Wednesday January 16th, 2008

I get it. You're tired of hearing about deals like Dan Jancevski for Junior Lessard, or Pavel Brendl for a bag of cheese kolaches. Judging by the contents of my mailbag, you want your team to either strap on a new big gun for the postseason, or blow it up with the hope of a brighter tomorrow. So let's talk trades, with just over five weeks to go before the Feb. 26 deadline:

I've heard rumors that the Bruins were willing to trade Phil Kessel for a defenseman. What would it take for the Canucks to snag him? -- Gary Gee, BC

I'm not sure that's a rumor with real legs as much as it is media speculation emanating out of Boston. Not that it's completely unthinkable, at least given the way I read Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli and his plan to remake the Bruins into a bigger, badder model. Kessel has world-class speed and a shot that's been compared to Brett Hull's, but he doesn't fit that classic Bruin mold. The thinking is that the team needs immediate help on the backline, particularly a transition specialist to play alongside Zdeno Chara and QB the power play, moreso than an undersized, non-physical forward.

I get the thinking, but it seems counterproductive. Though he hasn't exactly lit it up in his first season-and-a-half, Kessel is widely regarded as having the potential to become a 30-goal, first-line winger. That's an impact player, so unless you get an impact player in return -- something along the lines of Nashville's Ryan Suter or, from Vancouver, a package that centers around impressive rookie Alexander Edler, maybe -- trading Kessel at this point doesn't add up for a team that has struggled to light the lamp.

I'm a passive Sabres fan (the Wings are my favorites) because I really liked the kind of team they put together. I'm starting to wonder how much longer that's going to last, though. The way they're handling Brian Campbell seems like a repeat of what happened last year with the Chris Drury and Daniel Briere negotiations. Do they trade him now or what? -- Drew Jeffries, Wisconsin

Darcy Regier's been vocal about not dealing his top defenseman, but really, what choice does he have after Campbell put an end to extension talks this week?

A gifted two-way backliner, Campbell could become one of the most sought-after UFAs at the end of the season. While he said he didn't want the contract talks to create a distraction, that comes off as a fan-friendly way of saying that he wants to keep his options open. And who can blame him? Someone out there is likely to pay him considerably more than the Sabres.

That has to be incredibly frustrating for Buffalo's fans. This team looks nothing like the club that emerged as a legitimate Cup contender two years ago, primarily because of Regier's inability to take care of his core players. He apparently learned nothing about timely negotiating from losing Briere and Drury last summer, so now he's left with two options: roll the dice and hope to take care of Campbell after the playoffs, or return some value on an asset that might walk away in July.

Buffalo looks like a good bet to make the postseason, but will be hard-pressed to win a round, with or without Campbell. With Thomas Vanek already on the books for $7 million, and Ryan Miller set for a big payday next year, moving Campbell makes sense.

The key to salvaging Buffalo's mess may be a quick strike. There's little doubt that the Lightning will want to move Dan Boyle soon after he returns in the next couple of weeks from wrist surgery that has cost him virtually the entire season. There's no telling what kind of shape he'll be in, but adding him to the field of rentals that already includes Rob Blake likely drives down the price. Should be an interesting couple of weeks in Buffalo.

The loss of Michael Nylander is devastating, especially considering how well the Capitals have been playing of late. Who out there can replace him and keep the drive for the playoffs alive? -- Tim Snow

Don't get your hopes up, Tim. Finding a legitimate replacement -- even as a rental -- for the team's second-leading scorer is going to cost way more in assets than makes sense. Everyone understands how important it is for the franchise to make the playoffs this year, but even if by some miracle they could fill that hole by coughing up picks and prospects, is short-term success worth putting a dent in more serious long-range plans? I don't think so. That doesn't mean help won't be airlifted in. Just don't expect a guy who is capable of running the power play and centering a legitimate secondary scoring line.

That means I think the Caps will look internally over the short term. Seems like Viktor Kozlov should be able to move into that role, but last summer's free agent signee simply hasn't done enough with his opportunity so far to raise any hopes. Boyd Gordon brings a lot of heart, but his hands aren't up to the task.

