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Injuries, free agents create intrigue before deadline

by Kevin Weekes

This is it: the home stretch. The final few weeks of the regular season are upon us, and it should be an interesting run up to the playoffs and what could be an eventful summer.

When you consider some of the players currently dealing with injuries, as well as impending free agents who could be dealt before the upcoming NHL Trade Deadline, certain teams looking to make a deep playoff run are facing some huge decisions in a short period of time. How they handle those decisions could be almost as exciting as what happens on the ice.

It starts with the New York Rangers. They've been one of the League's hottest teams, but the Rangers are in a really interesting situation right now. Who knows what is going to happen with the contract situations involving Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi? I played with both of them. Both these guys have earned the right to earn their dollars as potential unrestricted free agents, especially a guy like Girardi.

He is a guy who was not drafted, and I give him a lot of credit for how he's been able to evolve his game and what he's been able to grow into. He has become an NHL All-Star and he's going to get the money if he gets to the open market. But is he going to get the same chance to win?

What makes this situation so complicated is the fact that, after goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, Girardi and Callahan may be the most popular players among Rangers fans. That's because they epitomize the team. A lot of people look at New York and get stuck in the glitz and glamor. But if you've ever lived in New York, you know that people in New York are grinders. It doesn't matter what industry you're in. If you're doing well in New York, it's because you're in the grind every day hustling. That's why a lot of people really identify with Callahan and Giradi. They are two blue-collar players. You win with guys like that. But is the grass going to be greener somewhere else? Maybe.

The Rangers have a real unique situation with their cap, but you can make a similar argument when you look at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Toronto has a lot of core pieces locked up, but goaltender Jonathan Bernier has come in and been a rock star this year. He only has one more year after signing a two-year extension over the summer. Is it an immediate order of business to re-sign him? Probably not. But is it something they can tend to this summer? I would think so.

Another upcoming free agent in Toronto who is really intriguing right now is Dave Bolland. I'm a huge Dave Bolland fan. He's a winner. The bigger the game, the bigger he plays. He's always been like that. Look at the Maple Leafs. When they got off to their great start, a big part of it was Bolland, who is slowly working his way back from injury.

Don't get me wrong, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk are amazing players. But as far as intangibles go, especially for a team that has a chance to get into the payoffs and maybe make some noise, a two-time Stanley Cup champion who scored the Cup-winning goal last season and is from Toronto is pretty important. I don't see how there can be any discussion of trading him. They have to find a way to get him signed.

These questions keep coming up in Toronto. Look at Mason Raymond, who was signed to a one-year, $1 million contract and has been a great value; possibly the best $1 million player in the League. He'll be due for a raise, and Nazem Kadri is also a restricted free agent in 2015.

When you look at it that way, Toronto has some interesting business to handle.

The dominant teams in the Western Conference don't quite have the same salary drama, but it's definitely worth keeping an eye on their rosters over the coming days.

The San Jose Sharks are very intriguing with the returns of forwards Logan Couture and Raffi Torres. Couture is a star player, but Torres had a major impact on the Sharks when he came in last season. He brought his speed, physicality and tenacity to a group that was lacking that combination on their third and fourth lines. But he's also skilled enough to make plays and score goals.

Don't forget that Tomas Hertl is skating again. I think they're a pretty complete group, and now they're going to be getting these guys back. If Marty Havlat can stay healthy, my goodness; when he's got his game going, he's an upper-echelon player in this game.

Let's definitely keep an eye on the St. Louis Blues. Do they make a play for Callahan and Ryan Miller, who appears to be on his way out of the Buffalo Sabres organization? I'm interested to see what the Blues are going to do and how they handle it going forward. They have an excellent group and coach Ken Hitchcock has done a great job over there. But can they get by the top teams out West with their current roster? I don't know. I think they can use an extra piece or two. It all depends at what cost.

These are just some of the reasons the next few weeks, maybe even the next few days, could dictate who ends up making a run in the postseason.

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