By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
The NHL trade deadline is 3 p.m. ET on Monday. The Rick Nash deadline is not.
There is no Rick Nash deadline. There is no reason for Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson to trade his franchise player now unless he receives the huge premium he is seeking, when he can wait until summer and have a better chance at making his best deal. And so, as the clock ticks and we ask our burning questions, there might not be an answer to the No. 1 on the list:
Where is Rick Nash going?
Nash's agent, Joe Resnick, tried to put pressure on Howson. He released a statement to TSN on Saturday: "We're hopeful a deal can get done prior to the trade deadline that is fair and equitable for the Blue Jackets. However, if a deal is not reached, then the list of acceptable teams will not change at a later date."
Until that statement, neither side had said much publicly. Nash had dismissed trade talk as "speculation" and refused to answer questions about it. But now Nash's camp has gone on record saying he wants out and wants out as soon as possible, and the view around the league is that it was Nash who asked the team for a trade in the first place. It was not the other way around.
That's understandable. By all accounts, Nash loves Columbus and wanted to win with the Blue Jackets, and he is reluctant to be the bad guy here. But they're the worst team in the NHL by far – at a time when almost everyone else is in the race – and they're blowing up the roster. He's 27. He's entering his prime. He doesn't want to spend those precious years amid more rebuilding.
You get only so many shots at the Stanley Cup. You get only so many springs as a player. You don't want to waste any of them. Nash is in his ninth NHL season and has played only four playoff games. As his friend Joe Thornton said: "I'm sure he wants to get to the playoffs at some point in his career." I'm sure he doesn't want this to drag on through the rest of the season, either.
But Howson's responsibility is to the Blue Jackets, not to Nash. He is dealing from a position of weakness, and he cannot afford to make a mistake. While Nash will move on eventually, the Jackets will have to live with the aftermath and try to rebuild the organization with the assets they receive in return. The situation will be worse than it is already if he panics and parts with Nash for too little.
There is a line of thinking that this is the time to strike, because teams are under pressure to make the playoffs or win a championship – and Nash is limiting the market, anyway, listing only a few teams for which he will waive his no-trade clause.
But Howson is reportedly asking for a significant NHL player, plus top prospects and a first-round pick, as he should be. Nash has a $7.8 million salary-cap hit and is signed through 2017-18, too. That means a suitor would have to upset its roster at a sensitive time of year and have the cap space – or clear the cap space – to do it, while making a long-term commitment. Easier said than done, even for a player like Nash.
Even if Nash sticks to his current list of teams, more of them will be in a position to make their best offers this summer. More will have roster and financial flexibility, and some are guaranteed to be more desperate or willing to make a big splash. Fourteen teams won't make the playoffs. Eight will lose in the first round. Four more will lose in the second. The math says that somebody's going to be disappointed and want to do something.
Just one possibility: The San Jose Sharks need to make the Stanley Cup final to have a successful season, a high bar, and what if they don't make it yet again? Would general manager Doug Wilson – known for making bold moves, especially in the summer – be more willing and able to acquire a goal-scorer like Nash to play with an elite passer like Thornton?
Let's say the Detroit Red Wings are on Nash's list. There is good reason to think they are. Nash won an Olympic gold medal for Team Canada under coach Mike Babcock, who loves him. The Wings are an Original Six team and perennial contender, and in Detroit – not too far from Nash's home in suburban Toronto – hockey is important but not all-consuming as it is in Canada. Nash could win, fill the net and keep a relatively low profile. The Wings cannot make a bid now, unwilling to mess too much with a team that ranks second in the league.
Howson would be nuts to trade Nash to a division rival at any time for anything less than a premium on top of a premium, lest Nash come back to haunt the Blue Jackets multiple times a season. But he would be smart to wait until the Wings can make a bid and at least use them to drive up the price. Unless somebody blows him away before 3 p.m. ET Monday, Howson should let as many teams as he can bid against each other when they have all their ammo. Nash can make his list, but so can Howson. If Nash wants out, Howson has the hammer. He has to use it.
In the meantime …
After the Kings acquired Jeff Carter from the Blue Jackets on Thursday night, the news broke that they had made their captain available. Then the news broke that they had pulled him off the market. Then Brown said he hadn't heard anything from the Kings. Then he scored a natural hat trick and added an assist Saturday night in a 4-0 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
What can Brown do for you? A lot. Especially at playoff time. He is the kind of hardnosed, character player general managers covet – especially GMs like the Toronto Maple Leafs' Brian Burke, who enjoyed Brown’s truculence with Team USA.
But Brown had only 14 goals before Saturday night for a team that ranked last in the league in offense, and something just hasn't been right as the Kings have fallen short of expectations. It seems only a matter of time before this team is turned over to Mike Richards, who captained the Philadelphia Flyers before the Kings acquired him last summer. Richards has only 14 goals this season himself, but the acquisition of his old running buddy Carter shows the team is being built around him, for better or worse.
