There was an intriguing trade in the NHL last week – the Nashville Predators acquiring defenceman Michael Del Zotto from the New York Rangers in exchange for Kevin Klein – and it could set in a motion a mini-trade flurry, now that there are just two weeks to go until the Olympic break.
Way back in January of 2006, Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford made a deal with the St. Louis Blues to acquire centre Doug Weight before the NHL headed to Turin for the Olympics, so that Weight could get his family settled into Raleigh during the break. It ended up as a prescient move, one of those rare transactions that actually helped a team win a championship, Weight scoring 16 points in 23 games for the Hurricanes, who edged his former team, the Edmonton Oilers, in a seven-game Stanley Cup final.
The problem is that there are two conflicting schools of thought at work here.
The first involves the NHL's salary cap and how every transaction needs to be filtered through its restrictions.
Even though rosters are frozen during the Olympics, every day that passes clicks another day off a player's salary cap charges. It means that any team right up against the salary cap is far better off waiting until at or near the Mar. 5 trading deadline to make a move, on the grounds that it can maximize the quality of player it gets the longer it delays.
On the other hand, if a team has no issues with the cap, then it can afford to make a move now or soon. Even if a player is going to the Olympics – someone such as Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller, who will be among the most talked about candidates to switch teams before the deadline – just knowing where the final landing spot is going to be would make the transition from one team to the next go more smoothly.
Goalies can be notoriously difficult to trade in-season because most teams in a playoff position that think they can challenge for the Stanley Cup already have decent netminding in place – otherwise, they wouldn't be in contention at this stage of the season, well into the second half.
Earlier in January, the Edmonton Oilers traded away one goaltender, Devan Dubnyk, to Nashville and then added another, Ben Scrivens, from the Los Angeles Kings. It leaves, reasonably, three teams in search of help between the pipes – the New York Islanders, the Minnesota Wild and the St. Louis Blues.
It was a mystery to many why, when Islanders' general manager Garth Snow, acquired Thomas Vanek from the Buffalo Sabres in the Matt Moulson deal, he didn't push harder to get Miller included in the deal. The Islanders are in that vast group of teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack, all of who still harbor playoff dreams, even if they're having singularly mediocre seasons.
But there's greater pressure on New York than most because the Islanders also surrendered first– and second-round picks to effectively rent Vanek for this season, hoping that his presence on the roster, and John Tavares's, would help them solidify the gains they made last year, when they qualified for the postseason after a five-year absence. It's not immediately clear what the Islanders could offer to rent Miller – wouldn't a first-rounder in 2015, the Connor McDavid draft, be too risky? – but their goaltending has been in flux all year, with Evgeni Nabokov in and out of the injury bay, and Kevin Poulin forced to carry the load, but stuck with a save percentage under .900 and a goals-against average above 3.00.
St. Louis has long been rumored to be Miller's final destination because the Blues legitimately have a team that could win it all this year. The incumbents there, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, both have decent numbers, but Miller would represent a significant upgrade.
Last week, on the Fan 960 in Calgary, we talked about Miller and I floated Minnesota as a possibility, only because of the uncertainty surrounding Josh Harding, who hasn't played since before Christmas, as he tries to adjust the medication treating his multiple sclerosis. The Wild have done well to stay competitive in the West, despite Harding's absence and having to muddle along without both Zach Parise (now back in the lineup) and Mikko Koivu. Miller has some national team history with both Parise and defenceman Ryan Suter, so that would be an easy transition for him. By next year, general manager Chuck Fletcher might even have the dollars available to sign him to a new contract, because Dany Heatley's $7-million salary-cap hit will disappear off the books. Fletcher gave a pile of his prospects to the Sabres at last year's trading deadline to secure Jason Pominville's services. He would now be dealing with the new general manager, Tim Murray, as opposed to Darcy Regier, but the Wild still have a lot of prospects in the pipeline – certainly enough to satisfy whatever Buffalo might want in exchange for Miller.
A lot of teams are thinking about using the Olympic break as a chance to take stock of their situations – possibly get some injured players back, but mostly to calculate whether they have the personnel to take a run at a playoff spot, or possibly even a championship. Some could jump into the trade market early, others might wait a bit, but with the East so close, and really only three teams out of the mix as defined sellers (Buffalo, the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames), there could be some out-of-leftfield transactions in the next month or so.
THE DEL ZOTTO DEAL: The Predators traded a steady 20-minute per night defensive presence in Klein to get Del Zotto, who is six years younger and only two years removed from a 41-point season on behalf of the Rangers. Long-term, it seems like a massive win for Nashville, especially if they can get him playing a reasonable brand of defensive hockey.
Nashville is one of those teams that annually find a way of making crazily one-sided deals on paper. How they got the Washington Capitals to surrender Filip Forsberg, a first-rounder in 2012, with a big upside for journeyman Martin Erat is a puzzle to many, even nine months after the fact. And getting Dubnyk for a player who didn't work out as a free-agent signing – Matt Hendricks, essentially a salary dump – to bide them time until Pekka Rinne gets back from hip surgery was a worthwhile gamble. Nashville had to rebuild its defence corps after losing Suter to Minnesota as a free agent.
They were lucky last year that Seth Jones was available fourth overall in the 2013 entry draft. With Jones, Shea Weber and Ryan Ellis all right-handed shots on the blueline, they believed Klein was expendable. Del Zotto gives them a left-handed shot they hope will be a good fit with Jones, at even strength, which would permit them to play Weber and Roman Josi as the No. 1 shutdown pair. That would shield Del Zotto from some of the heavier defensive lifting. In addition to Jones, Nashville has been playing two other first-year players, Mattias Ekholm and Victor Bartley on the blueline. It is a young group and combined with their inexperience in goal following Rinne's extended absence (Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec) largely explains why their season hasn't been all that great. But they do have some nice pieces. Del Zotto could play on the second power-play unit for virtually every team in the NHL, but in Nashville, he is currently behind Weber-Josi and Ellis-Jones. Poile said he told Del Zotto that he "would have to be patient with us" as they figure out where he fits in. But if Rinne comes back and plays at a high level and all those defencemen 23 and under develop the way they should, Nashville is once again poised to surprise people with their upside.
THIS AND THAT: The move to the Eastern Conference is probably the only thing that's keeping Detroit's 22 years and counting playoff streak alive, but help is on the way, in terms of injured bodies making their way back into the lineup. Johan Franzen, a key to the power play, was scheduled to return Sunday after being out since mid-December with a concussion. Even after missing 20 games, he is still second on the team in power-play goals with four, one behind Pavel Datsyuk, who has been bothered by a groin injury but could return later in the week. Recently, both Darren Helm and Daniel Alfredsson have also returned, which will put far less of an emphasis on the Grand Rapids Griffins alumni that have been playing regularly for the Wings these past six weeks. With all hands on deck, Detroit still scares a lot of NHL teams ... Colorado picked up Patrick Roy's old housemate Alex Tanguay in the offseason and he was off to a good start until hip and knee injuries sidelined him for 36 games. But Tanguay was back Friday, picked up an assist and figures to return to the line that he played on back in October, with Paul Stastny and Gabriel Landeskog ... The Islanders have been muddling along without two key members of their defence corps – Lubo Visnovsky and Travis Hamonic – but that should come to end this week, with both scheduled to return from layoffs. Visnovsky was signed to an extension after the Islanders lost Mark Streit to Philadelphia as a free agent, but he's been limited to just eight games and three points. Hamonic is a 25-minute-per night player who had an invitation to Canada's Olympic camp. Only Andrew MacDonald, at almost 26 minutes per night, plays more for the Islanders.
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