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Trade deadline major milestone on road to playoffs

Monday, 01.26.2009 / 4:30 PM / Midseason Report

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

The celebration is over in Montreal, which means it's time to get back to work for the players on the 30 NHL teams. Games resume Tuesday, with the focus now shifting to the final 78 days of the regular season.

The road to the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs is not a smoothly paved one, and for the eight teams in each conference that avoid all the potholes, the prize is a chance to play for the greatest trophy in sports.

There is a major marker on that road, though -- the March 4 trade deadline. For general managers around the League, that's the next big thing with which they're concerned.

"From my perspective, now's the time you have to start thinking about what kind of moves you can make going into the deadline," said Jay Feaster, who spent more than six years as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "You've already established what your needs are to be a serious contender in the playoffs or a team that gets into the playoffs. Now is a time you start to lay the groundwork for possible deals that happen at the deadline. That's the most important part of right now. Before you even look at the playoffs, I think you need to know what you're going to be able to do to help your team."

Feaster believes the buyer/seller aspect of the equation should be set for teams by now; now it's just a matter of getting teams to the table.

"Sometimes they're not going to deal with you in January," said Feaster, "they're going to wait right until the deadline comes."

In an ideal world, Feaster said a team would have acquired what it needed for a playoff push long before the final six weeks of the season. He pointed to his trade for defenseman Darryl Sydor on Jan. 27, 2004, a move which helped the Lightning win the 2004 Stanley Cup. Feaster believes bringing Sydor on board early allowed him to become a full-fledged member of the team and build all the bonds necessary with his new teammates.

One thing testing those bonds is the potential free agency status of a number of big-name players, including Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and two members of the Wild -- forward Marian Gaborik and goaltender Niklas Backstrom.

"In my mind that's something that I think the teams really need to be focused on in this new world that we live in," said Feaster. "You have to decide, 'Can I keep that player or can I lose him for nothing on July 1?'"

Feaster said part of the answer comes from a manager's relationship with ownership. In his case, the directive from his bosses in Tampa Bay was go for the playoffs every year, and we'll deal with players potentially leaving later.

"We always ran it hot," said Feaster. "We were more focused on, let's make the playoffs and the old bromide that once you're in, who knows. We would run it hot and then the season would end for us and then you start having those conversations. But you're so close to July 1, the player says, why not wait?"

Feaster did say that if he had it to do over again, he would have opted to move a few players he knew he wouldn't be able to re-sign, and used Pavel Kubina as an example. Kubina left the Lightning as a free agent after the 2005-06 season after the team went out in the first round of the playoffs. Instead of trading Kubina, the Lightning kept him and then watched as he signed with the Maple Leafs that summer.

"If we had said we're not winning the Stanley Cup in his unrestricted year, said let's move him, we would have restocked the shelves," said Feaster.

That question now falls on teams like the Panthers and Wild. Florida comes out of the break ninth in the Eastern Conference, but just one point out of its first playoff spot since the 1999-2000 season.

"Bouwmeester is the perfect example," said Feaster. "Do we keep him here, run it hot and hope we get into the playoffs? Or do we realistically believe that if we don't make the playoffs and don't do anything, this guy will leave and we'll get nothing?"

The comings and goings stop at 4 p.m. on March 4. Once a team gets past the deadline, Feaster says he shifts into "cheerleader mode," and leaves things to the coaches and players in the final run to -- hopefully -- the postseason.

"Your coaching staff is really trying to get the team playing like a playoff team," he said.

Feaster also shuts down the players from all non-hockey related enterprises.

"As management, you try to make it so all the players have to worry about it is playing," he said. "That's when we stop the visits … you start to cut the things off so all the players have to think about is hockey."

Feaster added that he also would meet with his professional scouting staff and start playoff scouting.

"Once the trade deadline passes, then you redeploy your pro guys," he said. "If the top two seeds are locked in and we're at 7 or 8, then after the deadline, we'll send those guys out and have a good read on possible playoff opponents."

The hope is those trips prove fruitful and help the playoff teams avoid any remaining potholes on the road to the Stanley Cup.

But now, it's time to start the car. The open road awaits.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.
Quote of the Day

As a player, it's obviously a sad day, but to be on the ice with some of those guys and show our respect as both teams did around center ice, it's definitely a nice touch.

— New Jersey defenseman Damon Severson on the ceremony to honor the fallen Canadian soldiers before the game Saturday in Ottawa
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