Buyers? Sellers? March 4 looms ...
Editor's note: Our weekly "Faceoff" features ESPN.com NHL writers Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Pierre LeBrun (based in Toronto), who duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Trades, trades, trades.
Scott Burnside: Bon jour, Pierre. Things in Montreal are particularly mal these days. That's French for bad or sick. You were full of praise for GM Bob Gainey when he sent underachieving forward Alexei Kovalev home instead of having him accompany the Montreal Canadiens on their trip to Washington and Pittsburgh. Think the GM had second thoughts when the Habs blew a third-period lead against the Capitals and then lost in a shootout Wednesday? More importantly, is Kovalev done in Montreal, and if so, what does Gainey do in terms of peddling the talented Russian? Inquiring minds want to know.
Pierre LeBrun: I doubt Gainey has had second thoughts since the Canadiens played their best game in two months Wednesday night. An amazing effort against a great team that never loses at home. And the Caps will be the first ones to tell you they stole that one. Great, great response from the Montreal players to Gainey's challenge.
But yes, there's still the issue with Kovalev. I think what you'll see is Gainey try and incorporate Kovalev back into the lineup and see what the mini-vacation has done. If Kovalev comes back strong, that gives Gainey a stronger asset to move or he can decide to keep him for the playoffs. If it was me, I would dump him. The coach has had enough of him. One team I would keep an eye on is Edmonton, if and when the Canadiens look to deal Kovalev. The Oilers took hard runs at Marian Hossa and Jaromir Jagr in the summer. They remain in dire need of that star-winger type. Kovalev fits the bill.
Burnside: Yes, I think once you go down this road, especially with a player as temperamental as Kovalev, you've got to walk away and take your lumps. The interesting thing is that Gainey should be able to get someone back to plug into his lineup. Maybe Erik Cole. As you noted, the Oilers have been looking for a big player for a long time and haven't quite done it. Here's the interesting thing -- the best fit might be Kovalev to Pittsburgh for a young defenseman, or even a player like Ryan Whitney; but does Gainey want to deal Kovalev within the conference, knowing he may end up facing the talented winger in April? Doubt it, but if it's the best deal, what do you do?
LeBrun: Well, if you're Pittsburgh, can you really gamble on a rental player at this point when the playoffs aren't a certainty? The team gave up a lot for a rental this past year in Hossa and that was a great deal, helping the Penguins reach the Cup finals. But in this case, it would take serious courage on GM Ray Shero's part to pick up Kovalev and then miss the playoffs.
I'm also curious to see what the Los Angeles Kings will do. They have cap room and they're surprising a lot of people. If they keep winning games and stay in the race, I think you'll see Kings GM Dean Lombardi try to add a significant forward to the group. Not only would such a move help the Kings' chances in the short-term, but it's the kind of thing that sends so much goodwill throughout that young dressing room. The message would be, "You guys earned this." Keep an eye on that.
Burnside: Yes, I still don't think the Kings are ready yet, but that would be interesting. And you didn't answer my question. If you're Gainey, do you avoid any Eastern Conference team? And what is Kovalev worth, given that he's going to be an unrestricted free agent in July? GMs are going to be extra cautious this season given no one knows what the salary cap is going to be after the 2009-10 season. A guy like Jay Bouwmeester may be attractive, but do you make a play for him not knowing if you can realistically afford him beyond the end of the playoffs?
LeBrun: OK, OK, relax! If I'm Gainey, I trade Kovalev to the West only. Last thing he needs is Kovalev knocking him out of the playoffs. As for Bouwmeester, I don't think it's that complicated, Scott. He's not going to sign with anyone. He's committed to July 1, in my mind, and why not? A 25-year-old star defenseman on the open market? Sure, we've got tough economic times and many free agents will feel the brunt of that this summer, but not Bouwmeester. There are few surer things right now in the game than spending long-term money on a young star like him, one who is only getting better.
So, if you're trading for Bouwmeester, and I think teams like Philadelphia and Calgary, among others, have interest in doing so, then you do it knowing he may just be a rental. So be it. The question is, what do you do if you're Florida GM Jacques Martin? His plan is only to move him if the package is right -- a defenseman and a forward that can play right now in order to help the playoff drive.
