Commentary

Did those deals work? We need more time to tell

Updated: April 10, 2008, 6:15 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

It was back in 1919 when they couldn't finish the final competition for the Stanley Cup, an incomplete conclusion to a process that at that time preceded the formation of the National Hockey League.

Flu forced cancellation of the finals between the Montreal Canadiens and the Seattle Metropolitans, Spanish flu to be exact, and it cost Canadiens star Bad Joe Hall his life. It was the only time the Cup wasn't awarded until 2005, when the NHL and NHL Players' Association couldn't break a collective-bargaining deadlock in time to save the season.

[+] EnlargeBrian Campbell
James Guillory/US PresswireTrade-deadline acquisition Brian Campbell helped the Sharks down the stretch, but will he also do it in the postseason?

Well, imagine if this season's NHL season ended today. No playoffs. No playoff beards. No Cup.

Maybe it would be because they decided to try and hold the Olympic torch relay through every NHL barn, and then figured out maybe that wouldn't work. Maybe it would be because of a wildcat goaltenders' strike after commissioner Gary Bettman ordered each of them to play with the identical equipment worn by Glenn Hall in the 1962-63 season. And no masks.

Perhaps the playoffs would be just another casualty of the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis, which has touched just about everything else.

If this imaginary scenario were the case, it would be pretty darn easy to assess the winners and losers of the Feb. 26 trade deadline based on the information gathered over the past six weeks.

After months of little trade activity, there was an explosion of transactions on deadline day, with 25 deals involving 45 players and 22 draft picks. Some major stars moved, while no-trade clauses blocked potential trades involving other high-profile players. Looking back, it's pretty clear two teams -- San Jose and Washington -- improved themselves immensely that day. The Sharks acquired defenseman Brian Campbell, and Capitals GM George McPhee managed to swing three deals to land goalie Cristobal Huet, center Sergei Fedorov and winger Matt Cooke.

The Sharks roared to a 16-2-2 finish down the stretch, winning the toughest division in hockey and making coach Ron Wilson look like a genius again. The Caps, meanwhile, stole the hearts of everyone in hockey with their dazzling push, winning their final seven and going 13-4-0 in the final weeks to capture the Southeast crown and home-ice advantage.

Moreover, Washington's finishing flourish cemented Alexander Ovechkin's status as the odds-on favorite to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player, ensuring the individual rivalry between Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby will continue for years to come.

Now, here's where our imaginary scenario comes into play.

See, if the season were over today, the success the Sharks and Caps have enjoyed in the wake of the trade deadline would undoubtedly inspire other clubs to be similarly aggressive and imaginative when it comes to future trading. The arrival of the salary-cap era and the inability of teams to move money around in deals have essentially choked the life out of the NHL trade market, which has traditionally been one of the livelier components of the industry and a way in which teams stuck in tight corners have -- or had -- been able to reconstruct rosters and generate new levels of fan interest.

These days, teams put together a squad in training camp, and other than a few little moves, generally go with that group come hell or high water. That strategy may promote stability, but it doesn't produce the kind of rumors and speculation and personnel activity that makes the league more interesting on a daily basis.

But the Sharks and Caps have demonstrated that big deals -- or a series of small deals -- can make all the difference. To a lesser extent, Pittsburgh might argue that the acquisition of Marian Hossa helped the team to grab its division title, although Hossa has yet to have a major individual impact.

This, however, is where the imaginary concept comes to a close.

After all, there are playoffs to be played, with playoff beards and all. Barring an outbreak of Spanish flu, the Cup will be awarded in June.

By then, what looks good now in reference to the deadline deals may have a completely different spin, while seemingly minor deals made that day may blossom over the coming weeks into transactions of major significance.

Anaheim GM Brian Burke, for example, loves to cite his team's acquisition of truculent winger Brad May at the 2007 trade deadline as a move that was mostly ignored at the time but ended up paying big dividends for the Ducks en route to the Stanley Cup championship.

This season, Burke actually made four deals on the final day, all of which were of the smaller variety. He traded winger Brandon Bochenski to Nashville for future considerations after picking up Bochenski earlier in the season, added goaltending insurance in J.S. Aubin in a small deal with L.A., and picked up a pair of defensemen, Marc-Andre Bergeron and Jay Leach, in swaps with the Islanders and Lightning, respectively.

Bergeron is the player who might add a little punch to the low-scoring Ducks, but the interesting part is Burke doesn't look back as having done much to his team. "If you trust the group you have, you don't tinker at the deadline," he said. "And I trust the group we have."

