By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Winners? Losers? Truth is, we won't know for a long time who made all the right moves at Monday's NHL trade deadline. But we know this: No one went all in like the Nashville Predators.
General manager David Poile rolled the dice. Ten days after acquiring hulking defenseman Hal Gill, he added scoring winger Andrei Kostitsyn, checking center Paul Gaustad and a fourth-round pick. None is a star. One comes with baggage. All are on expiring contracts. And the price? It was stiff by any standard, but especially for a team that has survived on drafting and developing – a first-round pick, two second-round picks and two prospects.
But despite tough odds, Poile had to gamble. He had to show the team's commitment under new ownership to his cornerstone defensemen – Ryan Suter, who can leave as an unrestricted free agent this summer, and Shea Weber, who can walk as a UFA next summer – and he had to seize the opportunity to win with them while he can. The Predators finally won a playoff series last year. They are sixth in the NHL in points percentage, right behind the Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins.
Now is the time.
"We want to compete, and we want to win the Stanley Cup," said Poile, who also flipped Jerred Smithson for a sixth-rounder on Friday. "We got a little bit of traction there last year when we won our first round, and I think everybody liked it. We want to see if we can take the further step this year."
Poile had aimed even higher. He reportedly made a bid for the biggest prize, Columbus captain Rick Nash. Though the chances were nil that the Blue Jackets would trade Nash within the Central Division and that Nash would waive his no-trade clause to go to Nashville, it never hurts to ask – or to have Suter and Weber hear that you did.
The market was brutal. Few teams were out of the playoff race, and those teams re-signed some of the potential rentals, thinning the crop further. Poile might have preferred some other players – like winger Alex Hemsky, whom the Edmonton Oilers gave a two-year, $10 million deal last week. But he had to choose among the players available, and he had to pay the going rate.
"I think the prices that I paid are high," Poile said. "They're higher than maybe in past years. The parity in the league has made it that way. If you know what you want, you've got to pay the price. Maybe I paid a little bit more."
There are no guarantees. Kostitsyn seems especially risky. There were issues when he and his brother played together in Montreal, and now he and Sergei will be reunited in Nashville. There are questions about Andrei's motivation. He has no goals in his past 12 games, two in his past 28. Even if all three acquisitions play well, they might not be enough to put the Predators over the top in a Western Conference that includes several top contenders.
"I think it's going to be close," Poile said. "I don't think there's much to separate any of us."
Oh, and all three acquisitions could bolt this summer along with Suter.
But if not now, when?
The NHL isn't going to become less competitive, and the Predators might not be in a better position any time soon. They have one of the game's best goaltenders in Pekka Rinne. They added an imposing presence in Gill to a defense corps led by Suter and Weber. They added Andrei Kostitsyn to an offense that ranks 10th in the league, and coach Barry Trotz has gotten the best out of Andrei’s brother, Sergei, in Nashville. They strengthened themselves at center with Gaustad, a player several other teams coveted. They have a top power play, and Gill and Gaustad should improve the penalty kill.
Poile did what he could. He did what he had to do.
"It's kind of out of my hands right now," Poile said, "and I just hope the players play well and hopefully we'll go further this year than we did last year."
Vancouver Canucks: Now is the time for the Canucks, too. They came within a win of the Cup last season, and leading the NHL standings again, they used a strength to address a weakness on Monday. GM Mike Gillis traded Cody Hodgson, a candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, as part of a deal with the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for rough-and-tumble rookie winger Zack Kassian.
Hodgson, 22, went 10th overall in the 2008 draft. He has enormous long-term potential. But he's stuck behind Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler at center, and he wasn't going to get the top-six minutes he needed to fulfill that potential in Vancouver. Kassian, 21, was the 13th overall pick in the '09 draft. He has played only 27 NHL games, but he's a 6-foot-3, 214-pound power forward, filling the Canucks' need for size and grit up front now and in the future. The Canucks also added depth on defense in the deal with Marc-Andre Gragnani,
Filling Hodgson's hole is Sami Pahlsson, whom the Canucks acquired from Columbus. Talk about a winner. Pahlsson jumped from 30th to first in the standings. He played a critical role when the Anaheim Ducks won the Cup in 2007. Though he's 34 now – and has two goals and a minus-6 rating this season – he can still check and win faceoffs, and he could be rejuvenated by a chance to win again.