Maybe the Kings were just testing the waters. Maybe Brown isn't going anywhere. Maybe it will depend on the offers the Kings receive or what happens from now until the summer.
Will Brian Burke be dragged into the muck?
Burke does not like the deadline. He has said repeatedly that the market becomes crowded, the prices become absurd and people make mistakes.
"You know the La Brea Tar Pits?" Burke told me earlier this month. "It's a tar pit, the deadline, because there's 20 teams that are alive, or 22 or 24. They feel they have to make a statement, so you've got way more buyers than you should have, many of whom are not legitimate, and it screws the marketplace up big-time. You'll see 12, 14 teams try to get better. The last I looked, they only put one team on the Cup. There's one parade, so the math doesn't work."
But this math doesn't work, either: The Leafs – who haven't made the playoffs since 2004 in the Centre of the Hockey Universe – have gone 1-7-1 in their past nine. They have earned only three of a possible 18 points. They have slipped to 10th in the East.
On one hand, they're only three points out of a playoff spot, and Burke has said he will at least look into upgrading his goaltending. On the other, they seem unlikely to go deep in the playoffs even if they make it, and Burke has been unable to re-sign pending unrestricted free agent Mikhail Grabovski – an attractive rental for contenders looking to bolster their top six.
Does Burke buy? Does he sell? Or does he sit tight?
It doesn't sound like he will mortgage the future. "We've spent three years putting together some depth here, we're not going to blow it all up to try to squeak into the eighth spot," he told CBC. He might not rent Grabovski, either. He hasn't been afraid to keep pending UFAs in the past, and he reportedly has rejected the offer of a first-round pick. Grabovski could re-sign later. He loves Toronto.
But can Burke sit idly by while the Buds do this?
Will the Dallas Stars hear what they want to hear?
Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk isn't buying or selling. He's listening.
As of Saturday morning, his team was clinging to eighth in the West. But under new owner Tom Gaglardi, the organization is taking a long-term approach. As team president Jim Lites told me earlier this month, they are "not playing to be eighth."
Though they want to make the playoffs, the priority is building a team that can win in the playoffs, and they're building it around 22-year-old Jamie Benn. If they can find good deals for veterans, they will make them.
"We'll potentially be active at the trade deadline," Lites told me. "We're going to be prepared to look to make our team better."
Mike Ribeiro might be tough to move because he has another season left at $5 million and a limited no-trade clause. Captain Brenden Morrow is signed for another season at $4.1 million with a no-trade, and he's injured. Defensemen Stephane Robidas is at $3.3 million for two more seasons with a no-trade.
But Steve Ott, signed for two more seasons at $2.95 million, could add grit to a contender, and Adam Burish, a pending unrestricted free agent, could add energy. Another potential rental: defenseman Sheldon Souray.
Which contenders can add a key piece in a tough market?
The Rangers, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues all have excellent goaltending. The Rangers have a team of blue-collar shot-blockers, the Predators have added Hall Gill to a defense corps led by Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and the Blues play a great team structure. But all three need another scorer for a Stanley Cup run.
The Flyers hope the additions of defensemen Nicklas Grossman and Pavel Kubina can help cover up for their shaky goaltending. The Pittsburgh Penguins need a backup goalie. The Chicago Blackhawks need defensive help and a second-line center. The struggling Sharks need a spark.
The league-leading Vancouver Canucks have good depth, but they could always use more, as they learned last year when attrition caught up with them by Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. They just placed defenseman Keith Ballard on long-term injured reserve because of a concussion. Before Saturday night, the Wings planned to look only for another forward, having acquired defenseman Kyle Quincey, but now they could use more depth on the blue line with Jonathan Ericsson suffering a broken wrist.
Will more teams decide to sell, or can bubble teams make hockey deals?
The rental market is relatively thin. Few teams are out of the race with the standings so tight, and some have decided to re-sign pending unrestricted free agents. Only the Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning are clear sellers. The Oilers have re-signed Ales Hemsky and Andy Sutton, while telling Ryan Smyth he won't be traded and offering him an extension. The 'Canes have re-signed Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu.
Those sellers still have rentals available. The Jackets almost certainly will move Sammy Pahlsson and are listening to offers for almost everyone else regardless of contract status. The Hurricanes likely will rent one of two defensemen: Jaroslav Spacek or Bryan Allen. The Habs' potential rentals are Chris Campoli,Andrei Kostitsyn and Travis Moen, though Moen might re-sign.
The Winnipeg Jets have shopped defenseman Johnny Oduya, but now they're clinging to eighth in the East. The Washington Capitals are a mess but only one point behind the Jets. Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik, who has a year left on his contract at $3.5 million, are available. Would renting Alex Semin be addition by subtraction?
Teams like the Buffalo Sabres (Paul Gaustad),New York Islanders (Evgeni Nabokov),Minnesota Wild (Josh Harding) and Anaheim Ducks (Niklas Hagman) have intriguing rental prospects, but all are on the fence – five to eight points out of a playoff spot. Can they improve their teams without giving up on the race?