By Stu Hackel
Last Friday, 11 days before the NHL trade deadline, when GMs seemed to be suddenly swapping players like kids trading hockey cards, TSN's James Duthie, who hosts the annually excellent trade deadline show on that network tweeted, "Wow, quite a day. Well, thanks for watching Tradecentre 2011. We'll see you nex...wait...what? Oh. Right. Crap."
Earlier, Duthie had tweeted, "TSN commentators secretly rehearsing dance numbers so that if no trades are left, Tradecentre will become most disturbing Glee episode ever."
For years, teams waited until the last moment and the countdown was suspense-filled. This year, instead of a one- or two-day drama leading up to the Feb. 28 deadline, we've gotten a trading season that started just after the All-Star break. Since Feb. 9 (as the SI.com NHL Trade Tracker reveals), there have been 18 deals involving 36 players and 14 draft choices. On Friday (and early Saturday morning) alone, there were seven deals involving 16 players and six picks. No wonder Duthie was muttering. Monday might prove to be anticlimactic.
The reasons for the advanced flurry of trade action are many and interrelated. Some teams have recognized what they need to become stronger and, with the playoff races so tight and each point meaning so much, they want to strike sooner rather than later. Of course, other teams have recognized that they are unlikely to make the postseason and have begun their rebuilds (see: Ottawa, Toronto and Colorado, as examples), and once they start to unload players, the phone calls among GMs accelerate, the auctions are on and no team wants to be left behind.
Additionally, teams now have a better handle on the salary cap system and are more confident that they can make deals without concern that they are damaging their future cap space, which remains one of the biggest assets a team can have. So while there is still a market for rental players -- guys in the final months of their current deals who will become UFA's in July -- GMs are also more comfortable acquiring players who have time left on their contracts. Consequently, we're seeing more real hockey trades -- designed to address real competitive needs at both ends -- rather than moves made solely to dump salaries and clear cap space that may actually rob a team of talent.
Monday's swap between the Penguins and Stars, is a good illustration. The Pens, who are still without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and need more scoring, have long lacked a high level power forward on the wing to blend with Crosby when he returns. GM Ray Shero found a trading partner in Dallas's Joe Nieuwendyk, who wanted another puck-moving defenseman aside from Stephane Robidas to make the Stars more of a possession team. The Penguins have good depth on their blueline with the emergence of Kris Letang and last summer's signing of Paul Martin, but, as Shero said in his interesting remarks yesterday on the anatomy of this deal, he really wasn't thinking about breaking up his defense corps and moving talented Alex Goligoski, although lots of teams had interest in him.
But the chance to secure James Neal, an emerging goal-scoring power forward (about whom Shero said, "There’s not many of these young power guys in the game, and Neal is one of the better ones.") changed the GM's mind. And he got Nieuwendyk to include defenseman Matt Niskanen in the deal to take Goligoski's spot. He couldn't have made the deal, Shero said, had Malkin not been gone for the season, his salary now removed from the Pens' cap limit. All of these players have time left on their current deals.
"When you can get a guy like Neal – if I wait, the opportunity might not be there again," Shero said.
“It was hard to trade players like James and Matt, because we know they are quality players and quality people, but we felt this would be a deal that would make us a better team,” Nieuwendyk said about his end of the trade (quoted in The Dallas Morning News). “The way the game is played now, you can’t have enough puck-moving defensemen. If you look at the teams that have had success in the playoffs, they are the teams that control the puck and move the puck out of their back end.”
"You’re seeing a lot of these (trades) you don’t usually see, especially well before the deadline it seems," Shero added. "There’s been a lot of hockey deals here. I’m not sure (about) the CBA, at least in this deal (it) never came into consideration. It was really a hockey trade....I think every team’s a little bit different and I think we’ll see a lot more of these rental players go here between now and Monday, obviously. Now some of the games go with some of the teams still vying for position, but I think this is really somewhat out of the ordinary for all of these hockey deals to happen during the course of the season."
While the Avalanche are out of contention, the Blues still have an outside shot, only five points behind the eighth spot. It seemed St. Louis was waving the white flag when it shipped pending UFA captain Eric Brewer to the Lightning for a prospect and a pick, a deal that will help Tampa Bay's playoff chances. But the next day, the Blues swung a deal with the Avs, perhaps the biggest of this trading season. The Blues surrendered their former first overall pick, defenseman Erik Johnson and defensive center Jay McClement to the Avs for another emerging power forward Chris Stewart and rookie puck-moving defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, with draft picks exchanged as well (and you have to wonder if Neal's trade accelerated the trade of a similar player in Stewart).
As we mentioned last week, the Avs have the worst defense in the NHL, while the Blues offense needed some juicing up. But the shock for most observers was that the Blues would dispatch Johnson, who was hailed as the cornerstone of St. Louis's rebuilding program since his selection as the top pick in the 2006 entry draft, ahead of Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews, both of whom are crucial players for their respective clubs and who have since won the Stanley Cup.
After his rookie season, Johnson's knee was wrecked in a freak golf cart accident during the offseason and he subsequently became perceived as inconsistent. The Blues thought he was ready to make the jump and become the dominant blueliner that his potential suggested after he played as a U.S. Olympian last season, but defensemen can take a longer time to develop, and it hasn't yet happened for Johnson, who won't be 23 until next month. To get two young offensive players like Stewart, who led Colorado is goals last season, and Shattenkirk -- who has faded a bit after a strong start but is second in scoring among NHL rookie defensemen -- was going to require surrendering some talent.
The Blues were happier with the development of another of their recent draft picks, Alex Pietrangelo, who they took fourth overall in 2008. "When you get into that position, you go, 'Is there somebody out there we can get and really enhance a different need on our club, knowing that we can get something without killing us back there?'" Blues President John Davidson told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "You look at needs, and we need a power forward and scoring."
To spice up that transaction's aftermath, the two teams play each other tonight in St. Louis.
There will be more deals before the deadline, and while Duthie might have fears that his program will degenerate into song, his colleague Bob McKenzie last night on TSN (video) had a few observations on who is left and who still might be moved, and he's got his eye on the Kings, who have both the cap space and the assets to land a big forward or two. "The trade market right now is as hot and volatile as its been since the NHL lockout," McKenzie says.
For the moment, however, everyone still seems a bit dazed by all the pre-deadline activity, as the two newest Blues told Adrian Dater of The Denver Post. "You know, I really thought we had something special going on there. I thought they were supposed to be a team building with young players, and I thought me and Shatty were two good young players that they had," said Stewart, who scored twice in his Blues debut. "But I guess they had other ideas. I just thought the plan was different."
Shattenkirk added, "It's been pretty crazy the last few days, that's for sure."