Imagine you’re Jim Rutherford, the general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. It’s a week before the NHL trade deadline. Your team has suffered key injuries and is stuck in an 0-5-1 funk. Still, you’re three points out of a playoff spot, with a game or two in hand on the teams ahead of you.
What do you do?
Better put: What do you do in this market?
“I’ve been trying to get [a defenseman] for six weeks,” Rutherford said. “Can you get a defenseman? Yeah. Do you have to pay too much for him? Possibly.”
There is an unusual dynamic this year creating fewer sellers, higher prices and reluctant buyers.
The lockout shortened the season from 82 games to 48. It also pushed back the trade deadline from late February or early March to April 3.
Few teams are out of the race at this point, and more than half the league is on what you might define as the bubble. Sixteen teams are within five points of a playoff spot – plus or minus – seven in the East, nine in the West.
It’s a seller’s market – or should be. Less supply, more demand, right? Teams might be so desperate that they would inquire about Florida Panthers center Stephen Weiss, a pending unrestricted free agent out with a wrist injury, to see if he might be ready for the playoffs.
But here’s the problem: The standings are actually stratified despite the parity in the league, with the top contenders separating from the pack. There are fewer games left than normal at this point, and there will be even fewer left a week from now.
Is it worth paying a high price to rent a pending unrestricted free agent when you might have him for only about a dozen regular-season games – or, in the case of Weiss, when you might have him for no regular-season games?
“It’s a little bit different if you’re Pittsburgh or Boston or Montreal,” Rutherford said. “You know you’re in. But when you’re a team on the bubble like the Hurricanes, you could give a pretty good pick for a guy. It could improve your team. You could win more games, but not win enough. And then all of a sudden, now you still don’t make it. There’s risk involved.”
[Related: Bruins in driver's seat in Jarome Iginla trade derby]
Even if you do make it, your new player might not have had enough time to integrate into the system and make the desired impact in the playoffs.
Two other factors: The draft is strong this year, so picks are worth even more than usual, and the salary cap will come down to $64.3 million next season. Rutherford just signed winger Alex Semin to a five-year contract with a cap hit of $7 million. If you make a hockey trade, not just add an expiring contract, you could have a payroll problem.
“The other key for us is, where does he fit into our budget going forward?” Rutherford said.
If you have an asset a top contender wants, you can do very well. Two bubble teams have already moved veterans on expiring contracts to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the top team in the East, who targeted specific players to fill specific roles and got ahead of the market.
The Dallas Stars traded winger Brenden Morrow and a third-round pick for defense prospect Joe Morrow and a fifth-rounder. “There’s a limited number of players here, and that’s where you lead into a prospect like Joe Morrow,” said Penguins GM Ray Shero.
The San Jose Sharks traded defenseman Douglas Murray for a second-rounder and a conditional pick. “If you’re decisive in your decisions, you can get full value,” said Sharks GM Doug Wilson.
But few teams are likely to go for it like the Penguins are, and many bubble teams are likely to stay in wait-and-see mode – not selling because they don’t want to give up on a playoff spot, not buying because the benefits don’t outweigh the costs. The teams at the bottom of the standings frankly don’t have much to sell, like the Panthers, Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a blockbuster. The Calgary Flames appear ready to part with captain Jarome Iginla. That doesn’t mean there won’t be other deals, either. There will be some action.
[Watch: It's time for the Flames to trade Jarome Iginla]
But will the trade deadline – already less sexy these days, with more teams re-signing their own unrestricted free agents, thinning the rental market – be relatively quiet?
“I’d be surprised if a lot’s going to go on,” said Ducks GM Bob Murray.
Here are the biggest names to watch:
— Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames: He is the face of the franchise and has been reluctant to leave, but his contract is expiring and the Flames lack building blocks for their future. He has control because of his no-trade clause. The question is whether the Flames are asking for too much and whether Iginla wants an extension to waive his no-trade.
The Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks are possibilities, but both are stacked at right wing in their top six and would have cap issues in the future if Iginla requires an extension. There is a fit with the Los Angeles Kings in terms of style and a familiarity with coach Darryl Sutter, under whom Iginla went to the Cup final with the Flames in 2004. But the Kings would have trouble extending Iginla, too.
The best fit seems to be the Boston Bruins. Iginla is a big, bad power forward who can score and fight. The Bruins have cap flexibility. But what happens if the Flames hold out for a high return and the Bruins won’t give in, knowing the market is limited?
