Friday, January 26, 2007
Teams will be looking for defense, depth at center
By Scott Burnside
There is an element of high-stakes poker to the NHL trade deadline period. General managers have to assess their needs, and then try to determine what the marketplace is going to look like.
Sometimes moves are pre-emptive strikes, keeping a division or conference foe from obtaining a key piece. That was the case last season, when Carolina obtained highly coveted center Doug Weight before the deadline. The Hurricanes wanted depth down the middle, but Carolina also kept Weight from landing in Ottawa or Montreal.
Sometimes moves send a signal to a team that management believes in it and its chances of success. Again with Carolina, Weight's acquisition and the subsequent addition of Mark Recchi reinforced to a very good team that ownership was willing to spend to give it the best chance to win. When management does not make a move, a team sometimes feels that management doesn't believe in its chances. Still, GMs must be cautious; too many additions can upset whatever chemistry or personality has been developed in the room. Witness Buffalo's decision a season ago to stand pat, a move that paid off as the Sabres went to the Eastern Conference finals.
For this season's deadline, here are 10 teams that will need to make a move:
GM Don Waddell's style is to be patient and conservative when it comes to these matters, but his team is in a place it's never been in terms of potential. The Thrashers will reach the playoffs for the first time this spring, likely as a division winner, and the potential for a long playoff run is there. But the Thrashers are weak down the middle. Steve Rucchin and Bobby Holik are both valuable pieces of the team's playoff puzzle, but they are not dynamic enough to adequately support offensive stars such as Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk and Slava Kozlov.
Another concern is finding someone to quarterback the team's middling power play, which ranks 19th. Add Peter Forsberg to the mix and the Thrashers instantly would make themselves a Cup contender. The Thrashers, who have the cap room to make such a move, will have to decide if the cost (perhaps defensive prospect Braydon Coburn or one of a handful of promising young prospects) is worth it. If Forsberg is out of reach, look for Waddell to target Craig Conroy in the hopes the forward can regain his offensive touch.
It's no secret Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe needs to do something to help his beleaguered back end. Without Chris Pronger, Jaroslav Spacek and Dick Tarnstrom, who all defected after last season's run to the Cup finals, the Oilers have had to rely on a patchwork blue-line corps. In the ultra-tight Northwest Division, the Oilers are currently last, but are just six points out of first, so making a move is crucial to the Oilers' chances of returning to the playoffs. Although the offense has been a disappointment (it is fourth in the division in goals scored), Edmonton does have offensive depth to make a deal. Look for Eric Brewer to make a return to Edmonton or Brad Stuart to head over from Boston. The other interesting element for the Oilers will be whether Lowe truly believes he can get the team's heart and soul, Ryan Smyth, under contract. Smyth, fresh from the All-Star Game, could be an unrestricted free agent in the summer and Lowe can't afford to see Smyth walk and it would seem almost heretical to see him in anything but an Oilers jersey.
The Senators have righted the ship after a disappointing start to the season. But the perpetual question that plagues the Senators will once again rear its head as the playoffs approach: Do they have enough grit and character to win when it counts? Last spring in the second round, the Senators seemed powerless to turn the tide against a speedy, focused Buffalo team, and GM John Muckler would like to add someone to help shoulder the burden of leadership with captain Daniel Alfredsson. He's got some defensive depth to work with, although not much in the way of cap space. The Sens' old Northeast Division foe Gary Roberts would be an attractive addition.
GM Jim Rutherford has proven to be ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying his team's needs and acquiring key personnel without overpaying. He would like to bolster his offense and enter the playoffs with three scoring units as he did a season ago. When defensemen Tim Gleason, Frantisek Kaberle, Glen Wesley and Bret Hedican return from injury, he'll have a glutton of defenders and likely would move David Tanabe, who has played well recently. Look for Rutherford to target a player like Geoff Sanderson, who's back from injury and has enjoyed a decent season (17 points in 27 games) on a bad team in Philadelphia.
