The Calgary Flames' need to trade defenceman Ian White was clear to anyone who monitors the ins and outs of the NHL's salary cap. The club's signing of defenceman Mark Giordano to a five-year, $20-million (all currency U.S.) contract extension this month essentially meant the end of the line for White.
Calgary had too much money committed on long-term deals to defencemen, most of whom can't be traded at their current salary levels - $6.7-million to Jay Bouwmeester, $4-million to Robyn Regehr, $3.6-million to Cory Sarich, and $2.7-million to Steve Staios. White was the most attractive of the lot, earning $3-million on the one-year contract he signed with the team last summer to avoid salary arbitration.
Despite a mediocre start to his season, White had some value on the trade market - and would have become more attractive closer to the Feb. 28 trading deadline, when interest in skilled, puck-moving defencemen on expiring contracts tends to skyrocket.
As with all things relating to the Flames and their ever-changing roster, the most puzzling aspect of White's trade to the Carolina Hurricanes wasn't the decision to move him, but its timing and its relatively modest return.
In exchange for White and prospect Brett Sutter, Calgary received Anton Babchuk and Tom Kostopoulos from the Hurricanes. Babchuk, who just returned to the NHL after playing for Avangard Omsk in the Russia-based Continental Hockey League, was playing mostly alongside Jay Harrison on the third pair for Carolina. Babchuk is 6 foot 5 with a long reach and a great shot that he doesn't get off nearly enough - and he's spotty defensively.
Kostopoulos, meanwhile, joins his fifth NHL team, including a two-year stop in Montreal where he played 145 games for the Canadiens. He is a versatile journeyman, joining a team with many other versatile journeymen in its lineup.
Is that enough for White, whom the Flames had attained only last winter in the Dion Phaneuf deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs? It might be if you think the real White is the player who was minus-10 in his first 16 games with Calgary and struggled playing mostly on the top pair alongside Regehr. It isn't nearly enough if you imagine White's slow start is an aberration, one that will eventually correct itself playing in Carolina for Paul Maurice, a former coach.
Defencemen such as White that can play top-four minutes are usually at a premium at the trading deadline - and by then, the Flames would have had a clearer idea if they are a playoff contender or an also-ran once again. As it is, they've shuffled off one of their few useful trading assets too soon, someone they might have been able to flip for a younger, blue-chip prospect if they'd showed the requisite amount of patience.
Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford went into the deal with eyes wide open, noting he is fully "aware of the fact that White hasn't played as well in the first 20 games as we're used to seeing him play."
"But," Rutherford continued, "if you look at his overall career, it's certainly been better than what we've seen of late."
With Jamal Mayers leaving as a free agent last summer, all that remains in Calgary from the Phaneuf deal are forwards Matt Stajan and Niklas Hagman, both of whom are having erratic seasons. Because Sutter was assigned to the Flames' AHL affiliate in Abbotsford, B.C., this month after being arrested while drunk outside a Phoenix nightclub, the deal will save the Flames about $680,000 in salary-cap charges.
Still, that's small change in the context of what's really going on in Calgary.
The Flames are about three bad weeks - and one challenging road trip - away from falling out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference.
If that happens and they are given the green light to start rebuilding in a proper way, then the trade of White Tuesday removes one valuable piece of the trading puzzle far too soon. It is one more example of the odd managing-by-the-seat-of-your pants style employed in Calgary, and probably a good reason for the mess the organization finds itself in at the moment.