Nothing that happens in the NHL occurs in a vacuum. In the salary cap environment, every contract and every trade has a ripple effect on future contracts and trades, and that might be even more true at trade deadline time.
The deadline is still a bit more than 24 hours away, but some off-ice events of the past few days are likely to have an effect on what transpires between now and Tuesday’s 3 p.m. deadline.
From a Washington standpoint, the most interesting development might be the four-year contract extension the Bruins lavished upon winger Marco Sturm. Boston re-signed Sturm to a four-year deal worth $14 million. Sturm is just a couple months younger than Washington center Dainius Zubrus, and the two players were taken just six choices apart (Zubrus went 15th to Philadelphia, and Sturm 21st to San Jose) in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft.
Zubrus has played 670 NHL games, totaling 134 goals and 352 points. He came into the league as a winger, but has played center the last few seasons. Zubrus has put together two straight 20-goal seasons and is on target for a second straight career year.
Like Zubrus, Sturm has exactly 20 goals this season. But he has 20 fewer assists and thus, 20 fewer points. He doesn’t have Zubrus’s versatility, either. In 659 NHL games, Sturm has totaled 171 goals and 348 points.
Aside from position, there are some similarities between the two players. If the Bruins paid Sturm $14 million for four years, shouldn’t the Caps be willing to pony up a similar amount to lock up Zubrus? Maybe not.
There are those (and I’m one of them) who will tell you the Bruins paid too much for Sturm. He’s a nice player, a good guy, and he’s put together five straight 20-goal seasons. That’s a good level of consistency. But when it’s all said and done, Sturm is a second line winger in the eyes of most. And if you pay a second line winger $3.5 million a year for four years, you still have five other top six forwards, a bunch of defensemen and probably a goaltender with their hands held out looking for similar money, if not more.
The Bruins have been more than willing to spend in recent seasons, doling out big money and long terms to the likes of Alexei Zhamnov, Dave Scatchard, Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. For all that spending, the Bruins finished four points ahead of Washington in the standings last season. They’re six points ahead of the Caps in the standings this season, with sagging hopes of a playoff berth.
There are any number of different ways to construct a team in this brave new salary cap environment, and we’ve seen several teams go off in several different fiscal directions over the past two seasons. Some have been successful, and some have not. When you have $48 million to spend (for argument’s sake, let’s assume that’s the Cap for next season), that means your average player can be paid about $2 million. And remember, you don’t want to spend right up to the cap. That’s proven to be a huge hindrance for several clubs in the last two seasons. Is Sturm really worth almost double what you would pay the “average” player? You can debate that, but I don’t think he is. To me, he’s worth somewhere closer to $3 million, maybe even less.
It’s not my money, and it’s in the eye of the beholder, as they say. But I’m guessing the Sturm deal isn’t going to make it any easier for the Caps to come to terms with Zubrus, who came to Washington at the trade deadline six years ago. After Sunday’s 3-2 loss to New Jersey, Zubrus was philosophical about his future.
“Yeah, it crosses your mind,” he said, when asked if he had thought that Sunday’s game might be his last as a Capital. “You have to be realistic. I don’t know if I did play my last game [for Washington], but it’s a good possibility that I did. We’ll see what happens. You think about it more between periods or before the next game. But during the game you’re focusing on that next shift and that next play. We’ll see what happens over the next couple of days.
“Honestly, I don’t want to talk too much about it. If it happens, it happens. If I go somewhere, I go somewhere. I’ve been traded before at the deadline. It wouldn’t be that new to me. It’s not in my hands now.”
Carolina’s deal for Anson Carter (the Canes sent a fifth-rounder to Columbus for the ex-Caps winger) was a good one for the defending Cup champs. I’m not sure why Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean could not extract more of a price from a team that is currently without two of its top six forwards (Erik Cole and Cory Stillman) because of injury. Had MacLean waited until Tuesday, he almost certainly would have done better. Like Boston, Columbus has not exactly proven to be a bastion of hockey wisdom in recent years.
Anaheim GM Brian Burke has been outspoken about the high prices being demanded by the “selling” GMs around the league, and he has been even more outspoken about how he’s not going to pay those prices. Over the weekend, Burke shipped defenseman Shane O’Brien (ostensibly the Ducks’ No. 5 defenseman) to Tampa Bay along with a third-round choice in exchange for goaltending prospect Gerald Coleman and a first-round choice. The betting is that Burke will use that first-rounder in a bid to upgrade his defense or add another forward before Tuesday’s deadline.
