The trade deadline is approaching. It's a little less than a month away, just 27 days left before frantic phone calls are made and triggers pulled too fast. It's my second most favourite NHL-related time of the year, just behind July 1, because I get to whine, complain, yell, laugh, praise, and wonder how close Pierre McGuire can creep up to Darren Dutchyshen before Dutchyshen completely loses it on live TV (I swear it's going to happen someday). It's also a great reason for me to stay home, glue my butt to the couch, and watch TSN until my eyes melt. So exciting.
<img src="http://2010vancouver.ca/mikegillis.jpg"class="imageFloatRightFramed">But are the Canucks even major players this year? Given that the Canucks are first in the West and in virtually no danger of falling out of the top eight, the team is obviously a buyer. But this is a team that never has been major deadline players under Mike Gillis. Over the past two trade deadlines, only three trades have been made, all of them last year. In Gillis' first season, the Canucks' last trade before the playoff run was a minor league swap (Mike Brown for Nathan McIver, who was waived by the Canucks the day before and claimed by Anaheim). It was never believed that the Canucks would be major players anyway, having signed Mats Sundin on December 18 and thus having little cap room to do anything else. To Gillis, signing Sundin was the equivalent to a trade deadline blockbuster, but without having to lose any long-term assets.
Last year, the Canucks made three separate swaps, the only substantial piece being Andrew Alberts (the others by Yan Stastny and Sean Zimmerman), who was much maligned last year but has improved tremendously this year. Are we in store for another low-key trade deadline? I don't think there's any reason to suggest otherwise. The Canucks are interesting in adding pieces, not losing them (those Ehrhoff trade rumours are ridiculous and not worth discussing, and Schneider's staying), and while the pipeline is now replenished with some attractive pieces, it doesn't seem as if Gillis is willing to part with any particular player. Despite rumours of Cody Hodgson being on the move, I think largely fueled by a public semi-feud between the two camps regarding Hodgson's back injury, i would be shocked if Gillis gives up on his first ever draft pick. It was a pick that Gillis himself believed was a step in a new direction, a direction that shied away from "safe" picks which had been so common with Brian Burke and Dave Nonis, to players that had the right high-end mixture of talent and character.
Losing Alex Edler to back surgery was a big blow but even by placing his remaining cap hit on the LTIR it doesn't open enough space for the Canucks to acquire anything substantial anyway. Like Sundin, the return of Sami Salo could be considered the Canucks' big deadline acquisition. In the playoffs, there is no salary cap, and if Edler and Salo can return by the opening round, the Canucks' six-man group, as noted before the season started, is the league's deepest.
<img src="http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/79/Zenon_Konopka.jpg/220px-Zenon_Konopka.jpg"class="imageFloatLeftFramed">But that doesn't mean Gillis shouldn't work the phones to plug two glaring holes: a injury-free, regular fourth-line centreman and a veteran player with plenty of playoff experience. Ideally, the two holes can be plugged by a single player, but if Gillis had to pick it should be the former. While experience is considered a luxury, it sure can be overrated. The team has already established its leadership group going forward and will rely heavily on the Sedins, Kesler, and Luongo to show what they can do to avoid another second-round exit. The Sedins will now enter the playoffs with over 60 games of playoff experience each and with few substantial roster changes over the past two years, most of the current Canucks will already have over 20 games and two separate playoff runs under their belts.
So who can fill that fourth-line role? Not many. The first requirement is that the player be an impending UFA. It's important to acquire a player that is not signed beyond the 2010-11 season unless it's a two-way deal, which gives Gillis an escape plan should a rookie (Hodgson, Schroeder, Bliznak, Bolduc, etc.) be favoured for a roster spot next year. The second requirement is that the player has to win at least 50% of it's face-offs. While the Canucks do have three of the league's best centremen, having a dependable fourth will help. In the grand scheme of things the Canucks may not necessarily need him to win, but every play counts in the playoffs and it might give the team a better night's sleep if they didn't have to use Tambellini or Glass in a defensive zone face-off after an icing call.The only player that fits the bill, as Ben Kuzma has noted before, is the Islanders' Zenon Konopka, a big, strong fourth-line centre who is ranked sixth in the NHL if face-off %. Konopka's been on my radar for awhile as a fourth line player with some major sandpaper (250+ PIM last year) but his face-off ability is something that has gone under the radar the past two seasons, in large part because he was under-utilized by Rick Tocchet in Tampa Bay. He'll cost a mid-round pick, a minor price to pay.
