the Fifth Line: Fancy a Trade?

I may have misspoke last week.

New Jersey Devils v Columbus Blue Jackets

Is… is that David Clarkson in a Blue Jackets sweater?

I figured the trade deadline this year would be a hum-drum affair, with teams adding depth but not making huge splashes.

I was right. But I was also very, very wrong. We’ll start with where I was spot-on: the final day of trading, March 2nd, was boring.

The Main Event

Maybe “boring” is a little bit strong. It was fascinating in the way a game chess grandmasters both trying to lose against each other might be fascinating. It was exciting in the way that visiting the dentist without him finding a cavity is exciting.

Maybe “boring” is the right word. Interesting, sure, but boring nonetheless.

To whit: the St. Louis Blues traded for a solid but concussed defenseman (Zbynek Michalek), a young “defenseman” whose natural habitat is the penalty box (Robert Bortuzzo), and a quickly-fading veteran (Olli Jokinen). Nothing exciting. That’s an interesting haul, for sure — you’d figure the Blues were pretty stocked on defense, PIMs, and low-scoring forwards. I guess St. Louis can never have enough of their trademark heaviness, even if they’re still soft in goal. Interesting, but not exciting.

If you’re a fan of teams like the Canadiens, Islanders, or Red Wings — that is, teams for whom the playoffs are more or less guaranteed — you were probably satisfied but also bored. No matter what depth these teams acquire, their Cup chances rely on: Carey Price continuing his Vezina- (or Hart-) level season until the end; Kyle Okposo returning strong in time for the playoffs; or Datsyuk & Zetterberg remaining 100% healthy for the playoffs. Tense, perhaps, but not narratives that make for an exciting trade deadline.

Or perhaps you like your lack of excitement in the form of a slow-moving car crash. Then Buffalo had you covered on Trade Day.

Tank!

Imagine a car erratically driving toward a wall at no more than 10 MPH, but continuing to reverse and “crash” repeatedly, over and over, until the car starts to look like it was actually in a high-speed collision. Imagine the 2015 Buffalo Sabres.

Not exciting, but horribly fascinating. The Sabres traded away a trio of decent forwards (e.g., ones that might be unable to stop themselves from scoring the occasional goal) and an over-performing goalie. In return, they got four draft picks, a prospect, and a goalie in his fifth year who’s started less than 50 games. They also got a lot worse this season.

That’s intentional. The Sabres have made no bones about wanting the best chances to draft generational talents Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. But the players and coaches are in the unenviable position of trying to play well and win while their front office gives them no support in doing so. It leads to awkward Trade Day interviews like the one with Chad Johnson, that inexperienced fifth-year goalie who ended up in Buffalo. TSN’s interview was basically a lot of variations on, “the Sabres acquired you because they want to suck — your thoughts?”

A much more fun approach would’ve been to simply play this song (“Tank!”) every time the Sabres came up on Trade Day. Also because the Cowboy Bebop credits are more fun than anything TSN had on the air Monday:

I was right that March 2nd would be boring. But my assertion that all the days leading up to the deadline would be unexciting, however, was very wrong.

Hiding in the Prologue

For all the lack of excitement that was March 2nd, the days leading up to it were a Mardi Gras parade on ice.

It all kicked off shortly before I posted last week’s hockey musings — Jaromir Jagr was going to Florida! That was unexpected. Jagr reportedly wanted out of New Jersey, and to play for a contender… which made it odd that he ended up with the Panthers. I mean, it makes sense to infuse a young, offensively-challenged team with a savvy, goal-scoring veteran. At the same time, however, Jagr jumped from one low-scoring team outside the playoff bubble to another.

And, then…

And, then, ladies and germs, we got Christmas in February (along with Boxing Day). Toronto found someone to take the toxic contract of David Clarkson off their hands. The biggest albatross around the next of the NHL’s biggest franchise was suddenly on his way to Ohio in return for a highly-paid skater who may never play again. It was the most absurd trade possible, but it also made a strange and terrifying sense.

That is, the Maple Leafs were paying a decent 2nd- or 3rd-line forward (Clarkson) the kind of money you dole out to a dependable goal-scorer. Due to injury, and the fact that he only ever broke 30 goals a season once, Clarkson never lived up to his pay. Nobody except Toronto seemed surprised at this turn of event.

Meanwhile, in Columbus, the Blue Jackets had given a contract of roughly the same size to Nathan Horton, a forward who may have been worth it. But in his second season with Columbus, Horton would be diagnosed with a degenerative back injury that cost him this season, and potentially the rest of his career. Because Horton’s contract wasn’t insured by the Blue Jackets, they couldn’t recapture the salary cap space lost to his long-term injury.

The trade made sense because of that last sentence. Now Toronto has Horton, and they CAN stash his contract on long-term IR, opening up a lot of cap space. Columbus still has an oft-injured forward on an expensive contract, but at least that cap space is being occupied by someone who can play. Both teams somehow traded the manure in their fields, and ended up with a bed of flowers. I mean, there’s still the stench of feces, but at least the lilies look pretty and cover up some of that smell.

(Postscript: Because nothing good can happen in Columbus without it turning into an injury, Clarkson pulled an oblique, and will now miss 4-6 weeks. Naturally.)

