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Jeff Paterson: The biggest day of the year

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks

We now return you to regularly scheduled programming.

Although what you’re about to see isn’t all that regular at all. After two weeks of breath-taking, lay it on the line, win at all cost hockey during the Olympics, the National Hockey League now enters into three days that may be just as dizzying – but for totally different reasons.

Where all of the action over the past couple of weeks took place in the same city – one heck of a fine host city, I might add – what we’re about to see will span the National Hockey League and will quite likely impact each and every one of the 30 franchises.

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Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

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While the quest for Olympic gold is now over, the race to land the best pieces of the Stanley Cup puzzle is about to begin. The NHL roster freeze has been lifted and it’s all systems go toward the 12pm Pacific March 3rd trade deadline.

Vancouver Canucks general manager Mike Gillis is expected to get in on the action, but what he does and how much he’s prepared to pay to add roster players remains to be seen. Certainly history hasn’t shown a direct correlation between going big at the trade deadline and Stanley Cup success. It remains a fact that only one team can hoist the treasured prize at season’s end and so some prudence must be shown before blindly rushing in at the deadline. But when a team feels it’s close to being a contender, it really has no choice but to augment its line-up for a playoff push.

Among the questions Gillis must answer before casting his line into the trade waters are: just how healthy is Willie Mitchell? And will he be able to return to the line-up before season’s end? If not, the Canucks may find themselves putting a top four defenseman at or near the top of their wish list.

Regardless, it seems evident to all who’ve watched the hockey club this season that there is need to bolster the offence among the bottom six forward group. But this is where things get a little dicey because the market for such players was set prior to the roster freeze.

Montreal sent a second round draft choice to Florida to acquire eight-goal scorer Dominic Moore while Ottawa coughed up a second rounder and a prospect (24-year-old defenseman Alex Picard) to snag 12-goal man Matt Cullen from Carolina. Make no mistake; there is a cost to doing business at the NHL trade deadline – even for depth forwards who aren’t a threat to score on a regular basis. And that cost often escalates in the hours before the noon (Pacific) bell rings to signal an end to the trading window as the sellers look to play teams off against each other in an effort to drive a tough bargain.

So who’s likely to be off-loading players in an effort to jump start their rebuilding process and what do they have that may be of interest?

Edmonton’s expected to be in on the action, although it’s unlikely the Oilers would do much business with a division rival like the Canucks. Columbus could very well be prepared to part with pending unrestricted free agent winger Raffi Torres – a guy who has scored a bunch of goals against the Canucks over the years.

Out east, there is still plenty of attention on Atlanta despite the fact the Thrashers already moved their big ticket in Ilya Kovalchuk prior to the Olympics. Forwards Colby Armstrong (27-years-old) and Slava Kozlov (37) are both unrestricted free agents this summer and, thus, likely to find new homes before the deadline. In Carolina, the Hurricanes are said to be shopping 37-year-old forward Ray Whitney, another unrestricted free agent after this season. In Toronto, the Leafs are likely to move pending UFA’s Alex Ponikarovsky (29) and Lee Stempniak (27), while Tampa may be shopping Alex Tanguay (30), Jeff Halpern (33) and Stephane Veilleux (28) – as all of their contracts expire at the end of this season.

On the back end, the Canucks may be kicking tires on either of Florida Panther pair Dennis Seidenberg (28-years-old), Carolina’s Aaron Ward (37) and the Islanders Andy Sutton (34) – all are in the final years of their current contracts. But are those players an upgrade on what the Canucks already have in terms of defensive depth?

And then it always comes back to cost. What are the Canucks willing to pay? And who might they be willing to part with? The old hockey adage holds true: You’ve got to give to get. And the Canucks have to decide if they want to move draft picks only or if they’re willing to part with their biggest asset goalie Cory Schneider or any of their other young prospects.

Recent trade deadline acquisitions who’ve made their way to Vancouver include Martin Rucinksy, Geoff Sanderson, Keith Carney, Brent Sopel, Sean Brown, Eric Weinrich, Brian Smolinski and Matt Pettinger. If the Canucks feel that they are a piece or two away from competing for the Stanley Cup this spring, then it might be time to pull the trigger on the team’s first significant in-season trade in quite some time.

As fascinating as the Olympics were in this city, the NHL trade deadline is sure to bring with it equally high drama and intrigue. And in a flash it will all be over. And then we’ll be able to separate the contenders from the pretenders as teams load up for the stretch run – and everyone in hockey will soon know where the Canucks figure into that equation.

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