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All's not quiet on the NHL trade front

For a moment, it was quiet. After the latest big news – winger James Neal(notes) and defenseman Matt Niskanen(notes) traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, defenseman Alex Goligoski(notes) to the Dallas Stars – there wasn’t a single NHL deal for two whole days.

“It seems like everything’s done,” Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk said Thursday morning. But he was smiling as he said it. There were four more deals later in the afternoon, and there was one more as of Friday afternoon. And even though there have been 23 since Feb. 9 – with first-round picks, notable names and young players changing hands – there is the potential for even more significant action before the trade deadline at 3 p.m. ET on Monday.

“Some of the bigger moves and the bigger names that you expect on deadline day have already moved,” said Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, who has made three deals in the past week himself. “There will be activity through Monday where teams are going to try to tweak their teams, and then there may still be some big moves.”

The NHL hasn’t seen trade activity like this in years. The moves have come so early and often that some have worried there will be nothing left to buzz about on D-Day, which has blown up into a hockey holiday of TV specials, radio shows and Internet chats. But which would you rather have – a holiday or a holiday season? “It’s been an interesting month, but it’s been a pretty good one,” Rutherford said.

There have been at least 20 deals on deadline day alone each of the past seven seasons, with a record 31 last year. But even if there are fewer on this particular Monday, there will be an opportunity to dissect how much has already happened and why.

Each deal stands on its own, with teams addressing specific needs and taking advantage of unique opportunities, and this early flurry could be a one-year phenomenon. “You’re seeing a lot of these (trades) you don’t usually see, especially well before the deadline it seems,” Penguins GM Ray Shero said in a news conference. “I think this is somewhat out of the ordinary for all these hockey deals to happen during the course of the season.”

But if you’re looking for reasons behind a trend, start with the standings. They have been extraordinarily tight. All 30 franchises are firmly established, at least in terms of building a talent base, since the last round of expansion in 2000. The salary cap, introduced after the lockout of 2004-05, has helped distribute talent more evenly, and overtime losses now give teams extra points.

Entering Friday night, only six points separated fifth place through 12th in the Western Conference, including a clump of five teams with 70 points apiece. Five points separated eighth through 11th in the East.

The vast majority of the league at least has a chance to make the playoffs, and the feeling is that if you can just get in, you can go far. In 2006, the Edmonton Oilers made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final as an eighth seed. Last year, the Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs as a seventh seed – qualifying with a shootout win on the last day of the regular season – and came within two wins of the Cup, after beating the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference final.

“In the history of the National Hockey League, the competition has never been closer,” Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “And I think it’s going to be closer next year, it’s going to be closer the year after, it’s going to be closer the year after.” And so GMs can’t afford to wait to improve their rosters. “The managers feel the sooner they can add somebody to change their team, they’re going to try to do that,” Rutherford said, “and that’s why we’ve seen this.”

There were no trades in the NHL for three weeks until Feb. 9, when the Toronto Maple Leafs sent defenseman Francois Beauchemin(notes) to the Anaheim Ducks for winger Joffrey Lupul(notes), defense prospect Jake Gardiner and a conditional draft pick. There was a domino effect as all the buyers scrambled to snap up the best players available. “From talking to other managers, I think it was just good players moving early that spurred activity to get in on the deal before all the key pieces were gone,” Leafs GM Brian Burke wrote in an e-mail.

But a lot of these deals have been about the future, not just the present. Teams have paid a premium for players under contract beyond this season, and young players like Neal (23), Niskanen (24) and Goligoski (25) have been swapped.

The most surprising move might have been between two teams near the bottom of the standings, with 22-year-old defenseman Erik Johnson(notes) going to the Colorado Avalanche and 23-year-old winger Chris Stewart(notes) and 22-year-old defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk(notes) to the St. Louis Blues as part of a larger trade.

Parity puts pressure on everybody. If you aren’t part of the tight playoff race, you have to ask yourself why, and you have to put yourself in position to get back into the race as soon as possible. You might be less patient with a player like Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NHL draft, who played only 203 games for the Blues before they shipped him out. And in a younger league in which free agency now begins at 27, no longer 31, maybe you can afford to be.

“I do think that moving younger players now is easier to do, because when you go to make up for it, you’re not getting a player in his 30s that’s moving further away from his prime,” Rutherford said. “You’re actually able to get players that are just going into their prime now or in their prime.”

That’s the final factor in all of this: GMs are more comfortable with managing the salary cap and the other nuances of a collective bargaining agreement in its sixth season. Old thinking has given way to bold thinking.

“When you’re one and two years into the CBA, we’re all trying to figure out the dynamics of it,” Holland said. “In 2007, we might have been thinking a little bit about making decisions based upon the old CBA. We’re all now making decisions based upon the new CBA. … I think everybody’s got a pretty good understanding of how the system works – the short term, the long term.”

The system could change again with a new CBA due after next season, and the dynamics could change with it, especially if there are dramatic alterations like allowing teams to trade salary cap room. Many GMs have long wanted to move up the trade deadline, so acquisitions would have more time to gel with their new teammates before the playoffs. But they have shown this year that they don’t need an early deadline to get deals done.