The thinking is similar in the Montreal-San Jose trade, where the Habs dealt blueliner Craig Rivet and a fifth-rounder to San Jose for defenseman Josh Gorges and a first-rounder. The Habs have been seeking a second line center for quite some time, and they had some depth on defense. With the first-rounder obtained from the Sharks, the Canadiens may become a player in a deal that will upgrade their forward ranks.
Rivet will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and the Sharks have a very green blueline. He will lend some veteran stability back there in San Jose the rest of the way.
Atlanta paid a hefty price for Keith Tkachuk (a first-, a second- and a third-round choice plus Glen Metropolit), and also did so for defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, who is on the books for $3.5 million for each of the next two seasons. Mired in a 2-7-2 slide, the Thrashers have the league’s worst record over that span. Atlanta was flying high early in the season, but has tumbled from the top spot in the Southeast. Thrashers GM Don Waddell must be feeling the heat. He guaranteed a playoff berth last season, only to watch his team fall short. If that were to happen again in 2006-07, he would likely pay the price with his job.
Tkachuk is a big winger who has been playing in the middle this season. With Steve Rucchin out because of a broken foot, the Thrashers having been muddling along with Eric Belanger (a recent acquisition from Nashville), Bobby Holik, Jim Slater and Niko Kapanen as their four centers lately. None of the four is a top six guy, and it could be argued that Rucchin no longer is, either. Tkachuk is going to have his hands full down in Atlanta. He doesn’t have much of a résumé as far as the postseason is concerned. Nearly a point-per-game player (911 points in 958 games) during the regular season throughout his NHL career, Tkachuk has 27 goals and 53 points in 81 postseason tilts. He is minus-16 in the playoffs, and has but one goal in his last dozen playoff games.
With the soon-to-be-35-year-old Tkachuk off the table, the contending clubs now turn their hungry eyes to the likes of the Blues’ Billy Guerin and Washington’s Zubrus. Although the New York Islanders are still in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff chase, they’re reportedly mulling offers from several Western clubs for All-Star winger Jason Blake, currently in the final year of his contract.
Detroit found the price for Tkachuk to be too costly. The Wings, Canucks and Ducks look to be the Western Conference teams with the most potential use/need for a player like Guerin or Zubrus. Dallas is fairly thick up the middle, but could certainly use some additional scoring punch. Minnesota is said to be looking for a center and a defenseman. Zubrus could be useful to the Wild, but Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough sounds like he is looking to make a “fine tune” type of deal more than a major move.
Out east, Buffalo has been banged up lately, and a sizeable center would not hurt, especially if concussed Chris Drury is expected to miss significant time. Montreal and Toronto are also thought to be sniffing around for additional top six forward upgrades. The Rangers have been in need of a second line center all season, but their playoff hopes are sagging like captain Jaromir Jagr’s shoulders. New York seems to be growing tired of Jagr’s act.
The Caps are likely to do most of their dealing with Western clubs, but Caps GM George McPhee has not ruled out making a move with an Eastern Conference rival.
With the likes of Guerin, Blake, Bryan Smolinski, Owen Nolan, Gary Roberts and others being bandied about, Zubrus seems to be beneath the radar of much of the North American hockey media for now. A quick scan of Monday’s morning papers in the 30 NHL cities did not turn his name up in association with any other clubs, but the Caps are finding that there is a good deal of interest in his services right now. If he and the Caps can’t come to terms in the next 24 hours, Zubrus is likely to have a new address. And he could provide a big push for a team with designs on a Stanley Cup title.
Some other noteworthy items:
Bryan’s Best — Former Caps coach Bryan Murray recently became just the fifth NHL bench boss ever to record 600 wins. The Ottawa Sun asked Murray to name the top five players he has ever coached in a career where he has been behind the benches in Washington, Detroit, Florida, Anaheim and Ottawa. The Caps heavy list is as follows: Steve Yzerman, Scott Stevens, Sergei Fedorov, Rod Langway and Bengt Gustafsson.
Skrastins Scratched — Avs defenseman Karlis Skrastins saw his NHL record (for a defenseman) 495-consecutive-games-played streak come to a half on Sunday when a knee injury forced him to the sidelines for Colorado’s game at Anaheim. Skrastins recently surpassed Hall of Fame defenseman Tim Horton, who had set the standard at 482 consecutive games played nearly four decades ago.