Let’s face it – this whole season in the Central Division has been about looking up at the Detroit Red Wings
and trying to keep them within eyesight. That’s not a myopic look at the rest of the National Hockey League; its just life in the Midwest.
We have chronicled the baby steps taken with young, future stars in Chicago, Columbus and St. Louis, and the mindset in Nashville, where switching to a new ownership group has changed the Predators' blueprint slightly because of financial constraints.
But there have been breakthroughs in breaking down the quantum distance between the top and bottom in the Central. Like Chicago and Columbus beating Detroit four times each and St. Louis knocking off the Red Wings three times.
Chicago and Columbus were in on the Brad Richards sweepstakes until the Tampa Bay Lightning chose to send the talented center and 2004 playoff MVP to Dallas. Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon suggested he also made a determined pitch for Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell before he was traded to San Jose.
In other words, there is a win-now mentality in Detroit and a contend-now-and-in-the-future feeling in the other Central cities.
"We were kicking the tires, doing Google searches, looking at every possibility to try to make ourselves better now," Tallon said going into trade deadline day.
Google search? Now that’s in-depth research, eh?
In the end, all of the Central Division teams made deals. But the balance of power couldn’t possibly be swayed in one day now, could it?
Here’s what went down in the hours leading up to Feb. 26:
* Detroit made the biggest deal in the division, acquiring defenseman Brad Stuart from Los Angeles for a second-round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and a fourth-rounder in 2009.
With injuries currently sidelining captain Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall and Chris Chelios, the Wings defense is, to say the least, in a shambles. So ... Stuart, who has big-game skills even if he hasn’t shown it the past few seasons with Boston, Calgary and Los Angeles, was obtained for a small price considering how well the Red Wings draft.
Hey, we know Red Wings fans are used to GM Ken Holland stirring the pot at the deadline and bringing in a big name like Larry Murphy, Chelios or Todd Bertuzzi. Holland isn’t gun shy; just smart. He looked at what it would cost to acquire free-agent-to-be Marian Hossa, but balked at the price that likely would have included up-and-comer Valtteri Filppula and a bunch of prospects and draft choices. Give him credit, Holland knows Stuart is a top-four defenseman – and with Detroit still hoping for another Stanley Cup run, he couldn’t afford to let the deadline pass without making a move as insurance for his defense. Especially after seeing his team go deep into the Western Conference Final without Mathieu Schneider and Kronwall before losing to Anaheim.
"We think Brad's a perfect No. 4 for us," Holland told reporters. "He can play a little bit on the second power play, he can kill some penalties. He gives us something we're lacking. He's abrasive, he's 6-2 – you know when you go against some teams that have got some bigger forwards, we can match him up against those forwards.
"He’s a guy we talked a lot about signing last July when he became a free agent."
Stuart was one of the players Calgary counted on near the last deadline to put the Flames over the top in the playoffs. He was a headliner in Alberta. Why not Michigan?
What you have to remember is Stuart becomes another pretty good option (an upgrade) if Holland chooses not to bring back free-agent-to-be defenseman Andreas Lilja in the offseason. Also, Stuart has a history with coach Mike Babcock, who coached him in junior hockey. Plus, the Wings felt Stuart was the Flames’ best defenseman in the playoffs last spring.
The rich get richer? That’s how I look at it.
* After losing veteran role players Martin Gelinas and Jed Ortmeyer in consecutive days, both with anterior cruciate ligament injuries to their knees, Nashville looked to acquire fill-ins for the stretch run
"Five days ago, we were confident with our team and our depth," Predators GM David Poile said.
Small steps. Filling a hole.
In Nashville, it’s all about making the playoffs this time around. The Preds aren't a big bidder like they were last year, when they gave up a bundle of futures to get Peter Forsberg.
* After being turned down by Tampa Bay in a bid to get Brad Richards to center Rick Nash on the Blue Jackets' top line and failing to come to terms on a new contract with potential unrestricted free-agent captain Adam Foote, Columbus GM Scott Howson was able to turn the former Colorado Avalanche defenseman into a current Avs defenseman. And he got a first-round draft choice in either 2008 or 2009 (it's a 2008 pick if the Avs make the playoffs this season), plus a fourth-rounder in 2009 if Foote re-signs with Colorado this summer. Not bad, considering Foote likely wasn't going to re-sign with the Jackets and could have been lost this summer for nothing.
