Who to blame for dull deadline day
Leafs GM Brian Burke set the bar at two first-round picks for unproven talent
The Capitals, Penguins and Devils made their moves to counter each other
Miikka Kiprusoff is likely to suffer Olympic hangover if Calgary makes the playoffs
You know it was a dull day in the trade market when the most interesting thing on TV was the commentators almost coming to blows defending their positions on players who, by and large, even hockey fans wouldn't recognize if they showed up on their doorsteps with their names on big cardboard signs. (See the reruns of the TSN marathon coverage on the NHL Network.)
Few, if any, general managers other than Toronto's Brian Burke were willing to give up two first-round draft picks no matter how good the player being dangled at the deadline might be. Some teams -- Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia to name three -- needed a substantial upgrade in goal and could have gotten one had they met the price being asked by Florida for Tomas Vokoun. But when Burke set the bar at two first-rounders for an up-and-coming forward (Phil Kessel) last September, one could hardly blame the Panthers for asking at least as much for a quality netminder, albeit one who has yet to win a playoff series. Toss in Vokoun's $6.3 million salary for next season and all of a sudden a tandem of Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet (Chicago) or Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov (Washington), or the suddenly interesting play of Michael Leighton in Philadelphia don't look like such risks.
The reality of trade deadline day is that nearly everyone in media speculates about possible blockbusters in near ridiculous combinations, but few if any teams will give up a quality netminder, a game-controlling defenseman or a crease-crashing power forward even when salary cap pressure has reared its ugly green head.
Most deals have become housekeeping, tweaks (Coyotes GM Don Maloney acknowledged that he made one just to swap out a right-handed shooter for a left-hander) or the equivalent of a selloff before the good ship Free Agent sets sail next summer. Its why mostly all we saw moved on Wednesday were closeout and clearance items at prices teams felt they could afford to pay.
Eastern chess game
You are likely wondering how a team that needed a reliable goaltender and rock-solid defenseman settled for additions to its already awesome offense and was still classified as the Eastern Conference trade deadline "winner."
Part of the reason is price (see above on Vokoun) and part is that topflight goalies, defensemen and power forwards don't usually move at the deadline. So what Capitals GM George McPhee did was make some technical additions designed to give him depth if already-rostered players go down during three or four grueling rounds. Offensive-minded Joe Corvo, Milan Jurcina, Scott Walker and Eric Belanger might (and we stress the word might) help the Caps get past the true contenders in their conference: the Penguins and Devils.
Oddly enough, the Devils set the Caps' wheels in motion. Seeing the firepower in Washington and Pittsburgh, New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello made a successful play for Ilya Kovalchuk before the Olympics. He knew his team was strong defensively and, supposedly, in goal, but didn't have the offensive might of the Caps and Penguins. In moving early, Lamoriello gave his two rivals time to react and both responded by adding depth, largely in areas where they were already strong.
Penguins GM Ray Shero obtained Alexei Ponikarovsky from Toronto not just because he's a winger with some size (that he doesn't always use) and scoring touch (that isn't always in evidence), but because he was a childhood friend of Ruslan Fedotenko. If coach Dan Bylsma hooks up a line of Ponikarovsky, Fedotenko and Evgeni Malkin, he has an all-Russian trio that can communicate in Russian. That happens to be a big deal for Malkin, who is a talented but high maintenance player who likes to be in a comfort zone. Speaking his native language to wingers and friends helps make him happy.
The Ponikarovsky deal also allows Bylsma to keep the surprisingly effective but low maintenance line of Sidney Crosby centering for Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin together. Crosby drives the Penguins bus, but the team needs Malkin to produce at an All-Star level if it hopes to win a second consecutive Cup.
Shero doesn't balk at acquiring players with expiring contracts. He knows he's paid the price to keep the core of his team in place. In picking up soon-to-be-unrestricted free agents like Ponikarovsky and defenseman Jordan Leopold (who moves quite often at the deadline), Shero gave his core an infusion of new talent, which is huge.
McPhee did essentially the same, knowing full well that he added depth for the short term but has room to handle the economic considerations of his core now and during the next round of negotiations. Corvo, Jurcina, Walker and Belanger built their reputations on offensive contribution, so McPhee added a little more volume than Shero was able to grab, hence the Capitals were dubbed the deadline "winner" even though Shero did a very good job of improving his lineup while Lamoriello landed the most talented player.
It's always fun to watch emerging talent during an Olympic year, but GMs tend to keep a closer eye on veterans who maybe didn't do as well as they'd hoped in the cauldron of the Olympic flame.
The San Jose Sharks saw their No.1 goalie, Evgeni Nabokov, lose his last game before the break to Buffalo. Then they witnessed a meltdown of stunning proportions while he played for Russia against Canada in the Olympics. Nabokov, who has been a part of San Jose's inability to succeed in the playoffs, came out of that mess with a 4-3 loss to New Jersey in his first game after the break. That doesn't seem so bad, but he was tagged for four goals in a row before the Sharks were able to respond with one. He'll likely be back in net against Montreal, but the Canadiens will probably put forth Jaroslav Halak, who was solid for Slovakia and seems to be their goalie of choice for the stretch drive.
Martin Brodeur should rebound from his poor game vs. Team USA in the preliminary round (a loss that cost him his spot as Canada's No.1 goalie for the remainder of the tournament). He's mentally tough enough, but hasn't been spectacular in the playoffs the last few years. Many observers think it's because he's been overplayed during the regular season while he chased records established by Patrick Roy and Terry Sawchuk. There has been no letup in Brodeur's workload. He, too, will be closely watched leading up to and during the postseason.
The same watch is on for Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who also fell apart in the Olympics against Team USA. He lost Wednesday night when his Flames put in a dispirited performance vs. Minnesota en route to a 4-0 loss. Like Brodeur, Kiprusoff is often overworked, and though the Flames did pick up Vesa Toskola from Anaheim (a strange move), Toskala is not likely to get more than two or three days off during the stretch drive and no time off should the Flames make the playoffs (which is now more unlikely than before the Games).
Kiprusoff was nowhere near the worst player on the ice for the Flames on Wednesday night, but his psyche has to be fragile. Being the last stop for a team that isn't playing anywhere near like a team can hardly be a confidence-lifter for him.
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