Commentary

Early trades? GMs can't ignore deadlines past

Updated: January 21, 2008, 12:12 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Trade deadline season is a little like holiday shopping. If you're an NHL general manager, you can wait until the last minute before doing your player shopping and end up with the bargain of the year and a Stanley Cup ring in June.

Or you could find the cupboards bare and end up overpaying for an item you don't really want and roasting at the hands of media and fans.

Or you could get all your shopping done well in advance and sit around with your feet on your desk and fruity drink in hand while your colleagues spin themselves into circles trying to add that proverbial "missing link" as the minutes click down to the Feb. 26 deadline.

[+] EnlargeDoug Weight
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesWhen the Hurricanes picked up Doug Weight early in the 2006 trade-deadline season, they got a valuable playoff asset.

It seems we say it every season, but making deals in the new NHL is nigh on impossible, with most deals getting done within a few days of the trade deadline. But a quick glance at deals since the end of the lockout reveals the prudent GMs -- the ones whose teams get to play latest in the spring -- are often the ones that get in and get out before the real frenzy of offers and counteroffers begins.

On Jan. 26, 2006, Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe plucked veteran defenseman Jaroslav Spacek from Chicago, and Spacek became a horse for the Oilers as they advanced to within one game of a Stanley Cup that spring.

Spacek, along with Chris Pronger, were the anchors of the Oilers' power play throughout the playoffs and Spacek ate up huge minutes, averaging 25:53 a night during Edmonton's unexpected playoff run.

At the time of the deal, nary an eyebrow was raised, yet Lowe's pre-emptive strike put a key piece of the Oilers' playoff puzzle into place and was as important as his last-minute acquisition of netminder Dwayne Roloson.

Four days later, Carolina GM Jim Rutherford made a much bigger splash, nabbing top free-agent rental Doug Weight from the moribund St. Louis Blues.

Weight, one of the few centers available in the marketplace, had been the source of much rumor and speculation. Even though the Carolina Hurricanes were deep at center with Matt Cullen, Rod Brind'Amour and Eric Staal, Rutherford's quick action kept Weight from becoming a factor for other Eastern Conference teams like Ottawa.

Weight didn't have a dramatic impact on the Hurricanes, but his 16 points in 23 postseason games were yet another ingredient in Carolina's Stanley Cup stew. Getting Weight early also allowed Rutherford to concentrate on landing Mark Recchi after Erik Cole went down with a serious neck injury.

Last season, the last two teams standing (Ottawa and Anaheim) were among the quietest at trade-deadline time. But among the Sens' biggest moves was the early acquisition of center Mike Comrie from Phoenix on Jan. 3, 2007.

Comrie had 25 points in 41 regular-season games and had a strong series against Pittsburgh in the first round. Although he did slump during the rest of the playoffs (just six points in 20 games in all), Comrie did add the kind of secondary scoring that Cup hopefuls always covet at the deadline. And the fact he was in the Ottawa dressing room meant he didn't end up causing them grief somewhere else.

In all three cases, teams gave up relatively little. Spacek cost the Oilers Tony Salmelainen, who was later jettisoned by the Blackhawks; Weight was the most costly, bringing a first-round pick, two fourth-round selections, Mike Zigomanis, Jesse Boulerice and the rights to Magnus Kahnberg; Comrie was acquired for Russian forward Alexei Kaigorodov.

This season, GMs are expecting an already difficult trading market to be even more tortuous given the parity in the standings and the belief that this summer's draft will be the strongest in years.

It all adds even greater incentive to get their shopping done early.

Slap Shots


Ovechkin

Good week
The Washington Capitals continue to be one of the quietly surprising stories of the NHL season. Left for dead by Thanksgiving Day, when coach Glen Hanlon was fired, the Caps continue to hang around the edge of the East playoff picture under journeyman bench boss Bruce Boudreau. After downing Southeast Division foe Florida 5-3 on Saturday, Washington has now gathered points in 10 of their past 12 games. As of Sunday, the Caps were four points out of eighth place. More important, they are just three points out of first place in the weak-kneed Southeast Division with three games in hand on first-place Carolina. Atlanta is two points ahead of Washington, but has played three more games.

Much of the good work has been done without key offseason acquisition Michael Nylander, who is lost for the season with a shoulder injury. But rookie Nicklas Backstrom has emerged as a bona-fide Calder Trophy candidate and Alexander Ovechkin is vying for the league's goal-scoring lead with 36, one behind Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk. The big question for GM George McPhee, whose job may depend on making the playoffs, is whether to try to add scoring depth at the trade deadline and/or try to move veteran netminder Olaf Kolzig, who may still have value on the open market and is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.


Crosby
Bad week
Yes, we know it's a team game, but when Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby went down with a high ankle sprain Friday, the ramifications were significant. The Penguins had been red-hot leading up to Crosby's injury, closing in on first place in the Atlantic Division. Crosby also had moved into a dead heat with Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier for the NHL scoring lead. Now, Crosby will be lost indefinitely (a month seems to be the most optimistic guess as to when he'll return).

The coming weeks will provide real insight into the character of this team in Crosby's absence. Jordan Staal, suffering through a miserable sophomore season, will get a chance to step back into the fray, Evgeni Malkin will be tested (coach Michel Therrien met with Malkin before Saturday's game to reinforce that Malkin shouldn't try to do too much) and role players like Jeff Taffe and others will see their ice time increase. The absence of Crosby will also ramp up pressure on GM Ray Shero to make a move or two before the trade deadline. Or not. So far, so good: Taffe scored the winner in the Pens' 2-0 road win over Montreal on Saturday night.

