Roles will be reversed in the new economic climate

As the clock ticks toward the first trade deadline in the new NHL, the picture changes daily, even hourly.

Which impact players, which role players might be on the move before the 3 p.m. ET deadline Thursday might not be known until the last minute, such are the conflicting factors at play in what certainly will become one of the most interesting trade periods in recent memory.

"This is the way it should be," Anaheim GM Brian Burke said Sunday after his Ducks dropped a shootout decision to Columbus and remained four points out of the last playoff position. "This is what we voted for."

He recalled his tenure in Vancouver, when the annual trade deadline meant big boys such as Colorado, Detroit, Philadelphia and Toronto scooped up most of the available big-name players because the small markets were unloading salary to keep their bottom line in order or were unable to obtain those players because of the same economic constraints. No more.

This year, the Leafs will be selling and Colorado and Detroit will be hamstrung by being tight against the $39 million salary cap and wanting to protect their future depth.

Still, many general managers see the cap as the least influential of the three main factors at play this week. With a quarter of the season left (and, thus, a quarter of a player's salary), even teams with high payrolls could take on a player whose annual salary is $3.5 million or more. The bigger factor is that, with the trade deadline 14 days earlier than in 2004, there are far fewer sellers and far more buyers -- or at least more GMs who don't know yet whether they're buyers or sellers.

"That's going to chill the whole cycle," Burke said.

Chilled in terms of quality of players available and quantity of players, he added.

As for his Ducks, Burke would like to add offensive depth to a team that has played exceedingly well since Thanksgiving -- American, not Canadian -- but he said teams are asking for the moon.

"To this point, what's being asked [in return for players] is absurd," Burke said.

The odds are the Ducks won't make a move, he added. "Because I'm not paying an absurd price. Someone's going to overpay at the deadline, but it won't be us," Burke said.

Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster said that he thinks there will be movement but that it might not be until the last minute, as GMs watch their teams' games before the deadline.

The four or five games between the end of the Olympic break and the trade deadline determine not only a team's playoff chances but also its needs. The Lightning would like help along the blue line, but Feaster admitted after the Bolts were shelled in their first two games back that goaltending depth might be another hole the defending Cup champs would like to fill.

"Teams are going to take as much time as possible to make those decisions," Feaster said.
He noted that the morning after the Bolts were hammered 8-2 by Florida last week, he had calls from teams looking to deal him a goaltender.

Other teams will be looking to assess their injury situation heading down the stretch. Erik Cole, for instance, was lost to Carolina for at least the rest of the regular season with a cracked vertebra; Nashville's Yanic Perreault is out for at least two weeks with a knee strain; and Eric Lindros is gone from Toronto's lineup for the season with a wrist injury.

As Thursday's deadline approaches, the pressure will continue to mount on GMs, especially those with players who are about to become unrestricted free agents. Nothing is worse than the prospect of losing a player, especially an impact player such as Olli Jokinen or Bryan McCabe, and getting nothing in return. But some GMs might be forced to hang on to such players because they run the risk of missing the playoffs and/or upsetting the delicate relationship between the fans and the franchise.

Burke said he has received calls about Ruslan Salei and Keith Carney, two defensemen set to become unrestricted free agents. But with his team so close to the postseason, Burke said he's not inclined to strip down his squad, even if he's unable to make the additions he'd like.

"If I have to drive a couple of guys to the airport in the summer, so be it," Burke said.

The Not-So-Mighty-Quinn

Throughout Pat Quinn's eight-year tenure in Toronto, there never has been a shortage of criticism and speculation about his job security. But things have never been this bad for Quinn's team, and never has his future with the team looked this bleak.

Mathematically, the Maple Leafs are in an untenable situation, sitting 11th in the Eastern Conference with 22 games to play and having lost 15 of their last 18. Emotionally, they are running on empty. A team that always seemed to find a way to win (the Leafs have won at least one playoff round in five of the last six seasons) now seems capable only of finding ways to collapse, as witnessed by Saturday's 4-2 loss to Ottawa.

So one of the many problems facing GM John Ferguson is whether to fire Quinn now and let head-coach-in-waiting Paul Maurice take the team on a test run before the end of the regular season. The problem is that this team likely will bear little resemblance to the one that takes the ice next fall. Or it should.

This brings us to Ferguson's bigger problem: Which pieces of this sinking ship does he keep and which does he jettison? Captain Mats Sundin has been a passenger for most of the year, but his big contract and no-trade clause make him difficult to deal. McCabe at times has been the team's best player, but often follows that up by being its worst. McCabe will be an unrestricted free agent, and his value remains ill-defined given his wide swings in consistency. Ed Belfour has endured the worst season of his career, but in spite of a hefty buyout that hangs over the Leafs for next season, it's believed there could be a market for the former Stanley Cup winner in Edmonton, Vancouver or even Tampa. Jason Allison has been a pleasant surprise on the score sheet with 49 points, but he's minus-14, second worst on the team behind Jeff O'Neill, who has been a major disappointment. Neither is part of the team's future.

There is more than a little symmetry at play here. Ten years ago last weekend, former GM Cliff Fletcher fired popular coach Pat Burns when the Leafs were in a similar tailspin. When Quinn took over the team in summer 1998, the franchise looked bereft of hope. The same proposition awaits Maurice, if not in the coming weeks, then by the start of training camp next fall.

What did they do?

A look at what the four conference finalists in 2004 did at the trade deadline two years ago:

Philadelphia made the biggest splash, adding Alexei Zhamnov, Branko Radivojevic, Vladimir Malakhov, Danny Markov, Mattias Timander and Sean Burke. The revamped Flyers fell to Tampa Bay in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference final.

Tampa, the eventual Cup winner, was at the opposite end of the spectrum, adding one main piece: defenseman Darryl Sydor from Columbus on Jan. 27. By the time the playoffs rolled around, "he was one of us," Feaster said. Feaster points to Carolina's early acquisition of center Doug Weight this season as having the same kind of impact on a good Carolina team.

"That's exactly the way I describe it, getting ahead of the curve," Carolina GM Jim Rutherford added.

Over in the West, the San Jose Sharks added Curtis Brown and Jason Marshall, the former ostensibly to help fill the offensive gap left when Marco Strum broke his ankle. But the core of a young Sharks team was kept intact for the playoffs.

"We had a lot of players who had earned their ice time," GM Doug Wilson said.

The Calgary Flames found themselves in the middle in terms of movement. They added Chris Simon, Ville Nieminen and Marcus Nilson, and the three filled various roles as the Flames came within a game of the Stanley Cup championship.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.