If 2012-13 had been a regular 82-game season we would have been immersed in the NHL trade deadline this week, with who knows how many transactions, major and minor, taking place as teams made the annual push to strengthen their lineups for the playoff run. As it is, there are still four-and-a-half weeks to go until the lockout-shortened version of the trade deadline comes to pass on Apr. 3, but the action is heating up, with two interesting trades this week, a controversial offer sheet tendered by the Calgary Flames to restricted free agent Ryan O'Reilly and all kinds of fresh rumours making the rounds.
Two prominent names were kicked around on the chat boards and websites this week – the Philadelphia Flyers' Daniel Briere and the Anaheim Ducks' Corey Perry, both of whom would be vastly interesting commodities if speculation translated into something much more.
The Briere talk made little sense, and not just because he has a full no-movement clause in the seven-year, $52-million free-agent contract he signed back in 2007-08 to join the Flyers from the Buffalo Sabres. Philadelphia imagines itself as a Stanley Cup contender every season and as time passes, owner Ed Snider gets more and more eager to win a championship, something that hasn't happened in the City of Brotherly Love since the mid-1970s. Why then, in the name of Sam Pollock, would Flyers' general manager Paul Holmgren trade away a player of Briere's postseason pedigree?
Since 2005-06, or when NHL play resumed following the cancelled season, Briere is the league's leading playoff scorer, with 106 playoff points in 102 playoff games. There have been seven Stanley Cups awarded in that time, but in only four of those seasons has one player won the outright postseason scoring title – Briere, David Krejci (Boston Bruins), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Eric Staal (Carolina Hurricanes).
The Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings were the only teams to qualify for two finals in that time, and Malkin has great numbers too – 81 points in 68 games. On a points-per-game basis, the Penguins' Sidney Crosby is the leader for any player with 75 points or more (90 in 68). But Briere is relentlessly efficient in the postseason – one trip to the final, three to the conference final, two to the conference semi-finals and only once (in the 2008-09 season) has he been on a team eliminated in the first round.
Last year, playing only two rounds, Briere still tied for the playoff goal-scoring lead with eight, the same as Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown managed in four rounds and 20 games for the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings. Moving Briere doesn't pass the smell test, even if he is off to a comparatively slow start (11 points in his first 17 games).
As for Perry, he is one of two Anaheim Ducks with a chance to become an unrestricted free agent this season. In the current era of relaxed unrestricted free agency, no player who ever won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP (as Perry did in 2011) has then hit the open market two years later. The suspicion is his availability would create a bidding frenzy that might even dwarf the auctions this past summer for Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, both of whom left their respective teams, the Nashville Predators and the New Jersey Devils, to sign with the Minnesota Wild in exchange for $98-million. The salary cap dips next season to its 2011-12 level ($64.3-million), but at least two thirds of the teams in the NHL (and probably more) could free up the necessary space if Perry indicated a willingness to sign there.
Organizationally, it leaves the Ducks in a quandary, facing the same dilemma that the Dallas Stars encountered two years ago with Brad Richards or that the Preds and Devils did last year with Suter and Parise. All three teams opted to go down the same path, turned away any and all overtures for their star players and instead kept them for the playoff run. Parise helped the Devils get to the final last year; Suter's Predators were eliminated in the second round; and two years ago, the Stars missed the playoffs altogether, with Richards out of the lineup for part of that time recovering from a concussion.
With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, would they do the same – or think big-picture thoughts and maximize their return at the deadline, even if it undermines what they are trying to accomplish in the short term. Perry is heating up of late. He had three assists on Kyle Palmieri's natural hat trick this past Wednesday, as the Ducks rolled over the Predators to complete the best February in team history – an 11-2 month that sees them nicely placed atop the Pacific Division and contending for the No. 2 playoff seed in the Western Conference.
No one is saying much publicly about the Ducks' plans, but there is a sense that for lifestyle reasons and other factors, they will eventually get Ryan Getzlaf, who is the same boat as Perry, to sign an extension. With Perry, there seems to be greater uncertainty – no real sense that he is unhappy in Anaheim, but maybe not ready to make the sort of commitment to the organization that they'll need to assure themselves that he might not leave in the summer. So that's the decision general manager Bob Murray faces – and it might be the toughest call that any GM faces in the next month or so. If he trades him, he could send a potentially devastating psychological message to his team, and maybe undermine one of the real feel-good stories in the early season. If he keeps him and the Ducks exit in the first round and Perry moves along after the season, he could further set back an organization already reeling from Justin Schultz's defection last summer. Recent history suggests that the Ducks will keep their team intact and hope for the best. It'll be interesting to see if they take that tried-and-true path – or opt for a bolder strategy.
