Commentary

Cautious? Most GMs will be too tempted by Feb. 26 deadline

Updated: February 18, 2008, 7:30 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NAPLES, Fla. -- The average American household with at least one credit card is about $10,000 in debt. Why? Because we are a society of consumers. We like things. The more things, the better.

NHL GMs are no different. No matter how often they talk about being cautious at trade deadline time, no matter how often they cite the need to protect their draft picks and prospects, GMs across the NHL will start to feel their eyes glaze over and begin to chant "Buy, buy, buy" in their best Fred Flintstone voice as the clock ticks down toward 3 p.m. ET on Feb. 26.

Earlier this week, we heard Detroit GM Ken Holland give the company line on deadline behavior.

"If you don't have those players through the draft, through development, where do you get them? … I think teams are going to have to make harder decisions about trading first-round picks and real good prospects," Holland said. "I'm not saying it's not going to happen. But I think as we go along here, [trades are] going to be harder and harder to do just because of the way the CBA is starting to flush itself out now."

It's the logical way to look at team-building.

But sometimes team-building runs into the thing that drives them all: winning the big prize. And the trade deadline is like a shop laden with the kinds of glittery things that make winning the big prize more likely and probable.

Even if history tells us that for every Doug Weight-to-Carolina or Dwayne Roloson-to-Edmonton deal that sparks a long playoff run or championship finish, there are a dozen deals like Peter Forsberg-to-Nashville, Bill Guerin-to-San Jose, Keith Tkachuk-to-Atlanta and Ryan Smyth-to-Long Island that yield only regret.

GMs will still dig deep every February for picks and prospects in the hopes their purchase will be the one, true, missing piece to the puzzle.

Even Holland, regarded as one of the top GMs in the game, has been guilty of giving in to the "buy" mantra that echoes across the NHL landscape at this time of year. Thinking he needed some toughness for the playoffs, Holland last season gave up prospect Shawn Matthias and a second-round pick to Florida for Todd Bertuzzi, who played just a handful of games. The Wings advanced to the Western Conference finals, but Bertuzzi was a non-factor. Meanwhile, Mattias has turned into the kind of nicely developing player Holland has made his career on finding and nurturing in Detroit.

As Atlanta GM Don Waddell pointed out, it only takes one team to start the process.

When the Senators acquired Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore to shore up an already elite team, you can't say Montreal GM Bob Gainey didn't gave his own lineup a real hard look to see where he might want to add a piece. You can also be sure Lou Lamoriello, whose Devils were handled with surprising ease by the Senators in the second round of last season's playoffs, took note and ramped up his efforts to improve the Devils.

In the West, Anaheim, Detroit, Dallas and San Jose, the big boys of the conference, may preach caution; but given the way the standings will shake out, at least one won't be around at the end of the first round.

"So all it takes is one team to want to do something and that usually sparks other teams to try to match or stay even with them," Waddell said. "I won't be surprised if there's deals made again this year that come with a very high price. And the price for a lot of these teams is what success they end up having. It won't be measured at the time the trade is made. It's obviously measured once the season is over."

It's not just keeping pace that drives this consumerism. There are many influences, from trying to keep one's job to assuaging fans and media to give the appearance that you're doing something.

What does Doug Wilson do in San Jose? Last season, he bit hard on Guerin and Craig Rivet and the Sharks were still ousted in the second round. If Wilson stays quiet and the Sharks again bow out early, he'll always wonder if he should have made a deal to bring in Brian Campbell or Rob Blake to shore up his blue line. And if he doesn't wonder about the moves he might have made, the media and fans will wonder for him.

That's why these next three days in Naples are so fascinating.

One GM told ESPN.com these meetings are crucial to figuring out what exactly is out there in terms of moving a top asset and finding one for his lineup. You can work the phones all you want, but these meetings will be where the seeds for many deals will be planted.

"That's where the deals get traction," he said.

Shoppers, start your engines.

Slap shots


McCarty

Good week
Darren McCarty, at one time the most famous grinder in hockey, is taking positive steps toward resuming his NHL career. After battling alcohol and marijuana dependency not to mention bankruptcy, McCarty scored a hat trick Saturday night for the Detroit Red Wings' AHL team in Grand Rapids. McCarty, who is working to repair his family life as well as his hockey career, needs to sign an NHL contract by the Feb. 26 trade deadline to be eligible for the playoffs. The Red Wings, who would like a little more snarl up front, are taking a good, long look. If the Wings bring back McCarty and acquire Sergei Fedorov (they are rumored to have interested in the veteran forward), it would be like old-home week at Joe Louis Arena.

Bad week
There was more than a little bad news this past week, including Richard Zednik's horrifying accident and the monster loss of Carolina captain Rod Brind'Amour for the rest of the season (torn ACL). But the most curious news had to be the brouhaha involving Montreal forward Tom Kostopoulos and rookie Ryan O'Byrne after they were arrested outside a Tampa, Fla., nightclub at about 3 a.m. for allegedly stealing a woman's purse. The tab for the rookie dinner, which preceded the altercation (presumably by many hours), must have been a whopper. Predictably, the incident prompted stories quoting former Montreal greats saying younger players have lost respect for the bleu, blanc et rouge.

Stuck in neutral
As much as this week's meetings in Naples are bound to generate significant trade discussion (and, who knows, maybe even a trade or two), one of the obstacles to most significant deals remains the Forsberg Factor. One GM told ESPN.com this week that discussion of moving top players is almost always predicated by the comment, "I want to wait and see what happens with Peter Forsberg." The Swedish star is readying himself for a return to the NHL and could reveal his decision by as early as Tuesday.

