Joffrey Lupul(notes) was sleeping in a hotel in Vancouver, where he was supposed to play the Canucks on Wednesday night. He heard his phone vibrate. Then he heard the room phone ring. When he answered, he was told to call Anaheim Ducks general manager Bob Murray.
“At that point,” Lupul said, “I was pretty sure I knew what was going on.”
That sound Lupul heard was the opening bell of the NHL trade market. Lupul asked Murray where he was headed, and Murray told him Toronto. The winger had been sent to the Maple Leafs with defense prospect Jake Gardiner and a conditional draft pick in exchange for veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin(notes).
“You can expect more moves,” Leafs GM Brian Burke said. “We’re not done. We continue to be active. We have a number of things on the go. Nothing imminent at this point. That, of course, can change with a phone call.”
Burke was talking about the Leafs, but he could have been talking about the whole league in advance of the trade deadline – 3 p.m. ET on Feb. 28.
For weeks, it looked like trade activity would be relatively quiet. Teams were up against their internal budgets or the salary cap. The standings were so tight that there seemed to be far more buyers than sellers, and two of the sellers already had unloaded some assets.
The New York Islanders traded defenseman James Wisniewski(notes) to the Montreal Canadiens and goaltender Dwayne Roloson(notes) to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The New Jersey Devils traded captain Jamie Langenbrunner(notes) back to the Dallas Stars.
The standings are still tight, especially in the Western Conference, where only nine points separated third place from 14th entering Wednesday night’s action. Perhaps only four teams don’t have a realistic shot to make the playoffs – the Islanders, Devils, Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers.
But things can change with a phone call. About 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, after a morning skate in Detroit, Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz was asked for his wish list leading up to the deadline. He laughed with a nod to the standings and said: “Tell me who’s selling.” Just then, a Predators official checked his phone and informed everyone the Leafs had dealt Beauchemin.
Suddenly more buyers are more desperate, and some have more money to spend, thanks to injuries. Trade chatter has picked up.
The Pittsburgh Penguins – whose GM, Ray Shero, is known for swinging deadline deals – have lost center Evgeni Malkin(notes) for the season with a knee injury and have no timetable for the return of captain Sidney Crosby(notes) because of a concussion. The Boston Bruins have lost center Marc Savard(notes) for the season with a concussion. Like the Los Angeles Kings, Washington Capitals and others, they now need help up front.
There might not be a blockbuster coming – unless former superstar Peter Forsberg(notes) looks great making his comeback, the Colorado Avalanche falls out of contention and Forsberg waives his no-trade clause to join a team with a shot at the Stanley Cup.
But there are names to watch like the Leafs’ Kris Versteeg(notes), the Devils’ Jason Arnott(notes), the Senators’ Alexei Kovalev, Jarkko Ruutu(notes) and Chris Phillips(notes), and the Oilers’ Ales Hemsky(notes) and Dustin Penner(notes). More names will emerge if more teams fall out of the race.
“Every year there’s about 20-plus moves,” one general manager said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see 20-plus moves again. The large majority of them are little moves, but a lot of times, it’s little moves that make a difference.”
Burke likes to make big moves, and he likes to beat the deadline. He made two trades on Jan. 31 last year, acquiring defenseman Dion Phaneuf(notes) from the Calgary Flames and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes) from the Ducks.
“I think when you get to the trading deadline, it’s kind of like a stampede,” Burke said. “There’s lots of milling around and lots of confusion. I think it’s much more difficult to act with clarity and purpose at the deadline. It’s almost like a party with a pinata. Everyone’s going for one player, everyone’s swinging at it, and it’s hard to stay focused.”
Burke insisted that he was not giving up on a playoff berth by making Wednesday’s deal, which makes sense for both teams in the short term and could pay off for the Leafs in the long term. The Leafs needed scoring and had depth on defense. The Ducks were in the opposite situation.
Beauchemin won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007, when Burke was the Ducks GM, and signed with Toronto as a free agent. But he wasn’t the same player with the Leafs as he was with the Ducks, and it was a victory for the Leafs to unload his contract, which includes another year at $3.8 million. The 30-year-old won’t necessarily go back to being that player by going back to Anaheim. He won’t be playing with Chris Pronger(notes) and Scott Niedermayer(notes) anymore; they’re no longer there. But he will bring a physical and veteran presence.
Burke drafted Gardiner 17th overall for the Ducks in 2008 largely because of his strong skating ability. Gardiner, 20, has 30 points in 30 U.S. college games with Wisconsin this season. If he develops, he could be part of a defense of the future that includes Phaneuf, Luke Schenn(notes), Carl Gunnarsson(notes) and Keith Aulie(notes), whom the Leafs will call up from the minors now that Beauchemin is gone.
Lupul, the seventh overall pick in the 2002 entry draft, has scored at least 20 goals three times. The 27-year-old joins the Leafs after missing about a year because of back surgery and an infection. He has only five goals and 13 points in 26 games this season, and he has two seasons left on his contract at $4.25 million each. But he was stuck behind top-end talent in Anaheim, and he will have no such problem in Toronto.
“I still feel 100 percent that I can take my game to the level that it was at beforehand and above that,” Lupul said from Vancouver in a conference call with reporters. “I think – actually, I know – that my best hockey is still ahead of me.”
Burke admitted he didn’t know that. “There’s a human element in all of this,” he said. “You bet on people every time you make a trade. That’s the bet. If this were just buying cars or buying livestock, it would be a lot easier, but we’re betting on human beings. But I bet on Joffrey Lupul because of his character and his skill level, and I believe he thinks he has something to prove.”
Lupul scored nine goals in 16 playoff games for the Ducks in 2006, only to have Burke himself trade him to the Oilers. But that was in a package for Pronger, who helped the Ducks win the Cup. Burke said the Oilers insisted on Lupul and that he tried to reacquire him later from the Philadelphia Flyers.
“(Lupul) said, ‘Why are you so excited to get me back when you moved me once?’ ” Burke said. “I said, ‘I moved you to get Chris Pronger,’ and I think everyone would agree that move paid off. We had a parade.”
The phone rings. Things change. Trades are made. Burke was asked in a press conference in Toronto if he thought he had a second deal done on Wednesday. He repeated the question to himself, perhaps for effect, musing at the microphone.
“No,” he said, “but the day’s not over.”
Nineteen days till the deadline.