Trades are a rare and strange bird this season in the NHL, but they’re always a little on the strange side anyway. Fans don’t want to see their favorite players traded away, but I’m convinced that even the fans of teams that seem to have it all (relatively speaking, of course) like to see the occasional infusion of new blood in their lineup, a new guy or two in one of their sweaters. It’s something new, something different. A change. New curtains, a rearrangement of the furniture, if you will. But the NHL’s post-lockout salary cap environment has had a depressive effect on in-season trading in the circuit.
The salary cap stands at $44 million this season, and about two-thirds of the teams in the league were over $40 million to start out the season. I guess $44 million isn’t enough money to put together the perfect team, because even the teams that are in the upper echelon of the standings and pushing up against the cap seem to have holes they’re looking to patch.
Out west, the Nashville Predators have the best record in the Western Conference and the NHL as I type this. They’ve also made two trades in the last week. The first was to send center Josef Vasicek back from whence he came, to Carolina, in exchange for center Eric Belanger. A day later, the Preds shipped Belanger to Atlanta for defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski. (Maybe the Canes wouldn’t directly deal Belanger, now with his fourth team since the start of the season, to division rival Atlanta. Vishnevski is getting some frequent flier miles too; the Preds are his third team since last September.)
“With Vishnevski, we are adding a big, strong, physical defenseman with over 400 NHL games of experience and two deep runs into the post-season,” said Nashville GM David Poile. “We have been carrying 15 forwards on the roster for most of the season. This gives us some veteran depth on the blue line and gives our roster more balance.”
So even the best team in the league needed a burly blueliner and some balance. Anaheim, which got off to such a strong start but which has faded of late, has been blanked in three of its last five games. The Ducks are running second in the Western standings, but they’re only a point ahead of San Jose and three in front of Dallas (which just forked over a first-rounder to Phoenix for Ladislav Nagy) for the top spot in the Pacific Division. Anaheim’s payroll is around $40 million, but owndership has improved an increase if Anaheim GM Brian Burke can find something to his liking. So far, that’s not the case.
“We’re working the phones frantically and we’re kicking tires,” Burke said in a Thursday LA Times story. “So far, no one has made an offer that works for us.”
Anaheim is 5-11-2 in its last 18 games. The Ducks are 0-for-21 on the power play in their last five. It’s a wonder Burke isn’t slitting tires instead of kicking them.
Vancouver leads the Northwest Division, but has scored the fewest goals (147) of any of the teams currently in the playoff picture. (The Canucks are actually tied with Dallas for that distinction, but as noted above, the Stars have made a move to address that deficiency.) Only four teams outside the playoff picture have fewer goals than the Canucks. Vancouver may lack goals, but it has Roberto Luongo between its own pipes.
In the Western Conference, it’s all about goals against. New Jersey has allowed the fewest goals (129) in the league this season, but the top eight teams in the Western Conference standings all rank in the 2-9 spots in goals against, and those eight teams are tightly bunched between 138 (Dallas) goals against and 146 (Minnesota). How remarkable is that?
Of the seven teams on the outside looking in on the Western playoff chase, Edmonton (163) has allowed the fewest goals. They’re 14th in the league but ninth in the West in that department. The Oilers have been desperate for a defensive upgrade all season, but have been unable to convert their surplus of scoring forwards into blueline help. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “The hour is getting late.” The Oilers are seven points back of the last playoff berth with 25 games to go.
Edmonton might be the only team with a ghost of a chance at cracking the current top eight in the West. Colorado is nine points out, and the other Western clubs (St. Louis, Phoenix, Chicago, Columbus and Los Angeles) are all carcasses waiting to be picked over by contending clubs. Phoenix and Los Angeles have already made the painful decision to “sell,” and after a quick look in the mirror, the others will be soon to follow.
Out here in the East, it’s possible to give up goals by the truckload (Atlanta, Carolina, Tampa Bay and, until recently, Pittsburgh) and still be firmly in the playoff picture. The Thrashers have allowed the 25th highest total of goals (186) in the league this season. Carolina ranks 22nd and Tampa Bay 20th in that department. It’s a bit odd that Atlanta would be moving a defenseman (Vishnevski) for a center (Belanger) at this stage of the season, but hey, the Thrashers are pretty thin up the middle, too.
While the top eight teams in the West seem to have separated themselves from the pack (if not from each other), there is still a lot of uncertainty in the Eastern Conference. Between the three clubs (Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Ottawa) tied for third place and the 14th place Capitals, only 15 points separate a dozen teams. Eighth place Montreal is as close to third place as it is to 11th. The 11th place Rangers are as close to 14th as they are to eighth. It’s all very fluid and can change in the course of one night’s league activity. The 2005-06 San Jose Sharks were 10th points out of the final Western Conference playoff berth at the trading deadline. The Sharks went 16-4-2 in their last 22 games, climbing all the way to fifth in the West. No one is forgetting that.
It could be that the bottom teams in the West will serve as the “fuel” for the top teams in the East in terms of the trading deadline. Only the Philadelphia Flyers are truly out of it in the East, though Boston has recently made moves that paint it as a seller. The needs of the Eastern teams are similar from club to club, and the group isn’t likely to want to trade with each other, help each other. The “help” is likely to wind up coming from the West instead.
Even the best teams will always be trying to get better. The more you watch, the more flaws you see. The trick is in determining which flaws are real and which are imagined. And then the trick is prioritizing the patches, and not “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” as they say.
How do you build the perfect $44 million hockey team? By drafting astutely and signing the odd free agent here and there to fill holes that can’t be filled from within the organization. The more drafted players you have in your lineup, the lower your payroll will be and the more money you will have to spend on players from outside the organization.
With only a third of the season remaining, the shackles will continue to loosen on the near-dormant NHL trade market. The hit to a team’s salary cap at this stage of the season is minimal, and even those clubs rubbing up against the salary cap ceiling will likely have enough wiggle room to make minor deals for depth and such. The deals have started trickling in since the All-Star break. They’ll likely start flowing even more freely as Feb. 27 creeps closer.
Only 12 shopping days remain.