Friday, February 24, 2012
Debate: Who's under the gun?
By Scott Burnside
We spoke to a number of NHL general managers this week about the strategy of the trade deadline, and invariably they invoked either a chess or poker analogy. When is the right time to sweeten an offer? When is the right time to lay low and hope the price goes down for a player? What is the risk that by waiting you miss out on an asset you’d like to add? If you’re asking for too much, do you risk holding on to a player whom you know will be walking out the door July 1 as a free agent or doesn’t fit your long-term plans? When is it better to keep a player than to take draft picks or prospects?
Carolina, for instance, figured it would take too long to restock its shelves with Tim Gleason and Tuomo Ruutu, so it signed both to extensions, much to the chagrin of about 20 GMs who would have liked to have taken a run at either player. Edmonton is reportedly exploring a similar path with Ales Hemsky, who adds offense but has many shortcomings. Of course, the acquisition of Jeff Carter by the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night means one of the few big dominoes has fallen -- Carter’s former teammate, Columbus captain Rick Nash, remains the other -- but the ripple effect means that another useful player in L.A. Kings captain Dustin Brown is available, although at a premium. It’s believed the Kings would be looking for a young defenseman and a forward in return for Brown’s services. For teams that had been looking at Ruutu as a forward who could play up and down the lineup and has some edge, Brown becomes a more-than-suitable Plan B.
The bottom line is that with Philadelphia and Nashville adding key defensive parts and Los Angeles and Phoenix -- which acquired Antoine Vermette earlier this week -- bulking up offensively squeezes the vise ever tighter, with the clock ticking toward 3 p.m. ET Monday. Here’s a look at the teams feeling the heat to make a move.
Chicago Blackhawks: The Hawks had a four-game winning streak stopped by suddenly surging Dallas on Thursday night. And while the nine-game winless streak that threatened to sink the Blackhawks’ season seems a thing of the past, there is more than a little pressure on GM Stan Bowman to get defensive help. But where? Sheldon Souray’s Stars are now a playoff team, at least temporarily, so that would suggest GM Joe Nieuwendyk will have to be bowled over with an offer to move the big defenseman, who will become an unrestricted free agent this summer. There’s also Marek Zidlicky, whose pointed criticism of head coach Mike Yeo after being a healthy scratch recently suggests he would be available. Earlier rumors had Zidlicky going to New Jersey, and he might not represent the toughness Bowman would like to add. Roman Hamrlik has been a disaster in Washington this season and he shot back at head coach Dale Hunter after Hunter benched the veteran defenseman during a recent loss, so he might be available. As recently as 2010, Hamrlik was a big part of Montreal’s surprise run to the Eastern Conference final and could help eat up minutes for the Blackhawks. It’s also believed Chicago had interest in Ruutu and would like to add a little sand to a potent offensive group. Hard to imagine the Kings would make a deal within the conference, so don’t imagine Brown will be an option there.
New York Rangers: The Rangers have been keen to add a top-six forward and have been linked to the Rick Nash sweepstakes for some time now. But the issue of how disruptive such a move would be to a tight unit that continues to lead the Eastern Conference is a major consideration. As it should be. Still, expect the Nash-to-New York discussions to continue through the weekend. The Rangers need to get a deal done sooner rather than later, though, to ensure that they have time to move to Plan B, and with Brown now available, the cost would be significantly less and thus the disruption to the Rangers’ every-day roster minimized. But does Brown represent a big enough impact, given that he has struggled offensively (name a King who hasn’t), with just 15 goals and two more years on a contract that carries a $3.175 million cap hit? Andrei Kostitsyn is another potential option, assuming the Habs would like to move the mercurial forward off the books. Hemsky, if he can’t be signed in short order by Edmonton, would also be an option for GM Glen Sather.
Boston Bruins: Brown is of significant interest to the defending Stanley Cup champs given that they are missing forwards Rich Peverley and Nathan Horton, and GM Peter Chiarelli would like a guy who can do a number of different things for Claude Julien. Brown would also seem to represent the right personality for the Bruins. If Chiarelli wasn’t too concerned about offense, i.e., if he’s confident that both Peverley and Horton will be ready for the postseason, veteran checking center Samuel Pahlsson, who won a Cup in Anaheim, would be a fit, as would Pahlsson’s former Anaheim teammate Travis Moen, who is in Montreal. Steve Ott would be another interesting piece, although the abrasive Dallas forward would fall into the same category as teammates Mike Ribeiro and Souray as nonstarters considering the team's current position in the West.
Toronto Maple Leafs: With each passing day -- and each loss -- the Maple Leafs look less like a playoff team and more like the Leafs that have missed the playoffs every season since the lockout. They have one win in their last eight outings after dropping a 2-1 decision to San Jose at home Thursday night. Lots of nights it’s been the goaltending, but GM Brian Burke has to be looking at all areas in terms of making additions to boost his team back into the top eight in the Eastern Conference. Brown is definitely on the Leafs’ radar, and there is always Rick Nash, although it seems doubtful the Leafs have the necessary ingredients to pry the Blue Jackets captain out of Columbus. The goaltending market remains fuzzy, with the New York Islanders discussing a contract discussion for Evgeni Nabokov and the rest of the potential goaltending field dotted with backups who might not represent a significant upgrade over the Leafs’ current tandem of James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson. At this point, Burke has to assess whether it’s worth giving up young assets for a team that has too many holes to be a contender and wait until the offseason to continue to move this team forward.
San Jose Sharks: When Carter went to Los Angeles, it significantly narrowed the field of suitors for Nash, with the Sharks still believed to be in the hunt for the big winger. The Sharks’ victory over Toronto was their first in five games and they look like a team that needs a shot of something if they’re going to hang on to the top spot in the Pacific Division (Phoenix is tied with them in points but has played two more games). Would the Sharks give up rookie-of-the-year nominee Logan Couture to secure Nash? If that’s what it would take to land Nash, then forget it. Like the Rangers, the Sharks have to consider the long-term impact on their roster of going after Nash and whether the risk is worth the potential reward. No chance Brown gets dealt within the division, so GM Doug Wilson would have to look elsewhere if Nash isn’t an option.