Here, in the garage-sale capital of the NHL, the Calgary Flames took the extraordinary and unexpected step of making team captain Jarome Iginla a healthy scratch for Wednesday's game against the Colorado Avalanche. Could a trade be far behind?
More than likely, especially since the team that Calgary has been most closely linked to in trade talks for Iginla, the Boston Bruins, also scratched one of their top prospects, forward Alexander Khokhlachev, from the lineup of their minor-league affiliate, the Providence Bruins.
Something was brewing and the tension and anticipation were palpable, given the only possible conclusion – that Iginla, the long-time public face of the franchise, has likely played his final game for the team. By holding Iginla out of the lineup, the Flames avoid the risk that he might get injured in the game and thus force any conversations about his future to be put on hold.
It was the first time in his career that Iginla was healthy enough to play a game, but was kept out anyway. The challenge for Flames general manager Jay Feaster was to turn Iginla into an asset – or a collection of assets – that would help their aging team rebuild.
The story changes hourly in Calgary, and for much of Wednesday, the Iginla watch was vying with the Miikka Kiprusoff watch for top billing, given how Kipruosff reportedly told the Flames that if he were traded before or at the deadline, he would not report to his new team on the grounds that his wife recently gave birth to a baby boy.
That report came from Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos and it raised more questions, including: Were the Flames actually shopping Kiprusoff and if so, what could they get for him?
It is a soft market for starting goaltenders these days and for any team interested in acquiring a true No. 1, there's been a reputable option named Roberto Luongo available all season in Vancouver. The Canucks want value in exchange for Luongo, which is why he's still in Vancouver, and it would be the same way in Calgary.
If the Flames traded Kiprusoff, it would be only because they could get tangible assets in return. Kiprusoff is in the fifth year of a six-year, $35-million (all currency U.S.) deal that pays him a prorated $5-million this season and drops to $1.5-million next season. It was one of the original back-diving contracts that the NHL worked so hard to get rid of in the last labour negotiations, and for Kiprusoff, the day of reckoning is at hand.
When the contract was originally signed in 2008, the expectation was that Kiprusoff would skip out on its final year and retire because, after making all that dough in the early years of the deal, why he would want to play for peanuts at its tail end?
Kiprusoff is now 36 and there's no proof that he's actually ready to call it a career, which poses a dilemma for him. The old days – of asking for a contract to be renegotiated – are long gone. If Kiprusoff wants to keep playing – in Calgary, in the NHL, back home in Finland or for some lush resort town in the Swiss Alps – he has to burn that year off his contract. Otherwise, he can't play anywhere.
A lot has happened that the Kiprusoff camp didn't anticipate, including the fact that he'd have a month-old infant in the house when the 2013 trade deadline came along, and suddenly he was not protected by a no-trade clause any more.
Kiprusoff understandably doesn't want to be separated from his family any more than he has to be. Sadly, it is a fact of life that every NHL player on the trade block must deal with at this time of year. Along with the risk of serious injury, it is one of the tradeoffs players accept as part of the life a professional athlete.
For the past decade in Calgary, he and Iginla have been the franchise cornerstones, Iginla the public face of the franchise, Kiprusoff operating more in the shadows.
It has been a good ride for Kiprusoff and for the team until this critical juncture, where the relationship threatens to go off the rails. Even the hint of an unwillingness to move at the deadline would colour and undermine any potential trade Calgary could have made for him.
To play in the NHL and especially to play in the NHL playoffs, you need to be all in. The playoffs are not about money – paycheques stop coming at the end of the regular season – but about pride and championships and wanting to celebrate with the Stanley Cup. Teams need a full buy-in from every player and they especially need a full buy-in from their goaltender. Otherwise, they are sunk. NHL general managers tend to be gamblers at this time of year, but which team would roll the dice on acquiring a goaltender who doesn't want to be anywhere but at home, with his family?
Deals like that – if they backfire – cost GMs jobs that are usually as secure as a Senate appointment.
So the soap opera in Calgary drifts on, Iginla with one foot out the door, Kiprusoff in limbo, and a whole lot of other players, from Jay Bouwmeester to Cory Sarich to Anton Babchuk, all on notice that they too could be moved. But they are all lesser pieces. When Iginla goes, it will be the end of an era, nothing less and nothing more than that.