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Salary dump or playoff security?

2/21/2004

Rummaging through the latest National Hockey League transactions as trade season swings into high gear:

Feb. 18
OTTAWA -- Acquired right wing Peter Bondra from the Washington Capitals for center Brooks Laich and a second-round pick in the 2005 draft.

Look, it was a salary dump and everyone knows it, including Bondra. By moving Jaromir Jagr to the New York Rangers and Bondra to the Senators, Washington general manger George McPhee did what his boss charged him to do: restructure the team so it is less encumbered by salary obligations and can thrive in the next economic climate to sweep into the NHL whenever it arrives and in whatever form it takes.

McPhee did just that. And if there are any more deals coming out of Washington -- rumored on the block are defenseman Sergei Gonchar, goalie Olaf Kolzig and center Robert Lang -- McPhee said they would be hockey deals, not economic transactions. Translation: He'll want market value and players, prospects or draft picks that will help his team down the road.

None of which is a concern to the Senators.

You might argue -- and we have here before -- that the Senators might need an upgrade in goal before they address any other problems. But finding a goalie better than Patrick Lalime is pretty difficult to do this time of year, so the Sens opted to improve on a strength.

They are a team that can score goals, the numbers say they do it better than any team in the NHL, but goals are more difficult to come by during the playoffs. Bondra, who can score, as well, and sometimes as often as any player in the game, adds a weapon to the arsenal, making the Senators a more difficult team to defend against.

He also adds offensive depth. Center Radek Bonk is still out with a broken right foot and center Todd White sustained the same injury earlier this week. Chris Kelly, a young center/winger, is out with a knee injury. Both Bonk and White will be back for the playoffs, but Bondra helps now because he can play either wing and makes goals happen on his own.

The Sens also addressed -- at least partly -- a toughness issue by signing free-agent Rob Ray, who had been doing broadcast work for the Buffalo Sabres this season. There's some question as to whether or not Ray will play in coach Jacques Martin's system (he played all of 24:26 seconds over five regular-season games and didn't dress for a playoff game after Muckler acquired him at the trade deadline last season), but Muckler is an old-school guy who knows what it takes to win in the playoffs. To Muckler, having a guy, even if he's only hanging around in the locker room, who brings an aura of mental and physical toughness won't hurt, especially since he came for next to nothing.

Ottawa has been an elite team for a while now, but it has failed to find success in the playoffs in part because of a lack of physical and mental toughness and a lack of depth up the middle. The Sens' best chance to win the Stanley Cup might have been last season, but they failed to beat the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference final, despite playing Game 7 at home.

New owner Eugene Melnyk has told people in Ottawa that his Senators will be fully prepared this time around, meaning there might be more toughness coming, perhaps one more center and maybe even a defenseman.

There is a growing rumor that Muckler knows the clock is ticking both on this team and his time as general manager. Should he win it all, he likely would retire. Fiscally, the Senators still have a lot of problems, not the least of which will be keeping the team's core together beyond this season. It's not an all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach just yet, but then again Muckler isn't a kid. He's earned his retirement time and if the Cup isn't in Ottawa come June, he'll likely still want to take it.

FYI: The Sens are responsible for $1.2 million of Bondra's $4.5 million salary this season. Muckler told reporters in Ottawa that the Sens intend to pick up the option on the deal for next season. Saying they intend to do something isn't the same as actually doing it, so don't be shocked if Bondra turns out to be a rental.

Feb. 16
NASHVILLE -- Acquired right wing Steve Sullivan from the Chicago Blackhawks for 2004 and 2005 second-round draft picks.

Feb. 18
PHILADELPHIA -- acquired center Alexei Zhamnov and a 2004 fourth-round draft pick from the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Jim Vandermeer, center Colin Fraser and a 2004 second-round draft pick.

Hey, here's a surprise. This, too, was an economic move on the part of the Blackhawks, who folded their competitive tent a long time ago.

Sullivan was the Hawks' leading scorer this season, but the Hawks thought he was overpaid at $3 million per season. They offered him a three-year, $7.5 million extension, but when the restricted free agent turned it down, the Hawks decided to trade him. Interim GM Bob Pulford said he would have made a qualifying offer to Sullivan, but Pulford also was certain Sullivan would have filed for arbitration.

The thinking is very Chicago-like -- better to get draft picks now rather than face the prospect of waking away from an arbitration decision and lose the player for nothing. It makes economic sense, as well. Sullivan has comparables on his side and was reportedly planning to use Buffalo's Chris Drury as a benchmark. Drury makes $3.45 million this season.

Zhamnov was a different story. He's been beset with injuries over several seasons. When he's healthy, he's an elite player, but for a team in rebuilding mode, moving him now makes sense. It makes a special kind of sense when you consider Zhamnov, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, was looking for some $5 million per season to stay. As of now, that's the total amount the Hawks will have under contract after this season comes (mercifully) to an end.

The Flyers paid a price, sending young defenseman Jim Vandermeer, unsigned prospect Colin Fraser (a third-round pick in the 2003 draft) and a flip of picks with the Blackhawks, getting a fourth-rounder for a second in 2004.

As for the Predators, well, Sullivan is a good fit for a smallish team that must work extra hard to score goals off the wing. History shows that Sullivan needs a playmaking center to be at his best. Nashville has several of those, but the Preds would like to pair Sullivan with David Legwand, who could benefit from having a true finisher on his wing.

FYI: The Preds will be on the hook for the $800,000 remaining on Sullivan's contract. That's a lot for a cash-strapped franchise, but if Sullivan can impress on a regular basis, the Preds might draw enough fans through the remainder of the season and the playoffs (should they qualify) to make them consider keeping him.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, is simply buying insurance. There is concern that either Jeremy Roenick (broken jaw, concussion), Keith Primeau (concussion) or both might not return or be totally effective if they do. Zhamnov should prove to be an excellent pickup in that regard, and it's why the Flyers went to seemingly extreme lengths to outbid the Detroit Red Wings for Zhamnov's services. If the Flyers do get both players back, Zhamnov becomes a very talented depth player who can both create and execute offense -- providing he, too, can stay healthy.

FYI: The Flyers will have to pay the $1.2 million that's left on Zhamnov's $4.5 million contract, but their total payroll hit will be less due to the salaries of some of the players they've moved. By the way, in 1986 Chicago sent Roenick to Winnipeg (soon to be Phoenix) for none other than Alexei Zhamnov.

Hasek not making like a tree
There's an interesting situation developing in Detroit in the wake of Dominik Hasek's leaving the team. He hasn't actually left.

Sources tell ESPN.com that Hasek has been around the Red Wings locker room and Joe Louis Arena more now than when he was rehabilitating his injured groin. The odd behavior prompted general manger Ken Holland to say on his weekly radio show that if it continues it might become a distraction, and if that happens he'll take action to address it.

The proof is in the win
Islanders fans as well as certain members of the hockey department are looking to see of the team will show something of a killer instinct during its stretch run to a presumed playoff spot.

After Thursday's loss to the New York Rangers, which ended a five-game winning streak and extending the Islanders futility against the Rangers to 0-5 this season, the Isles are tied with Montreal for seventh place in the Eastern Conference playoff race, with only the Buffalo Sabres threatening at five points out. The Islanders play the Sabres in a four-point game on Saturday night, and a victory would go a long way toward showing people (including themselves) that they can win when it matters.

Since the Islanders ended a seven-game losing streak in November, they've gone 19-10-6-2. Subtract the five losses against the Rangers and all but one of the other five came against playoff-bound teams.

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