Despite what the empty talking heads on TSN and NHL Network would have everyone believe every March, the NHL Trade Deadline is no longer the cornucopia of big name player swaps that it once was. That title has been usurped by the draft, and with a major new wrinkle in the CBA, it stands to get even more silly.
Things started off today with Scott Hartnell moving to the Jackets in exchange for R.J. Umberger and a fourth round pick, proving that the Flyers don’t need Paul Holmgren as the GM to make odd trades. It’s likely the first in what could be a series of tectonic shifts in the NHL this week, culminating with the draft on Friday and Saturday.
In the new CBA, the unrestricted free-agency negotiation window actually opens at midnight on June 25th, with a week between then and when players can actually sign with new teams. While no hard numbers are supposed to be discussed during this time, there’s also no real way to truly enforce that. What this does is two-fold: it effectively cuts the team currently holding a UFA’s rights exclusive negotiating window short by a week, and that it opens pre-draft allows general managers to operate with more information and therefore more flexibility in their picks if they reach a handshake agreement with a free agent to-be. Both of these things should lead to a flurry of moves this week, and Stan Bowman has shown to be far more willing to pull the trigger on larger-scale deals during this period than at the deadline.
With that said, a couple of assumptions need to be made for the purpose of this exercise. First, is that Johnny Oduya is all but gone for picks on Friday, as he’s got one year remaining in his deal, doesn’t have any clauses, he’s 34, and there is a logjam of prospects behind him with Stephen Johns now finally signed. Second, is that Andrew Shaw is not a center, let alone a full time #2 center for one of the game’s most dynamic wingers despite what a tiny three game sample size showed in the Kings series. It’s nice to have that versatility as a backup plan, but he just simply can’t be relied upon in that role by a team with serious Cup aspirations. As such, along with Michal Handzus being sent to a farm out in the country to play with other Slovakian centers, it seems to indicate that the Hawks are finally looking to bolster their center depth. There are appealing options in free agency for both offensive and defensive roles such as Mikhail Grabovski, Jussi Jokinen, Vern Fiddler, Marcel Goc and the corpse of Brad Richards, but today’s focus will be the two strata of center options via trade.
You’re High, Shut Up
- Joe Thornton – $6.75MM through 2017 – Because the Sharks are clearly learning all of the wrong lessons from their collapse against the Kings, the drum is being banged from all angles that Joe Thornton needs to be moved. Even if Thornton isn’t a “winner” or a “killer” or whatever, the fact of the matter is that he’s still a statistical monster at 34 and takes all of the toughest assignments against Shark opponents. Thornton’s contract is ugly though, not just in number but in term, as it puts a halt on the Teuvo Train in perpetuity. That contract may drive the asking price down slightly, but for as crackers as Doug Wilson may be going, there will still be a premium on trading Thornton within the conference, and that premium may end up being Teuvo.
- Ryan Kesler – $5.0MM through 2016 – Fels’ unabashed man crush still remains at the center of Hawks rumors, with “Malkin To Kings” Bruce Garrioch reporting that the Hawks and Penguins are Kesler’s only two desirable trade destinations for which he’ll waive his clause. This undoubtedly helps the Hawks in negotiations, bending rookie GM Jim Benning over Jim Hendry’s barrel before he even has his office unpacked. Kesler can play wing if Teuvo, Danault, or McNeill end up developing, which gives the Hawks more flexibility in the future, but the concerns with Kesler are always his injuries.
- Jason Spezza – $7.0MM through 2015 – Because Ottawa’s management team is hilarious, Jason Spezza has reportedly asked out of the situation and has a 10-team no-trade clause he can invoke. While his salary is far less than his hit ($4 mildo), that’s quite a bit to take on for a player who also has shown an inability to stay healthy. And while Spezza’s hands and eyes still work fine, his feet are slowing a little bit, and moving to the West after a career built on competing in the East seems like a recipe for career suicide. He’ll most likely be the Blues’ answer to their scoring woes, because Spezza’s floaty tendencies will fly so well with Ken Hitchcock.
- Mikael Backlund – $1.5MM through 2015 (RFA) – Backlund is everything that new Flames president Brian Burke and his hand picked GM Brad Treliving have publicly professed to hate- undersized and not in the least bit pugnacious or truculent. He was also a dominant possession player (relatively speaking) on a shit-terrible Flames team with next to no help, and is dirt cheap. Backlund had a 51.4% Corsi share at evens while only starting 46.2% of his shifts in the O-Zone while facing the opponent’s best. And in dealing with a team that still clings to the traits of a bygone era that never really existed to begin with, this could be a fleecing waiting to happen.
- Matt Cullen – $3.75MM through 2015 – Yes this name again, possibly with logic straight from Kenny Williams’ “School of Acquiring Guys For The Sole Reason They Killed My Team”. But even if Cullen is getting on in years, he still has the brain and hands to make things go, particularly in a soft landing between whatever top 6 wingers he’d be flanked by here after years of making chicken salad out of chicken shit caliber wingers in Minny and Nashville. And though his cap hit is a little high for what he brings, it probably wouldn’t take much to convince David Poile to retain some of that hit by throwing him an extra bone of a pick to keep Nash Vegas up away from the salary floor. Even though it went unnoticed due to Nashville’s overall struggles, Cullen actually was about right on par with what his recent history suggests he should be. But will Peter Laviolette value his offensive instincts more than Barry Trotz did?
- Mike Fisher – $4.2MM through 2015 – Basically a Not-As-Rich-Man’s Ryan Kesler, Fisher’s game is about the same without all of the injury concerns. And having him and his wife here would certainly make John McDonough happy, with her celebrity status and his vocal faith taking some of the focus away from all those naughty words they caught the Captain saying on camera. But moving Fisher would be a true harbinger of a rebuild in Nashville, which Poile can’t seem to get his story straight on. He’s promised Weber a competitive team and given them a new up-tempo coach, but also has made rumbings about moving up in the draft this weekend. For the price difference (about $800K), this should only be seen as a Kesler Plan B, but it’s still a solid one at that, as Fisher can play in all situations himself.
- Antoine Vermette – $3.75MM through 2015 – The Silver Bullet. The Skeleton Key. Both value priced and incredibly versatile, Antoine Vermette’s game is one that would quickly make him Quenneville’s newest Blankie, except justifiably so in this case. Vermette is a career 55.9% at the dot, and handled the Coyotes’ toughest assignments as a forward last year in the stacked Pacific without getting buried. He can play on either special teams unit, which would give the second team power play an actual prayer of a chance to win a draw to run a set play for their two best power play point men in Seabrook and Leddy, and give Quenneville another able body on the kill, where he again played more than any other forward. But perhaps most importantly would be what he’d bring to a second line, either legitimate defensive capabilities to cover for Patrick Kane and still be able to keep up, or with Marian Hossa to form a hybrid shutdown and scoring line.