Perhaps one of those swaps will end up paying dividends for Anaheim. Similarly, the major acquisitions by the Sharks and Caps could look very different a few weeks from now depending on how the postseason progresses. Other teams could be affected as well.

For example, the Huet trade wasn't meant to benefit just the Caps. Montreal moved Huet to make room for rookie Carey Price to take over as the No. 1 keeper in that hockey-crazed city, and Price's start against Boston on Thursday night will mark his first NHL playoff experience.

Washington, meanwhile, didn't give up much to get those players, but expectations are now enormous in D.C. heading into the team's first-round matchup with Philly. Caps fans have grown used to the tease of seeing these blips of competitiveness only to watch the club fall back again.

In San Jose, the stakes are even higher as the Sharks face a potentially difficult first-round opponent in Calgary. Long touted as a team talented enough to win the Cup, the Sharks are now viewing Campbell's acquisition as the missing ingredient that will wash away several springs of playoff disappointment. But if the Flames can beat the Sharks, the move will be seen in a very different light, particularly since the Sharks gave up promising winger Steve Bernier and a 2008 first-rounder for Campbell; plus, the speedy blueliner is an unrestricted free agent in July.

Last spring, both Atlanta and Nashville went into the playoffs on a high note after the Thrashers had picked up Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik, while the Predators had acquired Peter Forsberg. However, both clubs went down in the first round, and in retrospect those deals are seen as costly, growth-hindering moves that mostly benefited the Flyers, who made huge steps forward by dealing away Zhitnik and Forsberg.

In contrast to the San Jose and Washington deals, the move by the Dallas Stars to pick up center Brad Richards from Tampa Bay has yet to produce major results for the team. Richards had five assists in his first Dallas appearance against Chicago, but he didn't produce a great deal after that and was essentially shut down for the final three games of the season to get him healthy and energized for a first-round collision with the Ducks.

The Stars got a backup goalie, Johan Holmqvist, in the deal, surrendering center Jeff Halpern, winger Jussi Jokinen, goalie Mike Smith and a 2009 fourth-rounder. But the major part of the deal was Dallas' willingness to take on three more years of Richards' cap-eating, $7.8 million-per-season contract. If the Stars can't get out of the first round again, and if Richards can't return to the form that once made him a playoff MVP, this could prove to be a burdensome deal indeed.

Like the Huet deal, there were consequences on the other end of the transaction. Tampa really bottomed out after moving Richards and, on Monday, ended up winning the NHL draft lottery and the presumed right to select Sarnia Sting junior star Steven Stamkos first overall in June.

Freed of Richards' contract, the Bolts may now be able to add Stamkos to Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to form a new Big Three in Tampa.

Pittsburgh's pickup of Hossa, meanwhile, will also be intriguing to watch, for hopes are soaring in Pennsylvania that the Pens may make a serious run this spring.

The Pens gave up a lot to acquire the unrestricted-free-agent-in-waiting, including the cap-friendly contracts of Colby Armstrong and Erik Christenson, top prospect Angelo Esposito and a 2008 first-rounder. Hossa, injured for part of his stay in Pittsburgh, produced just three goals in 12 games down the stretch, and it remains to be seen whether he'll be able to shake his reputation as a player who shrinks in the glare of postseason competition.

Interestingly, Senators coach Bryan Murray is using the heightened expectations in Pittsburgh created in part by the trade for Hossa as a tool to ramp up his team and add a layer of pressure for the Pens to overcome.

"Listening to the commentators, there's no doubt that [the Penguins] are expected to go to the conference finals at least and now they have to do it," Murray said. "That's the pressure we faced a couple of years ago. We went past the first round and didn't get beyond that ... I would think any team as highly favored as Pittsburgh is in this series has to feel some pressure."

Clearly, some deadline deals have yet to play themselves out. At the same time, the Caps probably wouldn't have made the postseason without their trio of trades. The same could have been the case if the Avalanche hadn't bolstered their defense with Adam Foote and Ruslan Salei on the final day. Detroit, meanwhile, needed Brad Stuart just to help them get past a time when their blue line was riddled with injuries; any help he can offer in the postseason would be considered gravy.

You can assess some of the deadline deals now, while others will take time to fully understand. By the time the Cup is awarded, the hockey world may be touting Ottawa's acquisition of sparkplug Martin Lapointe as the move that made the difference, or wondering what might have been if the Habs had hung on to Huet, or noting the difference Chris Simon made to the bulked-up Minnesota Wild.

If the season ended today, we'd only know part of the story.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.