Print and Go Back NHL [Print without images]

Monday, February 6, 2006
This time, there's more to consider around deadline

Keith Tkachuk
Read the columns and the blogs and the rumor mongers, and you'd think there would be 100 NHL players on the move between now and the March 9 trade deadline.

Sadly, for those fans who plan to book the day off to track the onslaught of deals, it's not likely to happen.

Oh, there'll be lots of tire kicking and exploratory talks and a thousand crumpled pieces of paper that day as GMs work out exactly what their cap room is. But in truth, GMs around the league say they expect the trade period to be pretty quiet.

Here's why.

First is the aforementioned salary cap. In the past, the only thing stopping a team from making a deal to strengthen its Stanley Cup hopes or simply get into the playoffs was an owner's saying, "You want to do what with my money?"

It's why the Maple Leafs could bankrupt their future by bringing in Doug Gilmour, Brian Leetch, Phil Housley, Glen Wesley, Owen Nolan and Ron Francis in recent trade deadline deals without flinching.

Now, every GM has to sit down and ask himself the same questions: what do I need and can I afford him?

The Atlanta Thrashers, for instance, might like to take a run at Keith Tkachuk, but he costs $5 million against the cap this season and next, and even by early March, his pro-rated salary will be too much for the Thrashers. Instead, GM Don Waddell will have to settle for players who max out at about $3 million per year.

The Maple Leafs also will be limited in what they can assume in salary, unless they can find a partner who will take on some of their payroll (Jason Allison's name continues to pop up, as the Leafs would like to bolster their defense).

The same can be said for New Jersey, Colorado and Detroit, all of whom have traditionally been big players in the trade deadline frenzy but have little cap flexibility this season unless they can shed salary in the process.

If the number of buyers has declined dramatically, so too has the number of sellers. As of Sunday morning, there were only five teams realistically out of the playoff hunt: Columbus, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington and Pittsburgh. With Doug Weight gone, and Tkachuk and Caps netminder Oli Kolzig unlikely to be moved, there isn't much beyond secondary players available on those teams.

As for the 25 other NHL teams, nine won't make the playoffs, but with the parity that exists, there are likely to be fewer teams willing to fly the white flag at the deadline than in the past.

Part of that reticence to make a move comes from the deadline itself. In 2003-04, the deadline also was on March 9, but only 26 days remained between the trade deadline and the end of the regular season on April 4. This season, the regular season doesn't end until April 18, meaning there are 40 days between the two dates. That's a lot of hockey for a team such as the New York Islanders, a team that began the week 12th in the Eastern Conference, but just six points out of the playoffs. Or the Florida Panthers, who woke up Sunday in 13th, just seven points out.

In the West, San Jose is 13th and eight points out of the playoffs, but has three games in hand on eighth-place Colorado. Phoenix, perhaps the most vulnerable to a dramatic drop-off after losing Ladislav Nagy for the season, is 12th and seven points back of the last playoff spot.

Each of these teams has a handful of players who could become unrestricted free agents on July 1 and will wrestle with when, if ever, to pull the plug to try and get a return on its investment.

No team wants to lose an asset without getting anything in return. But worse, no team wants to trade a productive player for a prospect or draft pick when it still has a shot at the playoffs, where anything can happen and when a postseason berth means millions of dollars to the bottom line.
-- Scott Burnside

Wondering where Eric Lindros is? He's still nursing a torn ligament in his right wrist and hasn't played since Dec. 10. That's eight weeks. Reports out of Toronto say Lindros will visit a specialist on Monday, while the Leafs' medical staff maintains the center doesn't need surgery. Lindros told reporters that he's hopeful he can return shortly after the Olympic break. We talk about the Thrashers more below, but GM Don Waddell raised the stakes for everyone involved this weekend when he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Thrashers will make the playoffs. "We'll be in the playoffs," Waddell said Saturday. "If you want to write 'guarantee,' I have no problem with that." Jonathan Cheechoo keeps benefiting from the Joe Thornton trade. He has 15 goals and 27 points in his last 17 games and 24 goals in 26 games since the Sharks acquired Big Joe from Boston on Dec. 2. The points will have to keep coming as San Jose is fighting for a playoff berth. The Sharks are eight points out of a spot, behind Anaheim, Minnesota and Phoenix.

When does a star become a leader? That's what the Atlanta Thrashers would like to know when it comes to Ilya Kovalchuk.

As of the beginning of the week, the immensely talented Kovalchuk led the NHL in goals and was tied for fourth in points. But during the Thrashers' recent seven-game losing streak, Kovalchuk revealed on a number of occasions he is not yet the leader this team needs him to be.

