It's time for general managers to put on their best poker faces.
With the NHL trade deadline – a.k.a. hockey's Silly Season – less than two weeks away, everyone pretends they're doing very little when in fact they're preparing to jump over each other to make what they hope will be the key move that lands the Stanley Cup, regardless of consequences.
"We make more mistakes at the trade deadline than we make the whole rest of the year combined," Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke said. "The pressure to win is so intense, unrelenting and unremitting that we as a group make horrible, horrible decisions at the trade deadline."
That may be true, but last year Burke did not practice what he just preached. The only move Burke made that affected the Ducks' roster was a deal that sent goaltending prospect Michael Wall to Colorado in exchange for veteran forward Brad May.
A couple months later, as everyone knows, Anaheim was the team skating with the Cup. No big splashy moves and no mortgaging the future to win now.
A record-tying 25 deals were struck on Feb. 27, 2007, and 44 players changed addresses.
Established veterans who were moved included: Keith Tkachuk, Ryan Smyth, Bill Guerin, Gary Roberts, Todd Bertuzzi, Mattias Norstrom, Jaroslav Modry, Georges Laraque, Scott Parker, Ville Nieminen and Dainius Zubrus.
Decent players in the midst of their prime – Martin Biron, Paul Mara, Pascal Dupuis, Dominic Moore, Aaron Ward, Jiri Novotny, Ty Conklin, Oleg Saprykin, Yanic Perreault, Dennis Wideman, Jason Ward and David Hale – all were dealt.
"I think all managers need to keep an eye on the future. Sometimes Stanley Cup winners come out of nowhere," Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said. "And you just never know. I think the idea is to just build your team to try to get into the playoffs every year and see what happens and go from there."
All was quiet on the trade front until Monday when Ottawa and Carolina hooked up with left wing Cory Stillman and defenseman Mike Commodore going from the Hurricanes to the Senators in exchange for forward Patrick Eaves and Joe Corvo. Sometimes when one deal goes down, it has a domino effect, but so far that hasn't been the case.
"The calls are slowly starting to come in now from general managers basically saying we're on the bubble and we're going to see here over the next week or 10 days whether we're a buyer or a seller," Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland said.
If you subscribe to names mentioned most often in the rumor mill, players who might expect to be moved include San Jose's Patrick Marleau, Toronto's Mats Sundin, Florida's Olli Jokinen, Los Angeles' Rob Blake, Atlanta's Marian Hossa, Tampa Bay's Dan Boyle, Calgary's Alex Tanguay and Buffalo's Brian Campbell.
Unrestricted free-agent Peter Forsberg looms in Sweden where he's hinted at possible return to the NHL.
"Everybody in the league is looking for scoring," Holland said. "And I think everybody's got probably three or four guys on their roster that you can count on to score and we're all looking for different people to step up."
The toughest call for some teams will be deciding if they are buyers or sellers. Do they have a chance to make noise in the postseason or should they use the deadline to take advantage of a more desperate GM?
Predicting who has a legitimate chance at the Cup is harder than ever. Tampa Bay and Carolina won in 2004 and 2006, respectively, but neither were favorites at the start of the regular season or even the playoffs. The teams that faced the Lightning and Hurricanes – Calgary and Edmonton, respectively – came out of the West as the No. 6 and No. 8 seeds. Anaheim was no fluke last year, but it marked the first time a team from the Pacific time zone maneuvered through all the added travel as a West Coast-based team to survive.
How close is the race? In the East, only eight points separated sixth and 14th place after Wednesday's action. Tampa Bay was dead last in the East, with three more losses than wins, yet the Lightning were six points behind division leading Washington and with a game in hand.
The West featured a 10-point spread separating sixth and 14th place. Really, the only team in the league legitimately out of playoff contention is Los Angeles.
"We're in a position now where 10 days ago we were in first place in our division and were second in the conference," Holmgren said of his Flyers. "Now we're in a spot where teams are creeping up from below and we seem to be sinking. So we need to get our own ship in order here and just go from there."
That was the dilemma Don Waddell faced as GM in Atlanta last season. His Thrashers enjoyed a big first half, but by the deadline had seen their double-digit lead in the division dwindle to a point, and the possibility of a first-ever postseason appearance was quickly slipping away.
Waddell swallowed hard and mortgaged a portion of the franchise's future by dealing blue-chip defense prospect Braydon Coburn along with first- and third-round picks in last June's draft and a second-round selection this year for veterans Alexei Zhitnik, Eric Belanger and Tkachuk, two of whom ended up being purely rentals. The Thrashers got into the playoffs, but didn't win a game, getting swept by the New York Rangers.
"For our franchise last year we paid a price," admitted Waddell, who doubles as coach this season. "But it was a price that we felt we had to pay because we were in our seventh year of our existence and hadn't been in the playoffs yet. We're still trying to build this market, build the interest in hockey. We knew that we had to make a statement last year."
"That's the type of pressure that goes into those decisions," Burke added.
What might be different this time around? Holland predicts contending teams that have players due to be unrestricted free agents on July 1 might be less motivated to trade them at the deadline for something in return as opposed to losing them for nothing after the season. The chance to win it all now comes into play with that thinking.
Also, the salary cap means teams have to often send money out on a trade to take money back.
"I think teams are going to have to make harder decisions about trading first-round picks and real good prospects," Holland said. "I'm not saying it's not going to happen."
He certainly doesn't want to say that, considering the Silly Season is almost upon us.
- NHL trade deadline