The reinforcements may have to arrive from the minors. Chris Bourque has been playing well at Hershey, and coach Bruce Boudreau has a level of comfort with him from their time together. Bourque's a winger by trade, but has played center and has the kind of creativity and hockey sense that might click with Alexander Semin. That might not get the Caps in the playoffs, but it would give them a long look at a player who might be able to contribute when the team is ready to mount a serious challenge.

And, really, that should be the focus now. The Caps don't get to beat up on the Senators every night, so points will only get harder to come by for this depleted squad. Unless GM George McPhee goes all in and quickly picks up someone like Mats Sundin, Nylander's loss likely puts the kibosh on their playoff hopes.

With Shea Weber back in the lineup, my Predators have a surplus of quality defenders. Seems to me that won't last long. What do you see happening? -- Carla Saunders, Fairview, TN

I think a trade is imminent, Carla. The Preds have eight NHL-caliber blueliners, and none of them can be safely moved to the AHL. Something has to give, and with the increased demand for defenders at this time of year, the Preds shouldn't have any trouble finding a dance partner. Keep an eye on the Sharks, Rangers and Hurricanes.

Nashville is in dire need of some reliable scoring help on the wings, especially with J.P Dumont likely to test the free agent market this summer, so that's what they'll be targeting. The previously-mentioned Suter seems the most likely candidate to move in exchange for a legitimate scorer, but even with their depth at the position, that's a major move. GM David Poile may settle for something smaller, moving Kevin Klein or fearless shotblocker Greg Zanon for an intriguing prospect. Either way, expect Nashville to be a player as Feb. 26 approaches.

Are you ready to admit your mistake? A couple months ago, you specifically mentioned Matt Niskanen among a group of Dallas prospects who had no chance of becoming impact players. Today, he was named to the Western Conference YoungStars team. Sounds like an impact player to me. Maybe it's time to eat your words? -- Michael Finley, Dallas

After seeing him in a couple of camps and limited NHL action earlier this season, Niskanen looked to me like a Trevor Daley starter kit -- great wheels, good offensive instincts, but a second-pairing guy at best. Since the change in power that saw the team replace GM Doug Armstrong with Les Jackson and Hull in November, the Stars have placed a greater emphasis on finding youngsters who could contribute immediately. Niskanen has made the most of that opportunity, skating alongside Sergei Zubov on the top unit and displaying in spades the one asset I questioned: hockey sense. Whether it was a matter of the coaching staff showing more confidence in him, or Niskanen simply finding his comfort level, he's emerged as a cornerstone for the next-gen Stars. Consider my words eaten.

I know it sounds like homer whining, but how on earth could the NHL leave Evgeni Malkin off the All-Star team? He has [52] points and is the highest-scoring player not invited. With a chance to promote one of the game's brightest young stars, this looks like a blown opportunity to me. -- K. Kolodny, P-Town

The in-box was groaning from the weight of emails complaining about favorite players overlooked for the big shinny game in Atlanta. Most of you made decent arguments for your heroes, but the system is the way it is -- the league tries to represent every team, and that means some worthy players will be left out.

No need to don the sackcloth and grab a handful of ashes just yet, though. Two players already have dropped out and been replaced, and it wouldn't surprise me to see another three or four suffer injuries or discover their wives are giving birth in six months or whatever.

If a spot opens up in the East, Malkin seems like an obvious choice, but don't assume he'll get the call. A staffer on another club suggested to me the other day that perhaps Malkin was bypassed as a result of his somnambulant performance in last year's YoungStars Game. Just speculation, but there's no denying that group of players embarrassed the league, so there might be something to it.

While we're talking about overlooked players, the one with the biggest beef might be Minnesota's Josh Harding, who deserved a spot as part of the YoungStars contingent. He likely would have earned the call, but with Carey Price in the minors, there were no suitable options from the East. So Harding stays home, and the revamped YoungStars format will see the kiddie corps firing at will on the veteran goalies on hand for the main game.

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