Mighty Tradin’ New York Rangers

While the Clarkson/Horton deal was the biggest shock of the days leading up to the deadline, there was a lot of fascinating — and not boring — action leading up to the evening of March 1st. Calgary seemed to realize that its playoff odds were looking rather long, and traded Curtis Glencross to the Capitals. The Red Wings’ blue line acquisition (Erik Cole) was the final Sunday trade, and in between the two were a flurry of transactions from the New York Rangers.

The Rangers added depth to their forward lines (but not really) with a bottom-six winger (James Sheppard) and a Swedish prospect (Carl Klingberg). They traded away a 4th-round pick to the Sharks and Lee Stempniak (!) to the Winnipeg Jets. The Stempniak trade is surprising. He’s usually the kind of journeyman veteran that playoff teams want during a run (this is his third time traded at the deadline), while Sheppard fills a similar role with less experience.

But even before those deals, the Rangers went all-in on solidifying their defensive corps, adding Keith Yandle and Chris Summers from the Coyotes. They paid well for the pair, too — defenseman John Moore, forward prospect Anthony Duclair, and two high-level draft picks. The Rangers look primed to return to the Stanley Cup finals. They also look primed to be the team standing around with and empty farm system and aging players really, so they need to win the Cup ASAP.

Second City, First in Deals

Making an even bigger splash than the Rangers were the Chicago Blackhawks. Faced with the prospect of missing league-leading scorer Patrick Kane until well into the playoffs, Chicago made some attention-grabbing deals.

Friday night, they traded a couple of draft picks to get veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen from the Flyers. They followed this up on Saturday by getting veteran center Antoine Vermette from the Coyotes in exchange for a 1st-round draft pick and defensive prospect Klas Dahlbeck. Chicago rounded out trading season in a surprise move, trading fourth-line forward Ben Smith for a slightly more veteran (and less expensive) grinder in Andrew Desjardins.

The Timonen deal made me happy — the blue-liner turns 40 in two weeks, but he’s a savvy veteran who hasn’t played all season. The hope is that a partial season means that he’ll have plenty of energy for a deep playoff run. And the payment for him was reasonable, at the time.

The Vermette deal feels a little more like a “wait and see.” Chicago didn’t necessarily need center depth, but someone who can dominate the faceoff dot on a second or third line is nothing to sneeze at. The price is what’s a little worrying: the ‘Hawks moved an actual asset (Dahlbeck), and also gave up their only good draft pick left for 2015. These are less severe than they would be to other teams, as Chicago is stacked on their roster, and are notorious for not having room for prospects.

The worry is that the ‘Hawks have left themselves to the mercy of free agency and the economy of the salary cap. The management of their recent young assets has been worrisome. Blackhawks fans should cringe when they hear the NHL Network proclaiming that the Hayes brothers and Brandon Pirri are the hottest skaters in the league right now. You’d think Chicago would’ve got more than draft picks and half of Kris Versteeg for them. You’d be wrong. This is the team that had a decent asset in Jeremy Morin, remember. Instead of utilizing him or trading him when he had value, they equivocated so badly that the only thing they got in return was a defenseman that they just gave away for free to the Maple Leafs.

The Ben Smith deal seems to possibly address this issue. On the ice, Desjardin gives them little more than ill-defined “grit.” On the books, however, he gives them additional cap space to keep top prospect Teuvo Teravainen on the payroll. If the ‘Hawks play long enough to get Patrick Kane back, they’ll be a favorite for another Cup. If that happens, these trades will look brilliant. Some big “ifs.”

Panther-watch

The Florida Panthers are still two points behind the Boston Bruins for the final playoff spot in the East. Even worse, the Panthers had a perfect chance to pick up those two points against a recently-gutted Maple Leafs on Tuesday. Instead, there was a surreal sequence that started with Roberto Luongo getting injured. Back-up Al Montoya came in during the second period while Luongo changed into his street clothes. Then Montoya got injured, and everything went crazy.

It looked like goalie coach (and former player) Rob Tallas might suddenly find himself in the net. He had the pads on and everything. Instead, Montoya decided to soldier through the pain, but it was obvious that he had almost no mobility, and quickly gave up the lead. Everybody looked to the bench to see if Tallas would hit the ice. Instead… who’s that coming down the tunnel?! Is that Luongo, back in his pads and ready to play through injury? It is!

Bobby Lu played the last half of the third period, stopping all the shots that came his way, but his teammates couldn’t even the score. Those two points were critical — Boston has two games in hand, as does Ottawa… wait, what’s this? The Senators have almost caught up to Florida?!

SENATOR-watch?!

Andrew Hammond is the feel-good story of the late season. The BGSU alum is on fire between the posts, turning in a 6-0-1 record with his first seven starts. And because the Bruins and the Panthers keep struggling, Ottawa suddenly finds themselves only four points behind the Bruins, with the same amount of games remaining.

Four points is a lot to overcome this late in the season. Even if the Senators somehow make it in, a seven-game series means that teams will have time to solve Hammond. And yet this is some serious excitement in Ottawa. They’ve taken 13 of a possible 14 points with Hammond in net, and made the moribund playoff race in the East actually not-boring. Now I have two teams to cheer for in the other conference, and that’s rather exciting.

-J.

-J.

The entity known as -J. would be at home in a place like Carcosa or Night Vale, but instead lives near a far more dreary place -- Wrigley Field. He is the patron Addisonian of whisk(e)y and tabletop games, and is often adorned with a waistcoat & his ridiculous mustache.

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