Tampa wins deal now, Columbus later

Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean may have spent too much too soon in an effort to qualify for the playoffs.

Updated: January 27, 2004, 8:46 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

It wasn't more than two weeks ago when Columbus Blue Jackets general manger Doug MacLean said on his weekly radio show that he was "burning up the phone lines" looking to make deals for his hockey club.

The general perception at the time was that MacLean was upset that his team had pretty much turned on him, forcing him to resign as head coach and retreat to the GM's office. MacLean's response was taken as a not-so-veiled threat that the veterans behind his ousting would pay.

It's both an interesting and plausible scenario, but the deal Tuesday that sent veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor and a fourth-round draft pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning for center Alexander Svitov and a third rounder wasn't about retaliation. It was about dumping a contract, moving a veteran to a playoff team and getting a young forward with some size who comes cheap and has definite upside potential.

In short, a hockey deal in the classic have, have-not mold.

The Blue Jackets, who went on a free-agent spending spree during the offseason, are all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The Lightning are in the midst of a tight race for a berth.

The Lightning pretty much need to win the Southeast Division outright to assure themselves one of the eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference and the home-ice advantage that comes with it. If they don't, they'll be in a no-holds-barred street fight with six to eight other teams to qualify. Creating more room between themselves, the Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers is the best -- and less draining -- route to the postseason. Acquiring a mobile, veteran defenseman with Stanley Cup playoff experience and a Stanley Cup ring (Dallas, 1999) should help make that happen.

The Lightning also get a break in that Sydor, who makes about $3.5 million this season, has had more than half of his paycheck already paid by the Blue Jackets. Over the next three years, Sydor is due $8.8 million in a cap-friendly, decelerating deal that pays him $3.2 million next season, and $2.8 million each of the following seasons.

But the Blue Jackets get a lot here, too. For starters, Svitov comes cheap. He was on the outs in Tampa after having several run-ins with coach John Tortorella because of his perceived lack of intensity. He even spent part of this season in the American Hockey League after being sent down with an admonishment from Tortorella that he "rot" there.

Not a good sign.

Still, one coach's problem is often another coach's salvation, and Svitov comes with impressive credentials. For one, he was the third player taken in the 2001 draft, he made an immediate impact in the NHL, and he was selected to play in the NHL's YoungStars game last season. While he showed maturity problems, Svitov is young (at 21 he's 10 years younger than Sydor), has size (6-foot-3, 217 pounds), has showed a scorer's touch as a junior playing for Russia and can bring a physical element to a team when he's in the mood.

That was seldom the case in Tampa, but a taste of the minors can be a revelation to young players, especially a young European player who is still learning exactly what's expected of him in the NHL.

"Adding a big physical forward who is just 21 years of age fills a need for our franchise because it's an area where we don't have a lot of depth," said MacLean in a prepared statement.

With Svitov at center and recently arrived Nikolai Zherdev on the right, the Blue Jackets are a better team up front. That will take at least some of the scoring pressure off their best known young star, Rick Nash.

Svitov still has to prove he can play up to his potential, and if he does, the Blue Jackets could win this trade down the road. He's big, he's strong, he's talented, he's young, and he comes for a whole lot less than Sydor. He was also behind two entrenched centers in Tampa -- Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards -- another reason for Tampa to make the move.

The Lightning, however did themselves right by this deal and, in the short term, they win hands down.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

ALSO SEE