In his weekly notebook, Eric Duhatschek looks at how Alexei Kovalev's stock diminished, how Tampa's rose, and why Nikolai Zherdev cannot get a regular job in the NHL
Alexei Kovalev received about as low a return as a team can get at the trade deadline, a conditional seventh-round draft choice transferred from the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Ottawa Senators, which is as close to free as the NHL will allow in a deal (that isn't masked as 'future considerations.') Kovalev is one of those maddeningly erratic players, someone who was traded on his 38th birthday and is back in Pittsburgh for his second tour of duty, after two tries with the Rangers, plus one each in Montreal and Ottawa. When properly inspired, he is still capable of producing magic, but those times didn't happen often enough in Ottawa - and thus Pittsburgh is really taking no chance by adding him at this stage of the game. Along with James Neal's addition later this week, it also ends the Penguins' flirtation with the Edmonton Oilers over Ales Hemsky who, if traded, will likely be the biggest name moved at Monday's NHL trading deadline.
In some ways, Hemsky at 27, seems to be heading down the same career path as Kovalev - a player with talent to burn and capable of dazzling on the ice. Peers and opponents greatly admire his raw ability - players love nothing better than to watch someone dangle the way Hemsky can. But the problem with Hemsky is the one that dogged Kovalev all these years - inconsistency, and when the droughts come, they can be deep and long because their confidence is so fragile.
The problem for the Oilers is trying to get decent value for Hemsky. They tend to overvalue his worth because they've seen him at his best and know the upside. Teams in the market go in with their eyes wide open and note both his injury history and how his game can fall off a cliff for weeks at a time. If the Washington Capitals do go out and make the push to get him, they'll need to overpay to do so.
The Caps are in the peculiar position of being a middle-of-the-pack offensive team after leading the league in scoring last year. But the numbers for all of the big four - Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green - are way down; and neither Tomas Fleischmann nor Brendan Morrison were properly replaced.
Hemsky would be a good fit in Washington and what if the Capitals were prepared to give up one of their two young goaltenders - Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth - to make it happen? The Caps have promising youngster Braden Holtby in the system anyway, and if Edmonton isn't convinced that either Devan Dubnyk or Jeff Deslauriers is the answer between the pipes, that might be a far better return for Hemsky than to land just another No. 1 choice in a so-so draft.
LIGHTNING STRIKING AGAIN: The one thing Steve Yzerman has shown in his rookie season as an NHL general manager - no fear - is the quality that served him well in his playing days. Yzerman completed a full makeover of his goaltending corps this week, sending Dan Ellis (who began the year as the No. 1) to the Anaheim Ducks for Curtis McElhinney. The Ducks need Ellis to be their starter for as long as it takes Jonas Hiller to recover from his dizzy spells. McElhinney wasn't getting the job done and in a race as close as it is in the West, the Ducks couldn't afford to wait.
For Tampa, the deal simply sheds salary and further establishes Dwayne Roloson as their No. 1, which is what he's been ever since coming over from the New York Islanders in the deal for Ty Wishart. In September, Yzerman told me his plan was to do as well as they could in the present, without sacrificing the future, because the turnaround in Tampa would take time. Well, as of this moment, the Lightning look as if they'll land a top-four seed for the opening playoff round and given how weak the East looks, a manageable first-round opponent.
Yzerman, meanwhile, has walked a fine line between adding in the present without sacrificing the future. Apart from Roloson, he shored up the blue line group with a power-play specialist, Marc-Andre Bergeron, and a shutdown defenceman in Eric Brewer. Brewer was a teammate on the 2002 Olympic team, so Yzerman has a first-hand understanding of how he carries himself. That's the sort of scouting report you can't get, watching a player from the press box, miles above the ice.
Tampa is just the latest team in the East that figures Washington isn't as good as they were last year; and Pittsburgh probably won't get Sidney Crosby back, putting the East up for grabs. That's the other thing Yzerman has shown in his rookie season as an NHL general manager - a keen sense of timing. When you see an opening like that that may not come along every year, you need to go for it.
ENIGMA WRAPPED IN A PUZZLE: Nikolai Zherdev remains one of those puzzling enigmas, an ultra-skilled player who has shown he can score at the NHL level during stops in Columbus, New York and most recently Philadelphia. In an era when just about every team is looking for more offensive help up front, why can't he can't land a regular job? The Flyers put him on waivers this past week, his job essentially lost after they picked up Kris Versteeg from the Leafs. He had 15 goals in relatively limited playing time this year - but on a deep Philadelphia team, had been scratched for six games in a row, unable to crack the top-nine forwards and unsuited to play on the Flyers' energy line. Attempts by GM Paul Holmgren to deal him proved unsuccessful, even though only a quarter of the season remains on his $2-million contract.
MODANO MUSINGS: At the time he injured his wrist back in November, there were concerns that 40-year-old Mike Modano's NHL career might be over, only a handful of games into his Detroit Red Wings' career. Modano, from Livonia, Mich., signed with his de facto home-town team, after two decades in the Minnesota/Dallas Stars organization in the hopes of adding one more Stanley Cup to the one he won in 1999, and had a modest eight points in his first 20 games. With the Wings humming along second in the Western Conference, he might get that chance - but much will depend upon how well he plays in the final quarter of the season, and what his role might be if Detroit ever gets all of its injured forwards back at the same time. Patrick Eaves is out for a week or more. Modano's return is expected to come Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres.
WILD RIDE: Even though the Calgary Flames have made a surge back into playoff contention, they are running neck-and-neck with the Minnesota Wild for second spot in the Northwest Division - and it is likely only one or the other will qualify for post-season play. Minnesota has had a nice run of its own since the all-star break, earning 15 points in 11 games to stay within that tight pack of teams in the middle of the conference. However, their depth will be tested now that Mikko Koivu's out with a broken finger. Jed Ortmeyer, last seen in the NHL with the 2009-10 San Jose Sharks (where he had 19 goals in 76 games) is up from the minors in his place. Minnesota's big advantage over Calgary is in the first tie-breaker, which was revised last year to include only regulation and overtime but not shootout victories. Seven of Calgary's wins have come in the shootout compared to only two for Minnesota.
WELCOME BACK: A sign that Mike Comrie is close to returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup: After missing virtually all the season with a hip injury - and limited to just five points, after being one of the team's most discussed off-season acquisitions - he skated in the warm-up the other night and could be close to playing. For a Penguins' team playing without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and usually three or four other regulars, his imminent return couldn't come at a better time. Comrie had a disappointing start to this Penguins career, however, registering just five assists (and no goals) in 16 games, and earning just 12:08 in ice time from coach Dan Bylsma.
AND FINALLY:Atlanta is fading badly, but it didn't stop the Thrashers from signing general manager Rick Dudley to a multi-year contract extension. Dudley joined the Thrashers' organization in June, 2009 and was kicked upstairs last April, replacing Don Waddell. He loaded up on ex-Chicago Blackhawks this summer, but has since moved both Ben Eager (to San Jose) and Brent Sopel (to Atlanta) recently, leaving him with just Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien from last year's Stanley Cup champions. Waddell on Dudley's performance: "Rick has a proven track record of building successful teams and is dedicated to improving the Thrashers and constructing a perennial contender," he said. "He has already taken great strides with our club and is committed to infusing our roster with key players. He has truly earned this opportunity and we look forward to his continued leadership."