In a normal year, the NHL trade deadline watch begins around the time most people are putting away their Christmas decorations – early-to-mid January. Nashville Predators' general manager David Poile explained it best when he traded for Montreal Canadiens' defenceman Hal Gill a couple of weeks back – if you wait until the bitter end, you risk either missing out on the commodity you seek, or overpaying to get it at the witching hour, when the frenzy reaches its peak.
This year, however, the deadline has been a completely different animal, a far more difficult climate to decipher.
For starters, there have actually been some hockey deals thrown in the mix, most notably the exchange that sent centre Jeff Carter to the Los Angeles Kings from the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenceman Jack Johnson. Neither is a rental. On the contrary, they are signed to massively long contracts – 11 years for Carter, seven years for Johnson.
Moreover, many of the teams that would traditionally fall into the category of "sellers" – out of the playoff picture, already positioning themselves for next year – have gone completely against the grain. Instead of offering up their players as rentals to a contender, they've done the craziest thing and signed some of them to contract extensions. The Edmonton Oilers decided not to peddle Ales Hemsky. The Carolina Hurricanes decided not to move Tuomo Ruutu or Tim Gleason. They were all at the top of the available list six weeks ago. Now, they're staying put, which will ultimately put a damper on the quality, if not the quantity, of players that may change places in these last frantic 24 hours.
Maybe that's what will set the 2012 trading deadline apart from previous years. In an age of parity, teams cannot be so easily categorized into buyers and sellers any more. Many are simply "changers" – teams seeking to shift the foundations of their organizations because what they currently have isn't working – but they are doing so without stripping themselves down to the bare essentials.
It's why, for example, the Blue Jackets will almost certainly hang on to Rick Nash in the short term, believing that better deals may come along in the summer. It's why the Calgary Flames will almost certainly stand pat, despite general manager Jay Feaster's threat that changes would be coming, if the team didn't play with more urgency this past weekend.
Feaster's words, designed to light a spark under the team, had the opposite effect Saturday. Staked to a quick 3-0 lead because of weak Philadelphia goaltending, the Flames found a way to get outshot 45-21 and lose a 5-4 shootout to the visiting Flyers, dropping to 11th from eighth in a week in the ultratight Western Conference. It's why the Kings will almost certainly retain captain Dustin Brown, who responded to his name being in the rumour mill with a rousing four-point outburst in a 4-0 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Thus far, with the hours rapidly clicking off until Monday's 3 p.m. Eastern deadline, it's been more about who is staying than who is going.
Ultimately, there will be some action – and some of it might even have an impact on the team that eventually hoists the Stanley Cup.
Goaltenders traditionally can make the greatest difference between winning and losing, which makes Nikolai Khabibulin of the Oilers, a Stanley Cup winner in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, an intriguing commodity. In the past, Khabibulin has been a good, bad-team goalie, a player who thrives when he gets a lot of work. Why wouldn't the Toronto Maple Leafs be after Khabibulin, or, if not Khabibulin, then the Minnesota Wild's Josh Harding?
If the New York Islanders' soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Evgeni Nabokov is not an option – and it doesn't look as though he is – then Khabibulin is the closest thing to Nabokov on the market, an experienced netminder who could stop the bleeding in the Toronto goal, at least in the short term, which is what the Leafs need right now.
Harding, a soon-to-be-unrestricted free agent, would be in the same position as Craig Anderson was when he joined the Ottawa Senators at this time last year – a chance for the two sides to get to know each other, up-close and personal, and see if there's a more permanent fit. The Regina-born Harding, 27, has had injury issues – he missed all of last year recuperating from major reconstructive knee surgery – but he has also shown flashes of brilliance in his career.
With St. Louis Blues' prospect Ben Bishop off the market (traded Sunday to Ottawa for a second-rounder), Khabibulin and Harding represent the two best goaltending options – and anybody landing them would keep their fingers crossed that they can do what Dwayne Roloson did for Edmonton in 2006, join up at the trading deadline and lead a team all the way to the Stanley Cup final.
Impossible to imagine? Well, the trade deadline is for dreamers after all. If the reality means that only the Jaroslav Spaceks and Sami Pahlssons of the hockey world change teams, well, the TSN panels will be in place anyway, bright and early Monday morning, trying to explain that too – why what is usually a feeding frenzy turned into something far more timid this time around.