NAPLES, Fla. --
|Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford may be more inclined to make a deal before the NHL trading deadline because his club recently lost center Rod Brind'Amour to a season ending knee injury.
While every general manager here is trying to gauge the playing field leading up to the Feb. 26 NHL trading deadline, the five executives from the Southeast Division are also caught in an intriguing game of cat and mouse.
Entering play Tuesday, a scant eight points separate first place from last place, and only the Tampa Bay Lightning feel as though they may have slightly fallen out of the divisional race. Carolina, Washington, Florida and Atlanta are separated by a mere four points, meaning a short winning streak can put you in position to win the division, but a short losing streak could put you in position to land a top-five pick in June’s NHL Entry Draft.
Making matters worse, once these meetings break up Wednesday afternoon, these GMs will have only six days to assess their standing and decide if they’re buying, selling, or standing pat. It’s not enough time to figure everything out, which is making life quite difficult for Carolina’s Jim Rutherford, Washington’s George McPhee, Florida’s Jacques Martin, Atlanta’s Don Waddell and, to a lesser extent, Tampa Bay’s Jay Feaster, all of whom aren’t sure if they’re contending or rebuilding.
“I don’t know if there is enough time to assess, but if someone can make their club better without hurting themselves for the future they will,” McPhee told NHL.com. “I don’t know what we’ll do, if anything, but we have to explore just like everybody else.
“We’d certainly like to make the playoffs,” he continued. “If there is something we can do to help us get there we will, but having gone through what our club has gone through in rebuilding, it doesn’t make sense to give up young players that are going to play for us in the near future.”
The contending vs. rebuilding scenario can make for some sleepless nights, especially when no one has taken hold of the division and the current first-place team (Carolina) recently lost a key player in Rod Brind’Amour to a season-ending knee injury.
Does Brind’Amour’s injury open the door for a trailing team to make a move to pick up that missing piece? Will that move cost too much? Is your team, the way it’s currently constructed, good enough to make that move worthwhile?
All good questions. No good answers.
At least, not yet.
“For us it has been four straight years of being in the playoffs, and that’s something we anticipate and market to our fans,” Feaster told NHL.com. “If you’re a Washington or a Florida, winning the division and making the playoffs is a significant thing. I think it depends on each team’s situation as to how you view the fact that you may not have a team that is not going to be the Stanley Cup champion. I don’t want to say it’s specific to your market, but each market is unique.”
Carolina found a way around the competitive balance by finding a partner who also needed help in some areas. Rutherford dealt a pair of potential unrestricted free agents in Cory Stillman, who had 25 goals for the Hurricanes, and Mike Commodore to Ottawa for a younger forward in Patrick Eaves and a puck-moving defenseman in Joe Corvo.
“What I like about the timing of our trade is we do have a chance to take a look at the new players prior to the deadline and if we decide two days before the deadline we need something else to improve it, then we do it,” Rutherford told NHL.com.
Well, only days after consummating the deal with Ottawa, Brind’Amour suffered his knee injury. Now Carolina is faced with a depth problem at center, which could raise Rutherford’s phone bill over the next week.
“You can’t replace him (Brind’Amour), but at the same time you still have to look at improving your team,” Rutherford added. “You know he’s not there, but if you can get another player that can help your team, then you go forward and do that. If we can add a guy, it will be good.”
But as Rutherford can attest, making a player-for-player deal these days is extremely difficult because the money has to match up. Since most teams don’t want to part with prospects either, it’s doubly difficult to pull off such deals.
“I think the GM prefers to make those deals, but they’re hard to make,” Rutherford said. “It’s hard to match up the money.”
Waddell could wind up trying to make one of those deals for right wing Marian Hossa, the star of the trading deadline. But the Thrashers are only two points out of first place and their 25 points gained within the division is two better than Carolina, Washington and Florida. Tampa has 22 divisional points.
This is why Waddell said nothing can happen between now and the deadline that will turn the Thrashers into a seller -- even if they have Hossa on the block.
“If we trade the player, I can tell you we’re not trading for draft picks,” Waddell said. “You can talk about the future, but our future is current. If we were 10 points out of it we may look at it differently, but we feel like we can win our division. If we do make a trade like that, we have to make sure we’re getting somebody back that is going to help our hockey club immediately.”
What I like about the timing of our trade is we do have a chance to take a look at the new players prior to the deadline and if we decide two days before the deadline we need something else to improve it, then we do it. - Jim Rutherford
So, then it is possible that instead of subtracting a major piece like Hossa -- as many speculate Waddell will do -- the Thrashers not only keep him for the rest of the season and add a piece or two to bolster what could be a playoff team.
“You just have to get to the playoffs and who knows what can happen. First things first, we have to set ourselves up to get there,” Waddell said. “We’re talking to a lot of teams about some pieces.”
Florida, which is four points behind Carolina and in fourth place, is another team in the hunt with a major chip potentially on the trading block in Olli Jokinen, who has been rumored to be on the move for weeks. The Finnish center still has two years and more than $10 million left on his contract, which means the Panthers could still build more pieces around him or trade him for other pieces.
But Martin finds himself thinking like Waddell. There is no reason to trade him for future prospects when the team wants to get in the postseason now.
“If there is an opportunity to make a trade to improve your hockey club then you do it,” Martin told NHL.com. “It’s not a situation where you trade the guy for the future because we want to get into the playoffs now. It makes it more and more difficult to complete any transaction because so many teams feel they’re still in the hunt.”
Tampa Bay may not be one of those teams anymore, and its due in large part to one loss. The Lightning dropped a 3-2 decision to Washington this past Saturday night, a loss, Feaster said, that could prove decisive in their direction over the next week.
Tampa has two trading chips in defenseman Dan Boyle and winger Vaclav Prospal. They both could be unrestricted free agents after the season.
“You have to get to the point where you honestly believe that if you lose a player to unrestricted free agency on July 1, it’s not that you lost him for absolutely nothing because what you’re getting back is whatever that salary was and whatever that cap space was,” Feaster said. “I look at where we are as an organization and all we ever seem to do when we lose these guys on July 1 is we’re always trying to replace. We’re never adding more depth. That’s something when I look at our minor-league system, just from a depth standpoint, I think we need to be cognizant of. If we’re not going to make it (to the playoffs), then we need to start adding some depth.”
Of course, the Lightning could win their three games before Feb. 26 and Feaster could change his tune completely.
In the topsy-turvy Southeast Division, expect it to happen.
“It’s seductive,” McPhee said of the trading deadline. “Clearly you’d like to do something, but we won’t know until the last couple of days before the deadline what is available.”
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.