In the postlockout trade deadline, where most deals are usually filtered through the salary cap, National Hockey League general managers tend to act just like Christmas shoppers approaching the big day.
Some are methodical and organized and get their work done early, especially if they are pursuing that season's hottest commodity, which this year happens to be defencemen. Seven changed hands in a 72-hour span last week, and two more went Monday when the Pittsburgh Penguins shipped playmaker Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars for defenceman Matt Niskanen and power forward James Neal.
Others prefer to wait until the 11th hour, thinking that markdowns will be coming as the deadline approaches and managers panic because they can't dump all the salary that they'd hoped to move before the witching hour arrives.
It is an interesting dynamic, and this year more than any other it appears as if GMs are collectively moving fast, making their deals well before TSN can get on the air with its 10 hours of wall-to-wall coverage next Monday. What, pray tell, will the panels talk about if the biggest deal of the day is Cory Stillman from the Florida Panthers for a fifth-round pick? Yikes, it could be that bad if this keeps us.
Thankfully, there will always be some late-comers to the party, and usually you can count on Dean Lombardi of the Los Angeles Kings to dither right to the end. Lombardi is a notorious conservative in a bit of a spot. He has one of the better emerging young teams in the game. As always, the problem for any manager in his situation is managing expectations. The Kings made it to the playoffs last year after a six-year absence and gave a decent account of themselves before falling in the first round to the Vancouver Canucks. They had the dynamic duo of Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson on the blueline, a quality goaltender in Jonathan Quick and one scoring star up front, Anze Kopitar. The Kings have had a wild up-and-down season, and though they had good results during a 10-game road trip that officially ends Wednesday in Anaheim, the sense is they need to do something significant soon in order to send a message of urgency to their own players and to their fan base.
Early on they were linked to talks about the Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla. Didn't happen and, with the Flames playing so well, it isn't going to either. Neal's regular centre, the Stars' Brad Richards, is also highly sought after. He's a pending unrestricted free agent sidelined with concussion symptoms. Ideally, Richards would like to stay in Dallas if the Stars can ever sort out their ownership issues, on the grounds that he doesn't want to endure another side show like he did in Tampa, when William Davidson sold the team.
Dallas is fading badly without Richards, and got skunked on its swing through Western Canada. Do the Stars make him available? Even if they did, who would pay top dollar for a rental trying to recover from an injury that lingers? Tough call for any manager on either side of the deal.
The Edmonton Oilers' Ales Hemsky is getting a lot of buzz and for good reason. He is a skilled playmaker, someone who played the best hockey of his career on a line with Ryan Smyth, who just happens to be in the Kings' employ. But if Lombardi wasn't prepared to trade hot junior prospect Braydon Schenn for either Iginla or Richards, why would he swap him for Hemsky, who is a good player, but not in their category? Hemsky is marginally in play, which is to say, if someone offers the Oilers extraordinary value for him, he's gone. But if teams are offering mid-level players, prospects and/or picks, well, Edmonton doesn't feel any pressing need to usher him out of town either. A stalemate right now.
Weirdly, the best destination for Hemsky might be the Washington Capitals, who reinforced their blueline earlier this season by acquiring Scott Hannan from Colorado. But the Caps are suddenly only middle of the pack offensively after running away with the league's overall scoring title last year. Hemsky could play a top-six role on a Washington team that was considered a Stanley Cup favourite going into the season, but may not even earn home-ice advantage in the opening playoff round.
So there is intrigue left and shopping to be done, and maybe the best news is that in the five deadlines since the lockout, and even ignoring all the early shoppers, they still threw together some two dozen or more last-minute deals every year.
So, gentlemen, keep those cellphones charged. The pace doesn't ever seem to want to let up.