PHILADELPHIA — Dale Tallon said he couldn’t sleep. The general manager of the Florida Panthers had two enticing offers for the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft. Should he trade it to the Vancouver Canucks, who had been after it for weeks? To the Philadelphia Flyers?
By noon Friday, Tallon and his staff decided the offers weren’t enticing enough. A little after 7 p.m. ET, just before the Panthers were about to make their selection, the Flyers tried one more time to pull off a blockbuster before their booing, cheering fans at Wells Fargo Center.
“We thought about it,” Tallon said, “and then called them back and said no.”
So the Panthers made Aaron Ekblad the first defenseman to go No. 1 overall since 2006, and the rest of the top five went about as expected. The Buffalo Sabres, who had planned to drop back if the Panthers traded their pick, took center Sam Reinhart. The Edmonton Oilers took center Leon Draisaitl. The Calgary Flames took center Sam Bennett. The New York Islanders took winger Michael Dal Colle.
But even though the Ottawa Senators didn’t trade captain Jason Spezza, either, a couple of big deals did go down. The Anaheim Ducks acquired center Ryan Kesler, and the Pittsburgh Penguins sent winger James Neal to the Nashville Predators.
The Ducks earned 116 points in 2013-14, second-most in the NHL, and lost a seven-game series to the Los Angeles Kings, the eventual Stanley Cup champions. Now they have a one-two punch at center with Ryan Getzlaf, a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, and Kesler, who scored 41 goals and won the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward in 2010-11.
“I’m going to Anaheim to win a championship,” Kesler said.
Kesler plays hard. He also has a lot of hard mileage on his body as he approaches his 30th birthday, and that could be an issue. But he’s signed for two more years at a cap hit of only $5 million, and if he can stay healthy, he can help the Ducks match up with anyone in the West. He can score, and he can check. He can play on the power play, and he can kill penalties. He can win faceoffs.
“Just having those two guys back-to-back, the two Ryans, it makes Mr. Getzlaf’s life a little easier right now, too,” said Ducks GM Bob Murray, who didn’t give up the 10th overall pick or any of his top prospects. “I think we’re going to be a harder team to play against right now.”
Kesler asked out of Vancouver. The Ducks tried to land him at the trade deadline. Mike Gillis, then the Canucks’ GM, probably couldn’t have gotten more then, but he didn’t close the deal, perhaps under orders from ownership.
Jim Benning, who took over for Gillis, was in a difficult position. Kesler had a no-trade clause and limited the market to only two teams – the Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks. Benning said the ’Hawks stayed in to the end, but he took center Nick Bonino, defenseman Luca Sbisa and the 24th overall pick from the Ducks. The teams also swapped third-round picks.
Benning said he did not want the Kesler situation to “fester” the way the Roberto Luongo saga once did. He felt the asset value would be better now than later.
“He just felt he needed a fresh start, and quite frankly, we don’t want somebody that doesn’t want to be here,” Benning said. “We would have liked to have kept him, but his mind was made up, so we did the best we could in the situation.”
Benning made two more deals. He traded defenseman Jason Garrison – whom he had dangled to the Panthers as part of a package for the No. 1 overall pick – with the rights to prospect Jeff Costello and a seventh-round pick, receiving the 50th overall pick from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Garrison gives the Bolts a booming shot from the point and bolsters their top four, but he was a disappointment in Vancouver and has four more seasons at a $4.6 million cap hit. Benning also sent a third-round pick to the New York Rangers for winger Derek Dorsett.
Had the Canucks landed the No. 1 overall pick, too, Benning would have made a hell of a splash in his first big day as an NHL GM. Still, he got rid of a headache, cleared cap space to add a goaltender in free agency (Ryan Miller or Jonas Hiller?), added three decent NHLers and ended up with a second first-round pick. The Canucks took winger Jake Virtanen sixth overall, then center Jared McCann 24th.
Kesler said he wanted to win a championship, and “four years is a little too long for me,” referring to a rebuild in Vancouver. But Benning doesn’t look at it that way.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a rebuild,” Benning said. “We acquired players that we thought are going to have an impact on us winning next year.”
Neal has scored as many as 40 goals. But he also has taken bad penalties, gotten suspended and been difficult in the dressing room, and asked about that, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford said: “Everything comes into play when we look at moving a player.”
The Penguins acquired winger Patric Hornqvist and center Nick Spaling. Hornqvist comes a little cheaper than Neal – four more years at a $4.25 million cap hit vs. four more at $5 million – and GM Jim Rutherford said that might allow the Penguins to add someone else in free agency (Nikolai Kulemin?) to play with Evgeni Malkin. Hornqvist is a heart-and-soul, dirty-area player. Spaling can play any position on the third line, bolstering the Penguins’ bottom six, a problem spot.
“It’s really different type of players that the Penguins don’t have,” said Predators GM David Poile. “I think with the high-end talent they have, this is a perfect fit.”
Neal fits the Predators for a simple reason: He’s a goal-scorer, and they need to score more goals. Poile knows former Penguins GM Ray Shero and former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma well because they worked together for Team USA, and you would assume he consulted them about Neal, though he wouldn’t confirm that.
“If you’re asking about red flags or things like that, you do your due diligence,” Poile said. “I just think he’s a really, really good player. I think he’s an exciting player. For a team that’s been challenged offensively, it was a deal that we wanted to make.”
Neal won’t be playing with someone like Malkin with the Predators – Mike Fisher is their best centerman – but Poile is well aware of that.
“That’s the next piece,” Poile said. “We have to find a centerman.”
If only Spezza would go to Nashville. He is on the block and has some control with a partial no-trade clause (Nashville is on his “no” list). Senators GM Bryan Murray said four or five teams had called him, and three suggested they were very interested. But none came back to him Friday, not even after the Kesler domino fell. Murray was looking for a mid-to-late first-round pick as part of the deal.
The question now is how Murray will adjust his demands.
“I don’t know,” Murray said. “I really don’t. We know we have to get return for a quality player, and unfortunately it didn’t happen today.”
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