Detroit Red Wings
Nashville, San Jose and Anaheim get most of the attention in the top-heavy Western Conference, but the Red Wings are a team that is not to be trifled with. The knock on the Wings in recent playoff years is that they lack toughness up front and can be bested in a physical series. Edmonton bore that out a year ago when it upended the heavily favored Wings in six games in the first round. GM Ken Holland will run the numbers on Forsberg to see if he can fit him in (Detroit's cap is at $43 million). If he can't land Forsberg for whatever reason, Forsberg's health or economics, look for Holland to try to bring in a player like Roberts to add some grit. Keith Tkachuk and/or Bill Guerin would also fit, but it's unlikely the Blues would deal parts within the Central Division.
The Stars have gone from playoff lock to a team wracked by key injuries. Captain Brenden Morrow and Mike Modano are out long term and the team's offense has gone dry. Of those teams currently in a playoff spot, only Vancouver has scored fewer goals than the Stars' 129. The Stars remain a superlative defensive squad, so look for GM Doug Armstrong to try to add offense. That might mean a Jozef Stumpel or Martin Gelinas from Florida. Ladislav Nagy certainly would ratchet up the offensive quotient, as well. Depending on whether Modano's and/or Morrow's salaries count against the cap, the Stars will have lots of wiggle room to make one or more moves. The Stars' recent history is one of playoff disappointment, so it won't be enough for Armstrong simply to qualify for the postseason.
New York Rangers
The Rangers freed up some much-needed cap room by waiving veteran Darius Kasparaitis and his $3.3 million salary. Now, with the team's cap at $41.5 million, the question is what GM Glen Sather will do with that cap space. The Rangers would like to find a suitable offensive mate for Brendan Shanahan, whose offense has dried up except on the power play, and they would like to add defensive depth. The Rangers often have done business with the Oilers, who have lots of offensive tools, so keep an eye in that direction. There's also no doubt the Rangers will be scoping out Forsberg as an option to revive the team's flagging playoff hopes.
Observers wondered whether the Flames would, well, be doused, when star winger Jarome Iginla went down with a knee injury. But they haven't missed a beat and are tied for first in the Northwest with Vancouver. While some look at the deadline as a way to make the playoffs, the Flames will be looking at the bigger picture to a long playoff run. The play of Daymond Langkow and Kristian Huselius has been an unexpected bonus, so there is no urgency to add a center or scoring forward. But in terms of winning a Cup, the Flames certainly could use another layer of scoring, perhaps a player like former Flames playoff hero Gelinas, who will be an unrestricted free agent in Florida.
The Habs are another team that looks to be safely in a playoff position, and must now consider whether adding a second-line center to help coax more consistency out of Alexei Kovalev is worth whatever the cost might be. Of course, if they could find someone to take underachieving Sergei Samsonov off their hands, that would be a true stroke of genius by GM Bob Gainey. The other issue confronting Gainey is the Habs have a couple of top-flight defensemen in Sheldon Souray and Andrei Markov who will be unrestricted free agents along with veteran Craig Rivet. Both Markov and Souray will command significant pay raises. Can Gainey afford to sign both or is he better off trying to move one and bolstering the offense? Tough call.
All of a sudden, the youthful Penguins don't look like a team that's rebuilding, but a team that's building toward a playoff run. With Sidney Crosby looking more and more like a young Wayne Gretzky in terms of poise and talent, and with Evgeni Malkin sliding seamlessly into a star supporting role, the Penguins have positioned themselves well for the final third of the season. That position, and scads of cap space, will give GM Ray Shero room to test the waters for a solid, veteran defenseman to help bolster the team's chances. A guy like Eric Brewer would be a nice fit. As for what Shero might give up? Much has been expected of Ryan Malone, but he has been slow to develop. Perhaps a change of scenery would be good. And there's a successful AHL squad in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton that can provide a couple of prospects as trade bait.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.