Howson also cashed in center Sergei Fedorov, another free-agent-to-be, to Washington for 19-year-old defenseman Ted Ruth, who has one goal and two assists in 31 games as a freshman this season at Notre Dame.
"We were trying to add," Howson said. "When we couldn't add the piece we really wanted to add, it was time to make other decisions. So we managed the assets we had."
"I’m still excited about this year ... and the future," Howson added, with the team coming off big wins in Ottawa and Montreal before the deadline to put them just five points behind the final playoff spot.
Trying to fill that huge hole on defense with the departure of Foote, however, won’t be easy.
* What is most interesting about the Blackhawks is that Tallon sent e-mails to every club listing eight players who could be available in trade discussions – goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, star winger Martin Havlat, Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault, Andrei Zyuzin and Rene Bourque. He came out of deadline day by making no big deals other than trading role players like Martin Lapointe and Tuomo Ruutu – getting potential power forward left winger Andrew Ladd from Carolina for Ruutu, and a 2008 sixth-round draft choice from Ottawa for Lapointe.
Ladd is a pretty good building block. St. Louis wanted him badly two years ago when they traded Doug Weight to Carolina. So often with power forwards, it takes time for them to develop. Ladd was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, he won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2007 and he now represents the only legitimate left-handed left winger the Hawks can count on. After seeing Ladd score a goal in his first game with Chicago, it’s clear this is a deal for now and the future – especially since Ruutu hadn’t scored a goal in his last 32 games in a Blackhawks uniform.
It wasn’t Brad Richards or Brian Campbell, but the Ladd acquisition could prove to be as good for Chicago as another under-the-radar deal was for the Hawks a couple of years ago, when they got Patrick Sharp from Philadelphia for minor-leaguer Matt Ellison.
* Impact trade? No, St. Louis fans weren’t looking for the Blues to be big-time sellers like they have been when they turned free-agents-to-be Doug Weight and Mike Sillinger into futures two years ago and Keith Tkachuk and Bill Guerin for more futures last year. Plus, the Blues announced they had re-signed defenseman Barret Jackman to a new four-year contract on deadline eve.
The impact the Blues made this time was in the way of a crushing forechecker and fighter named Cam Janssen.
"He becomes a very aggressive forechecker who can make life very uncomfortable for the other team’s defensemen," said team president John Davidson. "Look at the way Jordin Tootoo in Nashville and Anaheim’s fourth line run our skill guys. The conference is big. It’s tough. You need energy people – and Cam is a guy that (Devils GM) Lou Lamoriello told me five other GMs in the Western Conference asked about after his shoulder injury was healed. That's the kind of intimidator we want on our side."
The Blues traded free-agent-to-be defenseman Bryce Salvador to New Jersey for Janssen, who also happens to be a St. Louis kid who grew up cheering for Blues tough guys Tony Twist and Kelly Chase. St. Louis also dealt another defenseman, Christian Backman, to the New York Rangers for a 2008 fourth-round draft choice.
Bottom line: The Blues are not big up front and top prospects T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller are not big, either.
Such is the state of the Central Division following trade deadline day. You still have Detroit leading ... and all the rest trying to catch up.
Around the Central -- While the Red Wings have enjoyed getting the opportunity to see young defensemen like Derek Meech, Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincey perform at the NHL level, they were looking more excitedly at their game Feb. 29 to leap out of their 1-7-2 funk – if you'll pardon the Leap Year pun. The 28-year-old Stuart is expected to play his first game in a Detroit uniform against the Sharks on that night – and he is scheduled to quarterback the No. 1 defensive pairing alongside Niklas Kronwall, who is returning from a month-long absence with a shoulder injury. ... Three goals in the third period by rookie Ericsson, Pavel Datsyuk and Valterri Filppula in Edmonton on Feb. 26 was a good sign for the stumbling Wings. Obviously, the offense isn’t asleep anymore. ... With Chris Osgood still showing signs of inconsistency in goal, the Wings got word that Dominik Hasek is healthy again and ready to test his balky hip. ... Detroit’s 4-7-2 record going into their Feb. 29 game represented the team’s first losing month since January 2003. ...
