Thursday March 5th, 2009

At the intersection of Uncertainty and Recession, around the block from Salary Cap, the NHL trade deadline meandered through a part of town that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, the Walter Winchell of the game, called Off Broadway.

There were 22 trades involving 47 players and 21 draft picks -- in the neighborhood of the standard 25 post-lockout deals -- but this neighborhood was decidedly not the Great White Way. There was a little glitz, no buzz, nothing remotely provocative as that Marian Hossa-to-Pittsburgh blockbuster or Montreal trading No. 1 goalie Cristobal Huet for a second-rounder that spiced up the day in 2008. When Anaheim pulled defenseman Chris Pronger off the table in the early hours of Wednesday morning, there was no star to put on the NHL marquee. Jay Bouwmeester was the next biggest name being dangled -- "A lose-lose situation," one member of the Florida Panthers organization told me, given the remote possibility the defenseman, eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1, will re-sign there -- but the Philadelphia Flyers could not escape salary cap jail to make a deal that would have shored up their back end. With no A-listers on the move, the man who wound up being shoved into the spotlight was a player who has spent most of his career in the shadows, Olli Jokinen.

Jokinen is a sizeable, almost robust, center who has played 780 NHL games, not one of which has occurred in the playoffs. Given that Jokinen has been with the following four organizations -- Los Angeles, the Islanders, Florida and Phoenix -- this does not necessarily qualify as shocking news but is nonetheless a noteworthy, albeit, dim achievement. This will all change next month in his new home, Calgary, which leads the Northwest Division and should be the third seed in the Western Conference.

Jokinen never has scored 40 goals in a season. He did come close a few times in Florida, where he was nurtured, some of that time, by coach Mike Keenan, who again has a chance to work some magic with a player who did not respond to the blandishments of Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky. Jokinen, 30, is a swooping sort of center, not a stop-start guy, who seemed incapable of finding chemistry with Shane Doan, the Coyotes' first-line right wing and captain. Now Jokinen will get a chance to connect with the Flames' star right wing and captain, Jarome Iginla, who plays a give-and-go style that might better suit a problematic player who was on a middling 30-goal pace and provided none of the leadership that Phoenix GM Don Maloney anticipated when he traded defensemen Nick Boynton, Keith Ballard and a second-round choice for him at the 2008 draft.

Calgary GM Darryl Sutter seemed decidedly untroubled by the lack of a playoff portfolio (although Jokinen figured prominently in silver medals for his native Finland in the 2004 World Cup and the 2006 Olympics). Indeed, Sutter suggested Jokinen's blank postseason slate might serve as a motivational tool for a player making $5.25 million this season and $5.5 million in 2009-10. Jokinen, at times a divisive dressing room presence in Florida, will not be burdened with the mantle of leadership in Calgary. On a team with Iginla and defenseman Robyn Regehr, Jokinen merely needs to be swept along on a team that thinks it now can challenge Detroit and San Jose for hegemony in the Western Conference.

Curiously Sutter, who also traded for ex-Flames defenseman Jordan Leopold from Colorado, didn't even tell Keenan he planned to acquire Jokinen until Tuesday night. Rather than lean on Keenan, Duane Sutter, who worked for the Panthers for 11 seasons before Calgary named him director of player personnel last July, was the point man for information on the project. Whether the GM didn't want to bother his coach or blur the chain of command is unclear, but it seems to signify something about the relationship between Sutter and Keenan. What, exactly? Only a fool would hazard a guess.

The acquisitions of Jokinen (involving the only first-round draft pick that traveled) and Leopold meant the Flames "won" trade-deadline day, a dubious honor that will be validated for another two months, assuming Calgary wins a few playoff rounds. But for sheer moxie, Anaheim, Burke's old team, trumped the Flames by bridging the usual gap between buyer and seller and changing on the fly.

Bob Murray, Burke's successor, really is trying to have it all. While not abandoning the playoff chase -- the Ducks are one of the bubble teams in the West -- he made three trades, moving two-thirds of the fabulous checking line of the 2007 final (Travis Moen to division rival San Jose, Sami Pahlsson to Chicago) while filling in with prospects and a rambunctious depth defenseman in James Wisniewski from the Blackhawks. If Anaheim makes the playoffs while retooling simultaneously, Murray, who likely will trade Pronger at the draft, will have freed the Ducks from the untenable salary cap situation they landed in when Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne "unretired" last season.

Two more doings of note: Ottawa acquired yet another goalie, Pascal Leclaire from Columbus -- 26 years-old, one good NHL season -- who tries to exorcise the ghosts from that cursed position in Canada's capital while Buffalo overpaid center Tim Connolly $9 million for two seasons, a salary that likely will spent on his Blue Cross and Blue Shield deductible. (Connolly, with seven goals in 48 games prior to the match Wednesday night against Montreal, has not played more than 63 games in a season since 2002-03.) Given the free-agent departures of Brian Campbell, Chris Drury and Daniel Brière, perhaps GM Darcy Regier felt he owed the fabulous Buffalo fans a gesture of good faith. But in the case of Connolly, top shelf is not merely the place he scores with his sweet hands but where the Sabres should stick him with the rest of the fine china.

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