But how busy the trade deadline will be depends entirely on the market. There are four obvious sellers (Edmonton, Ottawa, New Jersey, and the NY Islanders) but none have any real attractive pieces, the most high-profile being Alex Kovalev, but he comes with a major red flag and seems destined to finish his career in the KHL. There are another four teams (Columbus, St. Louis, Florida, and Buffalo) that have an outside shot at making the playoffs but probably won't and will most likely be sellers at the deadline as well, especially Florida, which is slowly beginning it's rebuilding process. There is, of course, Toronto, who really should be a seller by this point already but haven't declared so, perhaps out of some misguided sense of self-worth, but have a great trade piece in Tomas Kaberle. That leaves 21 teams that are potential buyers. That's a lot, but we can narrow down the list even more.
There are three teams that cannot afford to add salary due to ownership issues: Dallas, Phoenix, and Atlanta. There are two teams that have traditionally been non-buyers, Nashville and Carolina, who may be major players only if ownership gives the green light (unlikely).
<img src="http://www.timescolonist.com/sports/1566473.bin?size=620x400"class="imageFloatRightFramed">Vancouver and Detroit are in a good position to finish in the top two spots in the West but don't have any cap space to add anybody from outside the organization. Like I said before, Salo's return is Vancouver's big move and Detroit would love to have Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary back.
Pittsburgh and Boston are headed towards the postseason but have little cap space to work with, which means Ray Shero probably won't find a winger for Crosby (again) and the Bruins are already pretty deep.
San Jose, Chicago, Calgary, and Montreal are in danger of not making the playoffs. All four teams already have or currently trying to create some space for deadline deals. San Jose (Torrey Mitchell) and Montreal (Cammalleri, Markov) may have space to work with due to injuries, while Chicago (shuttling Nick Leddy back and forth from AHL) and Calgary (waiving Ales Kotalik) are making personnel changes. It's a TBD situation for all four but it'll be difficult.
The Wild, Flyers, Rangers, and Capitals can perhaps add one extra body of note. The Capitals may choose not to make a move considering that Alex Ovechkin is "saving himself" for the playoffs (not buying the theory) and the Rangers eagerly await the return of Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan.
The Ducks and Kings have roughly $4 million in cap room, giving them some good options, and both teams could use more help. My bet would be on the Kings to make the big splash but given their disappointing season thus far you have to wonder if Lombardi should stand pat and give the current Kings a vote of confidence and emotional boost.
If my math is correct, that leaves two teams: Tampa Bay and Colorado. Greg Sherman is one of the league's most secretive GMs and who knows what he's up to, but my bet is that he doesn't do anything substantial. He's obviously a very smart GM and it would be wise for this young Avs team to grow together as a group in the playoffs. His only noteworthy deadline deal last year was swapping young players (Wojtek Wolski to Phoenix for Peter Mueller and Kevin Porter) and not acquiring a seasoned veteran, one of which (Scott Hannan) he has already dealt this year.
That leaves Tampa as the real, true, major buyer at the deadline. It's been a fantastic season for Steve Yzerman and company and they seem destined to win the Southeast. A great season with tons of attention on superstar Steven Stamkos and stable ownership means that their pockets will be looser. But they have to be careful. Nothing erases memories of a good season faster than a quick exit in the first round (ask the Thrashers, who finally made the playoffs as the Southeast champs in 2007, made a huge deal of acquiring Keith Tkachuk, but bowed out in 4 games after being outscored 17-6 and become the butt of everyone's jokes again) so the Lightning would be wise to avoid this pitfall.
Coming soon: a look at the players most likely to be moved.