Stuck in neutral
We don't quite understand the logic of having Cliff Fletcher come in to "clean house" with the Toronto Maple Leafs unless captain Mats Sundin has quietly agreed to waive his no-trade clause. Without the ability to move Sundin, the Leafs, who lost to New Jersey on Sunday to end a modest three-game winning streak, will remain unable to take advantage of their No. 1 asset. So Fletcher's hiring would seem to be moot. If Sundin is serious about his decision to go down with the good ship, Maple Leafs ownership would be better off letting current GM John Ferguson finish the season and trying to hire Rutherford, Detroit GM Ken Holland or Anaheim GM Brian Burke away from their respective teams. That's a better option than bringing in Fletcher, who last spring was fired from his last job with Phoenix, then one of the NHL's worst teams, largely because of the team's personnel moves.

Our top story lines of the week


Gaborik
1. Jacques Lemaire has always done things his own way as a coach, and having a Stanley Cup on your résumé (New Jersey, 1995) generally gives you a long leash. But one has to wonder how things will play out in Minnesota if the apparent acrimony between Lemaire and star Marian Gaborik goes unchecked. Essentially, Lemaire would like Gaborik to work harder, while Gaborik would like more freedom to showcase his considerable skills. Gaborik would certainly like more ice time. Among all NHL forwards, the talented Slovak ranked 82nd in average ice time as of Sunday. We've never coached an NHL team, we've never even played an NHL coach on television, but it seems a gross underutilization of talent to have a player like Gaborik on the ice just 18:37 a night. If Lemaire is making a point, fine; but this is a Wild team that has failed to win a playoff round since 2003 in front of the most loyal fans in the league. So far this season, Minnesota doesn't look much like a Cup contender as it sits sixth in the West, just 5-4-1 in its past 10 games.

2. With all due respect to Peter Forsberg, the onetime NHL superstar has become more apparition than viable NHL entity. Through no fault of his own, indeed in large part because Forsberg wants only to play at a high level, the level of anticipation about his return to the NHL seems destined to always outweigh his real impact at this stage of his career. The slick center is expected to return to the ice this week in Sweden to test out his wonky ankle. Reports suggest recent procedures might have finally solved Forsberg's problems, sending Forsberg-mania back into high gear. Last season, Nashville mortgaged a significant part of its future to acquire Forsberg from Philadelphia despite another injury-plagued season, and the Preds' playoff run lasted five games. Forsberg has not played competitive hockey since then. In his prime, Forsberg had the talent to instantly turn a pretender into a contender, but barring some sort of miraculous return to form, those days are long past, even if there will be no end to the drooling speculation between now and Feb. 26, when he will have to be signed in order to be eligible for the playoffs.

3. There is an interesting situation developing in Philadelphia, where the Flyers are red-hot (they are 10-1-1 in their past 12 games, including Sunday's 6-1 thrashing of conference-leading Ottawa), but have quietly moved to a platooning situation with their goaltending. If the playoffs started today, we would hazard a guess that coach John Stevens would go with former backup Antero Niittymaki as the starter over Martin Biron, who began the season as the Flyers' undisputed starter. Niittymaki, who got the start and win in the crucial matchup vs. Ottawa, has played in seven of the past 10 Flyers games and is undefeated in his past seven starts (6-0-1). And while we're talking about the Flyers, Stevens sure has something going with Scott Hartnell, who added another goal Sunday and now has 10 goals in his past seven games, including two hat tricks playing mostly with Steve Downie and Mike Richards. The former Nashville Predator had scored just three times in his first 27 games of the season.

4. The Buffalo Sabres, who have been one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL, are enduring a grisly stretch in which they have won just once in 12 games. (That one win was the 10-1 shellacking of Atlanta on Friday.) They were beaten 4-2 on Saturday by the woeful Maple Leafs and sat 12th in the conference, five points out of a playoff berth after Sunday's games. It all makes for some interesting discussions in the Sabres' front office between now and Feb. 26. This is a team that advanced to the past two Eastern Conference finals, but is now in danger of missing the playoffs and losing another key player to free agency. Defenseman Brian Campbell is set to become an unrestricted free agent in July and has told agent Larry Kelly to halt negotiations until the end of the season. GM Darcy Regier has said he won't move Campbell, but if the Sabres continue to flounder, how can he not move him? Having botched negotiations with Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and seen both co-captains walk away without getting anything in return last summer, Regier can hardly afford not to explore moving Campbell if he doesn't believe in his heart of hearts he can re-sign him in the offseason. With few defensemen believed to be available at the deadline, Campbell should garner top dollar if Regier goes that route.

5. The St. Louis Blues are still in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt, just five points out of the eighth and final spot. But their play of late suggests this is a team that may have hit the wall. The Blues are winless in their past four games (0-3-1) and have been outscored 21-10. Manny Legace, who will be in Atlanta as an All-Star this weekend, has had a couple of speed wobbles. The Blues' power play is last in the league and they've managed just four wins in their past 13 contests. All of which will make for some soul-searching for GM Larry Pleau and president John Davidson as the trade deadline nears. The team has enjoyed a surprising renaissance in terms of fan support, and the temptation to try to sneak into the playoffs by adding some veteran scoring will be strong. But if the team is committed to true rebuilding, they'll be looking more to shedding potential free agents, like former rookie of the year Barret Jackman and perhaps veteran defenseman Bryce Salvador.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.