During the slide that saw the team drop from sixth to 11th in the East, Kovalchuk went cold as ice on the score sheet, going six straight games without a goal before scoring Saturday night in a win over Florida that ended the team's skid.

Good players will compensate for those cold spells by not adding to the team's woes in other ways. They play hard. They stay out of the box. They work harder on their defensive assignments. Not Kovalchuk.

Against the Sabres last week, Kovalchuk was lazy on the backcheck as the Sabres scored a crucial short-handed goal en route to a 5-2 win. It was during the Sabres game that Kovalchuk was once again caught with an illegal stick. This time, instead of doing the Bourne Conspiracy and sneaking the offending stick onto the Thrashers' bench and down the hallway as was the case against Nashville last month, Kovalchuk was assessed a minor penalty that cost the Thrashers a crucial power play.

That Kovalchuk would continue to play with an illegal stick when everyone knows he has a habit of doing just that (Nashville coach Barry Trotz insists you can tell on television, so it can't be too hard to notice if you're standing next to him on the ice), shows he doesn't understand how this plays out in the dressing room. How do teammates feel about a guy who would rather indulge himself with a big curve than give his team the best chance to win?

Kovalchuk recently ducked a handful of reporters waiting to talk to him after he was moved to the third line. He told team officials he wanted to get some errands done before the team flew to Florida for a home-and-home set with the Panthers. Fair enough. But stand-up guys know when to duck and run, and when to answer questions. Until Kovalchuk understands that, he won't be one of those guys. Until he is, this team will continue to struggle. -- S.B.

Scott Stevens bid an emotional farewell in New Jersey on Friday night, prompting another round of laments about the "good old days" and how a player like Stevens would never thrive in the new NHL. Stevens even suggested he'd probably have played football instead of hockey given the emphasis on skating and skill in the new game.

But a quick review of Stevens' legendary hits, the ones on Slava Kozlov, Eric Lindros, Ron Francis and Paul Kariya, brings us to ask this question: How would the new game have changed any of them? All of them were then considered legal within the rules of the game and they would be so now. All of them were big-time hits that changed the course of games, series, even careers. Big hits will continue to have that effect. Is it now more challenging to make a big hit? Yes. Because players aren't being held up going through the neutral zone as they have been for a generation, it takes better timing to lay out an opponent who's moving more quickly. Why is that such a bad thing?

We're wagering that Stevens still would have lowered the boom on just as many players today as yesterday. He was simply that kind of guy. New NHL or old. -- S.B.


E.J. Hradek
The battle for the Central Division will heat up this week when the first-place Red Wings and the second-place Predators play a home-and-home (Wednesday in Motown, Thursday in Music City). The Wings, who are 1-1-1 in three meetings with the Preds, have a five-point lead. Mike Babcock's team has been getting it done with excellent special teams play as the Wings are a league-high 24.4 percent on power-play opportunities. The club's penalty-killing unit ranks second in the league (86.5 percent). Detroit hasn't been too bad at even strength, either. The Wings own the league's third-best 5-on-5 ratio of goals for/goals against. The stakes are high for both clubs as the division winner will get one of the top three playoff seeds in the West. The runner-up might have to start the postseason on the road.
Scott Burnside
Mighty Ducks at Canucks, Friday: The Canucks finished up a seven-game road trip last week with a 3-4 record amid news that defenseman Ed Jovanovski will be lost indefinitely following abdominal surgery. The Canucks continue to battle Calgary for first place in the Northwest Division, but they are by no means assured of a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the Ducks are just four points out of a playoff spot after winning four of five heading into this week. Leading up to the Olympic break, Friday's tilt is the third of four home dates for the Canucks, while the Ducks will be playing the third of four road games.
Who to pick up: Tim Thomas keeps on going for the Bruins, and your fantasy team, if you have him. In a win over Ottawa last week, he made 44 saves for his first NHL shutout. Don't think he's losing the starting role any time soon.
Who to drop: Pavol Demitra might not be a safe bet this week. The Kings center returned from a leg injury and played three games, but local reports indicate he will likely miss Tuesday's game because of flu symptoms.
In salute of this week's Grammys, we're turning to Kanye West. But we'd really prefer to give you a song off of his debut album "The College Dropout." It's called "Through the Wire." How many teams are going to go "through the fire, to the limit, to the wall" over the next month and a half?
"I didn't talk to [the posts], but I will when I get to sleep. I will thank them."
-- Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist on his luck in a 3-1 win over Pittsburgh last Wednesday.