An unrestricted free agent, he can land where he wants. Many people believe Philadelphia is a front-runner to reacquire the talented center, who endured two less-than-stellar seasons there after the lockout before being dealt to Nashville at last season's deadline. But teams like Vancouver, Ottawa, Colorado, Anaheim and others, who would love to lock up Forsberg because it would cost them only money, will wait as long as possible before looking elsewhere for help.

It's believed that any discussion of a deal for Toronto captain Mats Sundin will be made after Forsberg signs. Marian Hossa's destination (if Waddell decides to move Atlanta's talented winger) would also be influenced by where Forsberg signs. The theory is a team that's going to lock into Forsberg isn't likely going to give up significant assets to then acquire Hossa.

Our top story lines of the week


Blake

1. One of the obvious sellers in the trade marketplace will be the Los Angeles Kings. They're almost certainly going to be a draft lottery team and entered play Monday with 53 points. But the team's play over the past month suggests GM Dean Lombardi isn't off target with his rebuilding plans. Saturday's 4-3 loss to Phoenix marked just the sixth regulation loss in the past 17 games for the youthful Kings. This stretch included wins over playoff-caliber teams like Calgary, the New York Rangers, Detroit, Anaheim and Vancouver. The team still lacks a bona fide starting netminder, but Lombardi will be fielding requests for the services of veteran Rob Blake (who can be expected to stay in the West), Ladislav Nagy, Derek Armstrong, Michal Handzus and Brad Stuart. We say here that, a year from now, Lombardi will have crossed the floor from seller to buyer.

2. One of the more contentious topics expected to get an airing in Naples is the issue of supplemental discipline. GMs have quietly been wondering about the process by which the league hands out discipline after monster suspensions to Philadelphia's Steve Downie (20 games for his hit on Ottawa's Dean McAmmond) and Jesse Boulerice (25 games for his cross-check to Vancouver's Ryan Kesler); but other dangerous hits were followed up by lesser suspensions.

The issue of whether a player deserves to be suspended, not just for the act, but for the result, remains very much out of focus. Randy Jones of the Flyers was suspended two games for his hit from behind on Boston's Patrice Bergeron, yet Bergeron was lost for the season. Vancouver's Mattias Ohlund broke Mikko Koivu's leg with a vicious slash; Koivu missed 24 games, yet Ohlund was suspended for just four. Whether the league should move to some sort of panel to determine discipline or impose some sort of standard for types of behavior, there is momentum to change the status quo. As one GM told ESPN.com, the current system, in which NHL discipline czar Campbell reports from on high and criticism of his decisions is strongly discouraged, is "like the Star Chamber."

3. The GMs will be visited by three commissioners of NCAA hockey leagues -- Joe Bertagna of Hockey East, Bruce McLeod of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and Tom Anastos of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. The chance to address the GMs marks a first for college hockey leaders, who have been meeting with league officials for six years now to discuss issues related to marketing, television and scheduling. This meeting, however, will carry a bit more of an edge as the commissioners will be discussing Division I players leaving school early.

Bertagna told ESPN.com this week that, before the lockout, about 10 players left college ahead of schedule. Last year, he said there were 30. The number reflects the growing trend of NHL teams heavily scouting American colleges because they are seen as a resource for players that fit nicely into the salary-cap system. Anaheim, for instance, boasted three prominent undrafted college free agents on their Stanley Cup squad last spring: Dustin Penner, Chris Kunitz and Andy McDonald.

Some NCAA coaches are concerned because some players are signing contracts only to end up in the East Coast Hockey League or other minor pro leagues when their development might have been better served staying in school. There is also the issue of coaches losing scholarship players in the summer after recruiting them. Unlike major junior and European leagues, the NHL and NCAA have never had a written policy governing the relationship between the two entities. One isn't expected to come out of this meeting, but Bertagna said it's a good opportunity for the commissioners to discuss their issues with the teams most interested in their players.

4. There will always be significant movement at the trade deadline. It's the nature of the beast. But the current collective bargaining agreement has made significant trades as rare as a Maple Leafs playoff run. Anaheim GM Brian Burke has long advocated being able to eat a portion of a player's salary if he can find a trading partner, a condition that would help teams move players they don't want, get players into better situations and create more buzz about the league.

There is significant support among GMs to move to a more liberal system so teams can move players without having to put them on waivers first to only see them claimed by another team on re-entry. That happened earlier this season with Sergei Samsonov in Chicago, Mark Recchi in Pittsburgh and Ilya Bryzgalov in Anaheim. All three have gone on to play important roles in Carolina, Atlanta and Phoenix, respectively. "We have to embarrass the player to [move his salary]," one GM said. GMs are expected to discuss the issue again this week. With the continued support of the NHL Players' Association, a change could be in place for next season.

5. The Naples meetings will feature more "small group" discussions, in which GMs break into groups to tackle issues before reporting back to the whole group. Among the issues the small groups will debate is to further reduce goaltenders' equipment. There is only limited support for dramatic changes to increase scoring, like bigger nets, but there is, in general, a belief the league needs to keep working to maximize offense. Thus, goalies are likely in line for another slim-down. The belief, shared even by some goaltenders like Marty Turco, who is a member of the competition committee, is there is room to further reduce the size of equipment without compromising safety.

There are some GMs (and no doubt many goaltenders) who would like to see restrictions removed on where goalies can play the puck. The trapezoid, introduced after the lockout, hasn't created the kind of offense expected. One GM said he thinks reducing the trapezoid frees the ice of more lines that American audiences find confusing. Plus, he said, if the goalie's in the corner playing the puck, something exciting is going to happen. Another GM said he'd like to see the game streamlined with shorter or fewer commercial breaks because they disrupt the rhythm of the game. The GMs will also get a report from the NHL's medical staff outlining minimum standards for equipment and personnel. Ice conditions and no-touch icing will also be discussed.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.