At the beginning of the season, the Central Division was supposed to be the best division in hockey. Two-thirds of the way through the season, the Blackhawks are a juggernaut, the Predators have been surprising, the Wings have been hurt, the Blues have been disappointing and the Blue Jackets have regressed. Predictably, all 5 teams are in completely different situations going into the trade deadline. Here’s a quick look at each team and what we can expect from them at the Trade Deadline.
If you’re looking for any of the other divisions, you can find them all here:
Understatement of the Year: The Blackhawks’ salary cap situation has been very well documented. Yeah, you could say that. I think I’ve read more reports about the Blackhawks future problems with the cap than I have about California’s budget problems—and I live in California! Now that we’ve reached the trade deadline, what does it all mean?
A quick recap for the people that have a life: the Chicago Blackhawks managed to sign Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane andJonathan Toews to long-term contracts. It’s great for Hawks fans that they were able to lock all three up for a while, but something had to give in a salary cap world. As of this season, they’re still about $500,000 under the cap with their current roster. But once those three extensions kick in, they’ll be WAY over the salary cap. That’s why it’s interesting to see what the Blackhawks will do in the short-term to accommodate their long-term issues.
They already started to address those future problems before the Olympic break by trading Cam Barker to the Minnesota Wild for Kim Johnsson and prospect Nick Leddy. That’s exactly the template that the Blackhawks will be using when they trade away any of their other young players to clear salary for NEXT season. In getting Johnsson, they received a player that can do Barker’s job just as well (if not better). The difference is that Johnsson is an unrestricted free-agent and will be gone at the end of the season. He’s a strict rental. But in addition to the rental that can help them in the short-term, they get a prospect that can help them down the road. All while clearing out cap space. Know it and love it Hawks fans—this is what they’ll look to do.
Unfortunately, clearing out Cam Barker’s contract won’t be enough. They will still need to trade away Kris Versteeg, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland, Dustin Byfuglien or Brent Seabrook. If they end up moving one (or more) of these players at the deadline, look for them to get a player whose contract expires at the end of the season and prospects/picks.
Concerning areas of need, the Blackhawks are stacked up front. The have guys that can score, they have guys that can play the 2-way game and shut down opponents, and they have a lot of players that can do both. On the back-end, the Top 4 of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson is as good as any team in the league. But behind that, they might want a little depth to go with Brent Sopel and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Nice when a team’s biggest need is their 6th defenseman.
Lastly, the goaltending situation is something that seems to be getting a lot of attention in Chicago. While the forwards and defensemen have fans feeling confident, the Cristobal Huet/Antti Niemi duo doesn’t evoke the same assurance. It seems like every time a goaltender is rumored to be available, the first possible destination is the Windy City. Keep this in mind—even though neither goaltender is a household name, both have better goals against averages than Ilya Bryzgalov, Martin Brouder and Roberto Luongo. They must be doing something right. But like we’ve said around here before: when there’s this much smoke, there’s usually some fire.
An outsider looking at the Predators’ cap situation would see a figure that is $13.5 million under the ceiling for the rest of the season. They would look at that number and know that they could sign players that make up to $65 million per year. They would look at the numbers and the standings and know they could afford anyone they want—and could fill multiple holes with multiple people. But then again, those are the outsiders. The insiders look at the room under the cap and don’t think about the players they could buy, they think of the money that won’t be spent. Approximately $45 million doesn’t go as far as it used to.
Like a few other teams in the NHL, the Predators are operating under their own self-imposed budget to help keep things afloat. With the 3rd lowest payroll in the league, they still have 2 of the best young defensemen in the league and two outstanding goaltenders. Barry Trotz and his staff have once again squeezed the most out of their bargain basement team. By now, he should be used to this.
In most other situations, the team would go out and buy a couple of wingers that can score and a depth defenseman or two. Instead, the Predators are reportedly shopping Dan Hamhuis around to other teams and may end up doing the same with Dan Ellis after Pekka Renne’s extension. Worse yet, next season the Preds have six unrestricted free agents and super-defenseman Shea Weber is a restricted free agent.
Nashville General Manager David Poile has made a career of being one step ahead of the game to keep the Predators afloat on a shoestring budget. If he continues the trend, both Hamhuis and Dan Ellis could be traded away for picks and prospects that the Predators can groom (even though Poile insists that Ellis “isn’t any more likely be dealt”). The running in place has to be frustrating as a fan—but at least Poile is doing what he can to make sure that Nashville fans have a quality product year in, year out. It will be interesting to see if they go out and grab that scoring winger they need or if they trade current members of the team for future assets.
Detroit Red Wings
The lockout that brought us the salary cap was supposed to put all 30 teams on equal footing. It may have taken a few years and a plethora of injuries to make it happen, but the salary cap has finally caught up with the Red Wings.