The Nashville Predators didn't exactly have a memorable game following the trade deadline, losing 8-4 at Buffalo on Wednesday. The loss tied a Predators record for most goals allowed, and was the third time in last seven games the Preds had given up six or more goals. Ouch! ... It was the first game in Western New York for J.P. Dumont since he left the Sabres as a free agent in July 2006 to sign with the Preds. Dumont played five seasons for the Sabres, collecting at least 20 goals four times. Now, however, Dumont and the Predators would just as soon not see the Sabres anytime soon after losing to Buffalo 7-2 last season and surrendering eight goals this time. ... Jan Hlavac had just nine goals in 62 games with Tampa Bay, before the Nashville Predators acquired him for a 2008 seventh-round draft choice. After traveling all day, he was one of the few Preds to show up in Buffalo, contributing a goal in the second period. ... Defenseman Marek Zidlicky set up Hlavac's goal and two others, giving him three multiple-point nights in his last six games. ...
With the departure of Adam Foote and Sergei Fedorov from the Columbus locker room, veteran leadership apparently will have to come from the experience provided by Michael Peca and David Vyborny, and the next tier of younger players – Manny Malhotra, Jason Chimera, Rick Nash and Ron Hainsey. And since Peca and Vyborny will be unrestricted free agents this summer and may not be in the picture, this playoff push will be very, very important to coach Ken Hitchcock and Co. ... Vyborny woke up from a season-long snooze to score two goals in the team's first game after the trade deadline – a 4-2 setback to San Jose on Feb. 27. Vyborny hadn't scored since Dec. 27 and hadn't had a two-goal game since early last March. The loss was the Blue Jackets' sixth straight at home. ... Gilbert Brule will be the beneficiary of more minutes up front with the trade of Sergei Fedorov. He may even get time on the first line with Nash again. The 2005 first-round pick has been much more visible of late, contributing points in two of his last three games. ...
Obviously, the Blackhawks viewed their relative inactivity at the trade deadline as a sign of good faith by GM Dale Tallon. In their first game after the deadline, Chicago won a hard-fought defensive struggle, 1-0, against Phoenix on Feb. 27. It was the team's second straight shutout at home. ... After missing 35 games with a groin injury and sports hernia, Jason Williams got the only goal in the win against the Coyotes. It was his second goal in four games back. ... With Martin Lapointe traded to Ottawa, Jonathan Toews wore an 'A' and officially took on the leadership role everyone else around the NHL already knew he had in Chicago. ... The win over Phoenix gave the Hawks 30 this season. The last time they had more than 31 was in 2001-02, when they won 41 times. ... Now, the bad news: Martin Havlat appears to have once again injured his left shoulder – the one that caused him to miss 22 games after being hurt on opening night. Early indications are that he could be lost for the season. ... Another downer: Brad Richards, the player Tallon wanted most before the trade deadline, had a career-high five assists in his first game with Dallas – a 7-4 triumph over the Hawks. ...
Keith Tkachuk reached the 20-goal mark for the 14th time in his last 15 NHL seasons with the only goal the St. Louis Blues scored in a 3-1 loss to Dallas on Feb. 26. It was only the third goal the Blues had scored on 113 shots in their last four games (they went 4-for-155 on shots in five games after a 2-1 loss to Phoenix on Feb. 28). ... David Backes had nine or more hits for the third time in his last 10 games in that Dallas contest.
The week ahead -- Round 6 of the Blues-Red Wings divisional grudge match continues at Detroit on March 5. St. Louis gained the lead in the series, 3-2, on Dec. 31 when former Wing Manny Legace stopped 31 shots for his 20th career shutout and handed Detroit its first shutout loss at home since Jan. 7, 2004. That 2-0 win came just five days after former Blue Chris Osgood blanked St. Louis, 5-0, for his second shutout against the Blues this season. ... Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson faces his old Edmonton team twice this week, in Edmonton on March 2 and in Columbus on March 7. Rick Nash scored two of his three goals in the third period of a 4-2 Jackets win at Columbus on Dec. 31 to avenge an earlier loss at Edmonton by a 3-1 score.