In his weekly notebook, Eric Duhatschek ponders Mike Fisher's present, Jason Spezza's future, and what the heck the Pittsburgh Penguins can do now without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the foreseeable future.
Once upon a time, the big debate in Ottawa, as it related to Mike Fisher, was: Could he legitimately play as a No. 2 centre? Or was he just a really good No. 3? Now, in the aftermath of Thursday's deal that saw him flipped to the Nashville Predators for a first-round draft choice, that discussion is so yesterday. Fisher has been elevated up the depth chart again. He'll play as the Preds' new No. 1 centre, bumping Marcel Goc down the depth chart. Marcel Goc? Exactly. Without a doubt, Barry Trotz is the coach of the year in the NHL.
Fisher might be the first player in NHL history that put Nashville at the top of his list of preferred destinations when it came to trade possibilities. Maybe the Preds need to start a match-making service targeting professional hockey players and country-music stars. The Predators rarely figure into the NHL trade mix in a big way because of their budget restrictions. The only time they were ever major players before was the year that Paul Kariya joined them as a free agent and Peter Forsberg - still relatively in his prime - was acquired as a rental from the Philadelphia Flyers for a playoff push that resulted in the usual first-round exit.
Since then, it's mostly been one star after another exiting Music City. The Preds moved last year's No. 1 centre, Jason Arnott, to the New Jersey Devils before the season began in a salary dump; and signed Matthew Lombardi as his replacement. But Lombardi has been out all year with a concussion leaving the Predators without a real front-line centre for two thirds of the season and counting.
Fisher should be a good fit with the Preds because his all-around game fits nicely with the philosophy Trotz preaches. GM David Poile put it nicely: Fisher plays a playoff style all year. Nashville, without any kind of a talent upgrade, was probably good enough to make the playoffs and lose in the first round again. Now? Maybe Fisher makes enough of a difference that the Preds could be a post-season dark horse. Last year, they pushed the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks hard in the opening round. One of these days, they are going to turn all those heartening close calls into an upset victory or two. Maybe even this year.
THE SPEZZA WATCH: Senators general manager Bryan Murray is pretty clear that his team is in full rebuilding mode, meaning he will be gobbling up all those free cell phone minutes long before the Feb. 28 trading deadline rolls around. Chris Phillips is almost certainly on the way out of town; as are Alex Kovalev and Jarkko Ruutu, who represent their three key unrestricted free agents. Goalie Pascal LeClaire is unrestricted too, but given his injury history and recent form, unlikely to command any interest.
Milan Michalek might be a more attractive commodity if he's made available - how about reuniting him with brother Zbynek on the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that could use a top-six forward? The Penguins had 85 of their 165 goals of the lineup the other night when they knocked off the Los Angeles Kings in overtime - and the airlift from AHL Wilkes-Barre featured four new faces: Ryan Craig, Nick Johnson, Brett Sterling and Joe Vitale.
Of greater interest, however, is the status of Jason Spezza, he of the $7-million annual cap hit and the no-trade clause. Spezza's contract makes a deal problematic, and not necessarily just because of the dollars that he is owed. (For the record, it's four more years after this one, with the next two at $8-million, and then the third year at $5-million and the final year at $4-million. In terms of actual dollars out, it adds up to about $3-million less than the overall cap hit on a contract that was front-loaded just like Dany Heatley's.) Some teams - put the Los Angeles Kings at the top of the list - can afford to take on that sort of money, especially as the dollars dwindle down in the years ahead. The larger problem is Spezza's ongoing health issues. He's just back in the lineup after missing five weeks recovering from a separated shoulder.
Spezza was also absent for 22 games last year because of groin problems. In the six years since the lockout ended, he's only played a full season once - 2008-09. The year before, 2007-08, wasn't bad either - 76 appearances; most teams will take that. But Spezza missed 15 and 14 games respectively the two years before that; had back surgery back in 2006, and as a result, there are some legitimate questions being asked in NHL circles about his durability.
Nowadays, players earning those sorts of dollars need to be productive and reliable if a team is going to make the commitment needed to acquire their rights. Spezza fits the former category - 475 career points in 464 career games, and he doesn't turn 28 until later that year, suggesting he is still in the prime of his career. First-line centres don't grow on trees; but if you take a big gulp and make that deal and then Spezza gets hurt soon after he arrives in his new home, well, that's how even impossible-to-fire GMs lose their jobs.
It's the same with the New York Rangers' Marian Gaborik, who rarely has a season like last year, when he was healthy (and productive) for virtually the entire 82-game run. This year, Gaborik was out early, and the Rangers overcame his absence pretty well. New York would likely only ever move him if they thought a) they needed the money to satisfy their young homegrown nucleus; and b) they thought they had a shot at Brad Richards on the open market in the summer.
Now that would be an interesting role of the dice for New York - put Gaborik in play, potentially land something of consequence in exchange; and then lure Richards to Broadway in an old-fashioned bidding war with the dollars-challenged Dallas Stars.
LEMAIRE RETURNING: The two hottest teams in the East are the Buffalo Sabres, who have played themselves back in the playoff picture; and the New Jersey Devils, who haven't. Do you think Devils' general manager Lou Lamoriello is kicking himself for not making his coaching change a month earlier, when the Devils might have had enough time to play themselves back into the race? Probably. New Jersey keeps winning, but there is too much ground to make up - still 13 points, even after their surge in the past month. But Jacques Lemaire is obviously the difference maker there - he won his 600th career game Thursday night - only the eighth coach in history to reach that milestone - and the full court press to keep him around next year will be on through the end of the year. One possible tipping point: Ilya Kovalchuk, who couldn't seem to do a thing right under John MacLean, is slowly coming around offensively. His overtime winner versus the Leafs gives him points in six consecutive games, although at 18 goals overall, he is going to finish with the lowest total of his career this season.
ETC ETC: In the same way that Edmonton's season was greatly undermined when they lost defenceman Ryan Whitney, who'd been all things to them all season before getting hurt, the bottom has fallen out of the Atlanta Thrashers' season when the largely unknown and terribly underrated Toby Enstrom broke his finger. Enstrom has missed six games and counting, could play either tonight or tomorrow, and will likely help Dustin Byfuglien rediscover his game when their defensive duo is reunited. Enstrom never gets any Norris Trophy love, but those that see him on a regular basis say there is likely no one else in the league that plays so well so anonymously ... Michal Frolik, ex of the Florida Panthers, will probably end up playing with Marian Hossa in Chicago once Hossa gets over the flu - and it could be a critical help in his overall career development. Frolik is young but inconsistent; Hossa a player with a strong sense of how to play the game at both ends of the ice. If the former learns something from the latter, the Blackhawks might see a one-dimensional scorer evolve into a quality, two-way NHLer ... Tampa is expected to play without Ryan Malone for up to two months with abdominal issues, meaning they will lose some of their size and grit for most of the rest of the regular season. They can probably manage without him, given their cushion in the standings. The issue will be how quickly Malone can get back up to speed upon his return ... One final note about Fisher. His contract resembles Spezza on a smaller scale, in that while his cap hit is $4.2-million, Nashville will pay him $4-million next year and then $3-million in the final year of his contract. In the Preds' dollar-constrained universe, the actual cash going out the door is more important than how it is counted on the books.