Flames GM Jay Feaster also might want to part with defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, but both have a year left on their contracts – Bouwmeester at a $6.68 million hit, Kiprusoff at $5.83 million. Bouwmeester has a no-trade clause. Kiprusoff reportedly would retire rather than report to a new team because he and his wife recently had a baby.
— Dan Boyle, San Jose Sharks: When he moved Murray, Wilson said it was easier because of the acquisition of Brad Stuart last summer. Stuart can fill the same physical role.
When asked about Boyle’s value as a puck-moving defenseman, Wilson said: “People are always looking for that.” Then he immediately added that was one of the reasons the Sharks acquired Brent Burns in 2011. Burns can create offense on the back end and run the power play from the point – when he’s not moonlighting at forward, anyway.
Is Boyle expendable? Maybe. A lot will depend on how the Sharks play in the next week and what teams offer. Boyle has one year left on his contract at a cap hit of $6.67 million, plus a limited no-trade clause. If Wilson can get what he considers full value, this might be the time to cash in. The New York Rangers badly need to generate more offense, and Boyle won the Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 under coach John Tortorella.
Wilson has two veterans on expiring contracts: Michal Handzus and Ryane Clowe. But they have one goal between them this season. Clowe has none and has seemed particularly slow, partly due to injury.
— Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold, Buffalo Sabres: GM Darcy Regier did well last year when he landed a first-rounder from the Nashville Predators – who were loading up for what they had hoped would be a Cup run – for Paul Gaustad and a fourth-rounder. Now he has a chance to rent Regehr and Leopold separately or, better yet, as a package.
The Kings are trying to repeat while missing two key pieces on their defense: Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell. Regehr and Leopold wouldn’t directly replace those two, but they would add depth – and both went the Cup final under Sutter with the Flames in 2004.
— Derek Roy and Jaromir Jagr, Dallas Stars: Another tough one for GM Joe Nieuwendyk. The Stars are still in playoff contention, but they have been burned before by hanging on to pending unrestricted free agents, missing the playoffs and ending up with nothing. See: Richards, Brad.
[Report: Miikka Kiprusoff tells Flames he'll be a no-show if traded]
The Stars already have parted with Morrow, their captain. Roy would help a lot of teams at center, like the Vancouver Canucks. Jagr won’t be cheap to sign, now or if he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the off-season. If the Stars can’t sign him before the trade deadline, they have to know he’ll leave in the summer if he finds someone who will pay him more. He would help a team like the Bruins, especially on the power play.
— Mike Ribeiro, Washington Capitals: Centermen are always valuable. But is Ribeiro worth the long-term deal he wants? Or would the Capitals be better off getting what they can for him now? They might not make the playoffs, let alone win the Cup. GM George McPhee has to make a long-term decision in the short term.
— Steve Sullivan, Phoenix Coyotes: He’s a skilled, experienced veteran. He can add offense, especially on the power play. His contract is up. Coyotes GM Don Maloney has been following the Penguins, with whom Sullivan played last season. What if Sullivan played on the left wing with Evgeni Malkin while Morrow played on the third line with Brandon Sutter? Or what if Sullivan was just a depth guy and power play specialist?
— Ales Hemsky, Ryan Whitney and Ladislav Smid, Edmonton Oilers: Hemsky is a skilled winger with another year left on his contract at a $5 million hit. The other two are defensemen on expiring contracts. Whitney is a puck-mover with a no-trade clause, Smid a shot-blocker without trade protection. Despite all their young talent, the Oilers still need more building blocks.
— Hal Gill and Scott Hannan, Nashville Predators: Gill is a big, shot-blocking, penalty-killing defenseman teams love as a final piece. The Predators picked him up at the deadline last season for just that reason. He has a year left on his contract, though, and Hannan does not. A lot probably will depend on how the Predators do over the next week and whether GM David Poile decides to sell.
— Adrian Aucoin, Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets have made a heck of a run recently, and they would be a great story if they somehow made the playoffs. But their focus has to be on the future, and if someone could use Aucoin on the blue line, great.
— Roberto Luongo, Vancouver Canucks: GM Mike Gillis has not been able to trade Luongo, and it’s not getting any easier. Luongo has a huge contract and a no-trade clause, so it’s hard to find a fit in the first place. No one seems desperate for a goaltender now, and there could be more options for teams this summer via trade and free agency, including names like Mike Smith, Ryan Miller and Tim Thomas. Unless Gillis pulls off a surprise or simply cuts bait, it looks like the Canucks’ biggest trade chip will go unused, in more ways than one.
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