Other contenders that at least added depth: The Chicago Blackhawks didn't get the second-line center they wanted, but they got the defenseman they so desperately needed in Johnny Oduya. The Detroit Red Wings couldn't pay the price for Gaustad, but that was because they already had given up a first-rounder to add defenseman Kyle Quincey.
The Bruins didn't do as well as they did last year, when they acquired Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley, but they added forward Brian Rolston and defensemen Mike Mottau and Greg Zanon. No goalie for the Flyers – and no replacement for Chris Pronger, that's for sure – but at least they added defensemen Nicklas Grossman and Pavel Kubina.
The San Jose Sharks struck out on Nash, but GM Doug Wilson didn't part with top-six forwards Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. He also added to his bottom six with Dominic Moore,Daniel Winnik and T.J. Galiardi.
Likewise with the New York Rangers. Defenseman John Scott adds little more than size and depth, but as much as they could have used a scorer, at least they didn't blow up the roster to land Nash when they have so much chemistry with the current lineup.
Buffalo Sabres: A first-round pick for Gaustad? It seemed like an awfully high price for a guy the Sabres couldn't sign – a guy looking for a big payday despite his seven goals and minus-1 rating. But several contenders were interested, and GM Darcy Regier maximized his value in this market. He pried that first-round pick from the desperate Preds in exchange for Gaustad and a fourth-rounder.
Then he snared Hodgson and defense prospect Alexander Sulzer from the Canucks for Kassian and Gragnani. Top young players with the potential to be No. 1 centermen are precious commodities, and Hodgson won't be stuck behind Sedin and Kesler in Buffalo. He will get the opportunity to grow into the player he can be.
Others that make solid hockey trades: When the Oilers shipped Tom Gilbert to the Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz, it was a textbook good-for-both-teams trade. Both are 29-year-old defensemen. Both are signed through 2013-14 – Gilbert with a $4 million cap hit, Schultz with a $3.5 million cap hit. Both are going home – Gilbert to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Schultz to western Canada. And both fill needs – Gilbert adding some offense to the Wild's back end, Schultz adding a defensive presence behind the Oilers' high-flying forwards.
Tampa Bay Lightning: While other teams couldn't decide whether to buy or sell, GM Steve Yzerman decided the Bolts were better off taking advantage of a seller's market and loading up for the future.
First, he parted with Kubina, Moore, defenseman Matt Gilroy – all pending UFAs – and forward prospect Carter Ashton. In return, he landed defensemen Keith Aulie and Brian Lee, plus a first-round pick, a second-round pick, a fourth-round pick and a couple of prospects. He also rented defenseman Mike Commodore for the low, low price of a conditional seventh-round pick to patch a short-term hole.
Aulie is 22. Lee is 24. "Defensemen are hard to find," Yzerman said. "We're looking for young guys and for guys whose contracts are appropriate." Yzerman can use those draft picks to stock the Lightning's system or to trade for the goaltender he needs.
Columbus Blue Jackets: GM Scott Howson did not panic and give away his franchise player for too little. Nash asked for a trade and gave the Blue Jackets a list of teams for which he would waive his no-trade clause, but that didn't mean Howson had to deal on Nash's terms. He set his price high – reportedly a significant NHL player, top prospects and a first-round pick – and he didn't back down.
Howson will have a better chance to make his best deal in the summer. Some teams will be disappointed they didn't go as far as they expected in the playoffs. More will be willing to upset their roster to accommodate a star player, and more will have the flexibility to absorb Nash's $7.8 million salary-cap hit. That will be the case even if Nash doesn't expand his list of teams, and if Nash wants out badly enough to consider other destinations, all the better.