Burnside: I think you're right, my friend. As much as Gainey is beloved in Montreal, I think he's got a whole bunch of troubles ahead of him, and the last thing he can afford to do is have a guy he unloads coming back and eating his lunch in the playoffs. He botched the goaltending situation at last year's deadline and skated on that, but he's got a ton of free agents and a team in disarray and he's sent his most talented player home for a rest. As for Bouwmeester, you may be right, but you know Shero went after Hossa thinking he could keep him long-term. I don't think any team can afford to give up a first-rounder, a prospect and a position player, or something like that, and then watch him hit the road July 1. Got to think you're close, real close, before you make that deal, my friend.
LeBrun: One last point on Montreal, Scotty, and I think it keeps getting lost in the circus. They've got such a nice young stable of young talent. You look at Pacioretty and D'Agostini and look at the other prospects in the organization, and you realize that no matter what happens March 4 or July 1, there is a nice foundation there. Not many teams have that luxury. Great job by head scout Trevor Timmins. OK, enough Habs. What do you do if you're Colorado, big boy?
Burnside: Well, the Ryan Smyth rumors are interesting. He's got three more years left on his deal. The cap hit is $6.25 million, but the actual dollar payout is $5.5 million, so it might be palatable if, indeed, the Avs need to cut payroll. They're a team that has yet to recover from their pre-lockout spending excesses. Not much in the pipeline, but again, which teams can take on that kind of salary with a guy whose value is likely to diminish over the next couple of years given his age and the way he plays?
Still, he's a guy who can bring it. Is he a guy who helps the Kings get over the hump? Funny, but he'd look good in an Oilers uniform. Oh wait been there, done that. Jordan Leopold is another player who could be moved. He's never really become "the guy" the Avs thought they were getting when he was acquired from Calgary.
LeBrun: I would take Captain Canada on my team any day. Smyth still has lots left in the tank. I can tell you three GMs told me this week they would make the deal in a heartbeat. But, right now, Colorado is still waiting before finally waiving the white flag.
Then, you've got the Anaheim Ducks; what a fascinating tale they are. I stayed up Wednesday night and watched them lose to the rival Kings. Something is not right with their team chemistry right now. GM Bob Murray is in quite the pickle. Keep the old boys together for one more year or turn the page? New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello would love to bring Scott Niedermayer back. Of course, it would probably just be a rental since he's unrestricted July 1 and hasn't decided on his playing future. It's interesting to note Niedermayer does not have a no-trade clause in his deal, so he has little control over what happens.
Burnside: That is interesting and the Ducks have played way more games than the rest of the competition in the West, so they're hardly in control of their own destiny, unless, of course, they can start to string together some wins. Chris Pronger's name continues to come up, too, and he has one more year at $6.25 million. He's still a stud, and if any team pries him out of Anaheim, their playoff chances go up exponentially.
But you're right; Murray has a big decision ahead of him. He's got nice pieces in Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and maybe the rookie of the year in Bobby Ryan, but they're not a Cup contender right now. One more thing before we call it a day. What about Derek Morris in Phoenix or Olli Jokinen? The Coyotes are cooked, but the team is close. Can they afford to keep either of them?
LeBrun: Morris is gone. I'd be shocked if he wasn't dealt. He's unrestricted July 1 and I don't think the Coyotes plan on re-signing him. He's a nice consolation prize for playoff-bound teams who miss out on bigger names at defense. Jokinen is trickier. He's got another year left on his deal, so you don't have to move him. But he hasn't been nearly as good as the Coyotes had hoped. I think if GM Don Maloney gets a good offer, he'll look at it hard. But he's not desperate to move him. Ah we've only scratched the surface, my friend. Talk to you soon.
Burnside: Yes, for all the grief Jacques Martin takes (often from this quarter), he did a nice job in getting Keith Ballard to act as insurance in case Bouwmeester leaves. And it looks like the Panthers are playoff-bound without their former captain. Still, it'd be interesting at some point to see what Jokinen might actually do if he got to play in a postseason game. Until next time.
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.