They're also coming off one of the high-water marks in the team's seven seasons, back-to-back wins on the road against Ottawa and Montreal, two of the bullies in the East.

The players have heard the speculation that Columbus is among a handful of teams trying to swing a deal to get Tampa Bay Lightning centre Brad Richards before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. Tuesday.

The dreamers imagine what it would be like to put Richards on the same line with current Blue Jackets stars like Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev. Others wonder how the move might hurt a young team or how many of their teammates might end up going to the Lightning in the deal.

"There's big names out there right now, and some big teams looking to make some moves," Nash said. "It's going to be an exciting time here."

Anxious might be a better word than exciting when it comes to general manager Scott Howson.

"I keep telling everybody that I feel pretty fortunate that I'm not the one who has to make decisions around here," forward Manny Malhotra said. "We are in the (playoff) hunt and we are playing some good hockey, so it's a matter of, do they feel that we have what it takes or not?"

It's no secret that the Blue Jackets - like nearly every other team - covet Richards, who is just 27 but in 2004 won a Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP of the finals) in addition to a Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, the NHL's "sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct" award.

The question is, at what price? Are the Blue Jackets willing to surrender current No. 1 picks on the big club's roster or in the minors for a superstar making US$8 million a year? The answer could set the team up for future championships, or could waylay the progress the team has made in this, its best season.

Hitchcock said after Monday's practice that he didn't think the Blue Jackets would make many changes. Reached late in the day, Howson said that wasn't necessarily the case.

"I don't have a strong feeling either way right now," Howson said carefully. "There's a lot of irons in the fire so we'll see what happens."

Some believe that the club's recent quality play might lessen the chance for substantial turnover.

Again, Howson was noncommittal.

"That's been a good sign for our team but that's not going to change what our overall direction is," he said.

Forward Jason Chimera just signed a four-year contract extension through 2011-2012. He said almost every player is nervous in the final few hours before the trade deadline.

"We're trying to get a No. 1 centre, trying to get someone here to help Nasher," he said. "But if me being thrown in a deal gets that done, that might happen. You never know. I think I'm pretty safe, but you never know."

It's the nature of being a pro athlete: hero today, gone tomorrow.

"We're all waiting to see," goaltender Pascal Leclaire said. "We're comfortable with what we have here but if they decide to make some changes they'll probably have a good reason to do so and we'll adjust."



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