In the meantime, Howson unloaded malcontent Jeff Carter for defenseman Jack Johnson and a first-round pick – a great return for a player with a bad attitude and an albatross contract. He got defense prospect Taylor Ellington and two fourth-round picks for Pahlsson, a pending UFA, and he got a second-rounder, a fifth-rounder and throw-in goaltender Curtis McElhinney from the Phoenix Coyotes for center Antoine Vermette, who had three years left on his contract at a hit of $3.75 million.
Howson is responsible for a lot of the Jackets' problems. At least he didn't compound them.
Rick Nash: Nash said all the right things about loving Columbus and wanting to win there. He dismissed the trade talk as "speculation" and made it look like the Blue Jackets wanted to part with him.
Well, now the truth has come out.
That doesn't mean Nash is a bad guy. He might love Columbus and want to win there, but at age 27, entering his prime, he just doesn't want to spend the prime years of his career amid more rebuilding.
But now he's in a bad situation. He will have play out the string in Columbus, captaining a team for which he has said he doesn't want to play, answering questions he doesn't want asked. He will go yet another spring without a chance at the Stanley Cup. And he won't join his new team until the draft in late June, more than likely.
Los Angeles Kings: The numbers say the Kings will end up big winners. Carter and Mike Richards scored all kinds of goals when they were together in Philadelphia, and they helped the Flyers make the Stanley Cup final in 2010. Back together, maybe they can score and win again.
But we'll see. It's not just that the Kings gave up Johnson and a first-rounder for Carter. It's that they dangled captain Dustin Brown on the market, if only for a moment, when Brown is the kind of character player so many teams covet. It's that they seem to be turning over their dressing room to two guys the Flyers wanted out of theirs.
Forget the gossip about the partying. Scouts say Richards didn't compete as hard as he used to during the end of his time in Philadelphia, and they speak even worse of Carter. He didn't compete his last year-and-a-half in Philly, and he sulked so much in Columbus that the Blue Jackets – after giving up so much to get him in a trade – gave up on him in less than a year.
St. Louis Blues: Just about every other Western Conference contender did something to improve its NHL roster – Vancouver, Detroit, Phoenix, Nashville, Chicago, San Jose. Then there was St. Louis. All the Blues did was trade goaltending prospect Ben Bishop for a second-round pick in 2013.
The prices were ridiculously high on the market. Options were limited. The Blues are going through an ownership change, and they made their major move just 13 games into the season when they replaced coach Davis Payne with veteran Ken Hitchcock, who has them playing a spirited, structured, successful brand of hockey.
But another scorer could have made them even more of a threat to advance in the playoffs.
Montreal Canadiens: GM Pierre Gauthier actually made a couple of decent deals with the Predators. For Gill and Kostitsyn, two pending UFAs, he snagged two second-round picks and two prospects, and one of those prospects is Blake Geoffrion – who could become the first fourth-generation Canadien. Geoffrion's great-grandfather and grandfather have their names in the rafters.
But Gauthier has to go. After a season in which he fired an assistant coach before a game, fired a head coach the morning of a game, hired an Anglophone coach who would inflame the language debate and traded a player during a game, he didn't re-sign Travis Moen and Mathieu Darche before the deadline and didn't rent out the pending UFAs, either. If they leave for nothing, he will have wasted an opportunity.
Washington Capitals: In fairness to GM George McPhee, he was in a tough spot. He has made a flurry of deadline moves in the past, and they haven't worked out. He replaced coach Bruce Boudreau with Dale Hunter this season, and that hasn't worked out, either. The Caps are a mess and look like they might fail to reach the playoffs, let alone contend for the Cup.
Yet here they were in ninth in the East, only one point out of eighth – and only three points out of third, held by the Southeast-leading Florida Panthers. Should he have bought and gone for it, because anything can happen in the playoffs? Or should he have sold, admitting the Caps are unlikely to go deep if they get in? Or should he have found a way to shake things up?
Problem is, McPhee did nothing with a team that needs something. He didn't make a bold move and rent the underachieving Alex Semin, a pending UFA. He didn't even move forward Mike Knuble, a pending UFA, and defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who has one year left on his contract at $3.5 million. Both are in Hunter's doghouse.