AROUND THE RINK
By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com
The annual holiday season segues into the rumor season as far as NHL teams are concerned. This year's "season of the rumor" may arrive early with the trade deadline coming earlier than at any time in league history, Feb. 27.
Sadly, for those who love to imagine big, juicy trades, the earlier date, coupled with unprecedented parity and the restrictions imposed by the salary cap, might mean there will be far more smoke than fire in terms of player movement.
Last season, the NHL reported a record number of transactions at the March 9 deadline, 25 transactions involving 40 players. But most of those moves were depth moves with a heavy emphasis on adding defensive depth, and GMs told ESPN.com this week they believe it will be more difficult than ever for teams to make moves, especially significant moves at this season's deadline.
In the past, two factors played into the annual deadline trading frenzy.
The first factor was whether teams were out of playoff contention, and the second, how many players they had that were either overpaid or headed for free agency (or both).
Now, with so many teams in the hunt for the postseason, the early deadline might mean there are fewer sellers of talent. As of Friday morning, only Philadelphia was more than 10 points removed from the eighth and final seed in the East, while only Columbus and St. Louis were 10 or more points out of eighth in the West.
And then there are the myriad economic complications of dealing away pieces, especially expensive pieces, with 26 teams having payrolls between $38 million and $44 million. Last summer, for example, Tampa GM Jay Feaster could not afford home-grown, unrestricted free agent Pavel Kubina, who signed for $5 million a year in Toronto. Instead, he got Filip Kuba for $3 million a year. Kuba filled Kubina's hole on the blue line and Feaster had $2 million extra to play with. So, although Feaster didn't get anything tangible in return for Kubina, he did get cap space. "Cap space is a commodity in and of itself," Feaster said, just as defensive or goaltending depth is a commodity.
If more GMs come around to that way of thinking, there might be even fewer transactions, even as the trade deadline approaches.
So, if you're Phoenix GM Mike Barnett and you've got to decide what to do with Ladislav Nagy and Shane Doan, who are making a combined $6.4 million this season and will be looking for a collective $9 million to $10 million on the open market, are you better off by simply letting them go at the end of the season and using the money to restock on the free-agent market, or by acquiring some goaltending depth and young players at the trade deadline without taking on too much salary in the process?
"There's a lot more work that goes into it [than in the past]," admitted San Jose GM Doug Wilson, who pulled off last season's biggest trade in acquiring MVP Joe Thornton from Boston.
SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOE!
Not that Joe Nieuwendyk will have any trouble getting into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but if there was ever a Hall of Fame for character guys, Nieuwendyk would be a charter member. Although his final days in Florida, which came to an end with Nieuwendyk's retirement Wednesday, were marked by back troubles that simply could not match the big center's spirit, his career will be remembered for championships, superlative performances and the kind of leadership most teams only dream of having.
The native of Whitby, Ontario, won three championships with three different teams, one of only nine players to do so, and captured a Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP along the way. He was a member of two Canadian Olympic teams, including a gold-medal effort in 2002.
But he wasn't just a member of those teams, he was often the heart, spirit and even the conscience of those squads.
In 2003, while a member of the New Jersey Devils, Nieuwendyk broke down and wept in the Devils' training room when his chronic back ailments wouldn't allow him to play in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Ottawa. Devils coach Pat Burns relayed the scene to his players and they bounced back to win the series and the Cup.
When Nieuwendyk came to Toronto the next season, ostensibly to play with childhood friend Gary Roberts, he was part of a group that insisted players not read newspaper clippings or the game sheets in the dressing room. The notion was that it didn't matter what people were writing about you or how much ice time you had, it mattered only what the team was doing.
The Panthers might have overpaid for Nieuwendyk when they signed him to a two-year deal worth $4.5 million after the lockout, but they can still get their money's worth if they can somehow find a way to keep him in the fold and help pass along those qualities that will in a few short years land him in the Hall.
TRADE OR PROMOTE?
If indeed fewer players will be on the move in late February, then coaches will be under more pressure to make do with what they have and teams will face more pressure to develop their own talent, talent that could be called upon late in the season to help push a team into the playoffs or deep into the postseason tournament.
Look at the Buffalo Sabres, a team that made no significant moves at the deadline a season ago (and was roasted for it), but went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals relying heavily on call-ups from the AHL. Or Anaheim, which shed veteran salaries throughout the season and advanced to the Western Conference finals based in large part on the contributions of young players, many of whom spent time in the AHL during the season.
For owners looking to assess just how well their hockey folks are doing, the degree to which their teams can avoid the cost of making deadline deals and use their own talent is as good a benchmark as there is.