The biggest problem the Wings have had during their below-average season has been injuries. They have had injuries to every type of player at every position. Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Nik Kronwall are only a few of the guys that have missed significant time this year to injury. Not even the mighty Red Wings have been able to withstand the personnel losses.
One of the major reasons that they weren’t able to overcome the injuries this season like they previously have is because of the cap. It’s been 9 months, but people forget that the Wings lost Marian Hossa, Mikael Samuelsson, Tomas Kopecky and Jiri Hudler over the offseason. I don’t care if we’re talking about Team Russia—if a team loses 4 of its most talented forwards, there is going to be a dip (Ok, maybe Russia is a bad example). Regardless, no team can lose four players and endure injures without having their lack of depth exposed. That’s all that has happened to the Wings this season—no more, no less.
Their biggest acquisition at the deadline should simply be some of their players coming back from injury. As soon as Holmstrom comes back from his injured knee, the Wings will be closer to full strength than they have been all season. Both Valtteri Filppula and Patrick Eaves look like they’ll be back after the Olympic break and Andreas Lilja is closer than he’s been in a year from the after effects of a concussion. That’s 3 acquisitions to help the Wings drive towards the playoffs.
For fans looking for something a little more exciting, it might be a disappointing Deadline Day. The Wings are currently closer to the cap than Mike Milbury is to a Jeremy Roenick right cross. They’ve already made one move to help get their cap situation straightened out by sending Ville Leino to Philadelphia for Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (and subsequently sent him to the AHL). They could use a little more scoring pop—but that’s where Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula should come into play. Chances are there won’t be anyone like those guys available—and if there were, Detroit couldn’t afford them.
It’s hard to believe that they’ll be a seller at the deadline since they’re 1 point out of a playoff spot, but they really don’t have much to work with. An unsuspected side benefit of being at the cap limit the last couple of years is that they have been trading their draft picks away like they had in the pre-cap world. Going into the deadline, they have all of their picks still intact if they choose to package them in a trade.
St. Louis Blues
Last year’s team of promise has been replaced with this season’s team of disappointment. They have gone from #6 seed in last year’s playoffs to the current 13th spot in the Western Conference. They were supposed to be competing with Blackhawks and the Red Wings for the Central Division title; not with the Blue Jackets for the worst record in the division.
The silver-lining to the slow start, a 3-game winning streak going into the Olympic break had St. Louis sitting only 4 points behind the 8th spot in the West. A week before the streak, the Blues were perceived to be one of the sellers at the deadline. GM Larry Pleau and ownership will have to make the decision whether they want to sell off some of their accumulated assets to win and make a push this season or if they are willing to trade their pending unrestricted free agents for a stronger future.
The reason the Blues situation is so interesting is the strength of their prospects. Most teams would kill just to have one guy like Alex Pietrangelo, Lars Eller, Philip McRae or Ian Cole. Wait, or maybe they’d kill for David Rundbland, Jake Allen or Aaron Pulushaj. Whatever—they have a ton of prospects and it seems like every single one of them is great.
Here’s the question that Pleau is going to have to answer at the trade deadline: Do the Blues want to trade away some of their prospects to get NHL ready players this season? Do they want to bring up some of the prospects to give them a taste of the NHL at the end of the season? Or do they want to stand pat and hope that new coach Davis Payne will have the Midas touch to help the current version of the Blues to the playoffs? The bad thing is that Pleau has to make such a decision—but at least St. Louis has done a good enough job of building their foundation that they are in the position to have to make this kind of decision.
If they decide to trade away some of their current players, the veteran free-agents-to-be will be the first on the proverbial chopping block. Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk and Brad Winchester are all players that playoff teams could use and all are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. For teams that are looking for a backup goaltender to help solidify things between the pipes, Chris Mason will also be unrestricted at the end of the season.
On the other hand, if they decide to stock up and make a run this season, take a long look at the forwards. Bottom line, they desperately need some help putting the puck into the net. They have plenty of assets they can move if they don’t want to wait. Whatever they do, they should find some players that know how to win a few games at home.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Not even earning points in 4 of their last 5 games before the break changes the direction the Blue Jackets should be headed this season. Even though the team has played better since Ken Hitchcock was fired as head coach, it still doesn’t change the fact that they dug themselves into a rather large hole over the first 50 games of the season.
The Blue Jackets will have tons of flexibility if they choose to start liquidating their assets. Only Mike Commodore has a no-trade clause that could limit Scott Howson from the restructuring he envisions. Chances are he’ll be looking to unload Raffi Torres and Freddy Modin to any and all takers. But aside from those two forwards, the Blue Jackets have very few short-term contracts. To swing any other trades, Howson is going to have to find a club that is interested in taking on a long-term contract.
If Howson is able to move any of his veteran players, draft picks and forward depth should be his favors of choice. The Blue Jackets have an extremely strong prospect pool, but if there are any areas that are weak, they are center and right wing. Prospects and draft picks. Sometimes it’s best to look towards tomorrow.