REALIGNMENT STILL ON HOLD: As one of two Eastern time zone teams playing in the Western Conference, the Detroit Red Wings are in the crosshairs of the NHL realignment debate and one of the best examples of their travel issues is their trip that wrapped up Thursday night in San Jose with a shootout victory over the Sharks. It was the first of five trips they're scheduled to make either to California or Western Canada in a 48-game season, meaning they'll need to skip through two and three time zones each time. It's why they are so desperate to get over to the East and so willing to put up with the greatest inequity in the new proposed system - the fact that the 16 teams in the Eastern Conference would have just a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs, while the 14 teams out west would have a 57.1 per cent chance to do so. Ultimately, it is the most controversial part of the latest realignment puzzle and the one that may see it quashed by the players association … Some teams have played as many as 22 games already, but the Boston Bruins are at just 17, which may be why their 13-2-2 start has gone a little under the radar. On a percentage basis, they are the top team in the East, but they will face a flurry of action from here on in to hold onto that lofty ranking, playing 32 games in the final 60 days of the season and 18 in the next 32.
BLUE JACKET WATCH: With five wins in their first 20 games, plus an injury list that includes their two top defencemen (James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson), plus their top three centres (Derrick Brassard, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov), the Columbus Blue Jackets are winning the turtle derby at the bottom of the NHL standings, the competition to see who might draft first overall and select one of a trio of highly regarded prospects – defenceman Seth Jones, or forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. New Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen is known for his player evaluation skills, and he was with the St. Louis Blues in 2006 when – faced with a similar choice - took a defenceman (Erik Johnson) ahead of centres Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews. The problem in Columbus is that with Rick Nash no longer on the team, and Ryan Murray – the second player chosen in last year's draft - already in the pipeline, the more acute need is for a dynamic offensive forward. That could make for a tough call because many scouts believe Jones is starting to separate himself from the pack as the consensus overall first pick … The Kings, meanwhile, felt they could give up Simon Gagne to the Philadelphia Flyers this past week, because they plan to carry eight defencemen once Alec Martinez returns from IR; and believe that if they need help up front, one of three prospects lighting it up for their AHL affiliate in Manchester – Linden Vey, Tyler Toffoli or Tanner Pearson – could adequately fill in … Jordan Staal played his first game against his former Penguins' team on Thursday, on a night when the Carolina Hurricanes won 4-1 and also received some positive news on the injury front. A quartet of players were back playing: Forwards Jeff Skinner and Tim Brent, defencemen Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain. Skinner played just 13:55, but scored a goal and managed five shots on net … The bigger story in Carolina is how well Jiri Tlusty continues to play. Way back when, the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted him 13th overall in 2006 and after three seasons of bouncing back and forth between the minors and majors, they traded him to the Hurricanes for Phillippe Paradis. Tlusty wasn't an overnight sensation in Carolina either – in his first full season, he managed just 12 points in 57 games – but he's gradually figured it out under coach Kirk Muller and had a respectable 36 points last year. This season? Even better – nine goals, 15 points and one of the few players with a chance to exceed last year's scoring totals, even in a shortened season. It doesn't hurt Tlusty to be playing on the No. 1 line with Eric Staal and Alex Semin, who despite some monumental criticism from his former Washington Capitals teammates, has quietly put up 16 points in 19 games.
SINGING THE BLUES: In a year when injuries are taking a heavy toll everywhere, the St. Louis Blues had an especially tough day at the office earlier this week, losing two players within minutes of each other in an edgy practice session. First, Andy McDonald collided with teammate Vladimir Sobotka and appeared to injure his leg. He was placed on IR. Just before that happened, Alex Steen – McDonald's usual centre – was hurt in a puck battle. He is day-to-day. The third member of the line, rookie sensation Vladimir Tarasenko (12 points in 17 games) is also out recovering from concussion symptoms. Without them in the line-up, the Blues were shut out by the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday night, extending the Chicago streak to 20 games with at least one point, heading into tonight's tilt with the Blue Jackets. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery shared the shutout, Emery coming on in relief after Crawford was re-injured. The ex-Senator, ex-Duck goalie was named the third star for the month of February by the NHL Friday. For all the talk about how well Chicago is playing, Emery's ability to step in and play when Crawford got hurt might be the single biggest factor in the fact that they've kept their record-setting point streak alive. It is thought that 54 or 55 will be enough points to qualify for a playoff spot in the West. Chicago is already at 37, and hasn't even reached the midpoint of its season yet.