Deadline Fast Approaching

Without question, the post-lockout National Hockey League is a game of margins. The Buffalo Sabres, currently sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, have scored six more goals than they’ve surrendered. Yet they find themselves two points behind the ninth-place New York Islanders, who have a minus-22 goal differential.

Likewise, the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes have earned 56 points in 54 games, only ninth best in the East. But if they manage to hold onto their slim division lead, they’re guaranteed a spot in the postseason ahead of the New York Rangers, who have also accumulated 56 points (while having played only 53 games).

Of course, the margins are critical off the ice as well, where the salary cap has severely curtailed the trade market. The Rangers, for one example, have approximately $2.5 million in cap space available; given that the season is more than half over, that would free them to add a player with an annual salary of nearly $6 million (when also taking into account the player who would subsequently be subtracted from the roster).

However, spending that money this season will have a decidedly negative effect on next season’s payroll. Jaromir Jagr’s Rangers-friendly contract comes off the books, and the Blueshirts will also be on the hook for up to $2.8 million in bonuses likely due Brendan Shanahan (including $2 million of which were attained when he played his 10th game) that will count against next season’s cap. Given that they currently sit in ninth place in the East, spending next season’s money now—thus reducing what they’ll have to pay RFA-to-be Henrik Lundqvist and any desired UFAs—hardly seems wise.

Further complicating matters, differentiating the buyers from the sellers is more difficult this season than it’s ever been before. With only nine points separating the 15th place Tampa Bay Lightning from the Hurricanes (and Tampa holding two games in hand), there isn’t a single certain seller in the Eastern Conference. Out West, things are nearly as tight, with only eight points separating the 14th-place Chicago Blackhawks from the seventh-place Colorado Avalanche. Indeed, the Los Angeles Kings, currently 12 points out of eighth place in the Western Conference, are the only team certain to hold a fire sale between now and February 26th.

Irrespective of the results of the coming four weeks, one extremely popular Eastern Conference team must join the Kings and make the difficult decision to sell and begin a long-overdue rebuilding process.

Much like the Rangers of the late 1990s, and early 2000s, the Toronto Maple Leafs operate under the presumption that their fans will not tolerate anything but winning. Toronto’s passion for the Leafs is all consuming, their sports-talk radio stations dominated by Leafs speculation whether January or July. And just like the Rangers of the aforementioned era, the Leafs are learning the all-too painful lesson that the only thing worse than losing during a rebuilding effort is losing while prolonging the inevitable deck shuffling.

Last week, the Leafs finally dropped the guillotine on long-embattled GM John Ferguson Jr., bringing in former GM Cliff Fletcher as interim GM. Ferguson had his priorities in the right place, focusing his attention on the team’s defense and goaltending (just as Brian Burke did with the 2007 Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks). But the choices he made didn’t work out according to plan, not even close. With nearly $25 million devoted to the league’s fifth worst defense, and all of the primary offenders signed through 2008-09 (if not longer), it became painfully clear that Ferguson had to go.

Rather than making a quick decision regarding a replacement, the Leafs instead brought veteran hockey man Cliff Fletcher back as interim GM to oversee the team’s anticipated fire sale. During his time as the Leafs’ GM in the early-to-mid 1990’s, Fletcher pulled off lopsided deals to acquire Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. And now, he’s expected to get the strongest possible return for Sundin, amongst others, while the Leafs search for Ferguson’s permanent successor.

At a salary of $5.5 million, Sundin should not be too difficult to deal. By the time the deadline arrives, only about $1.5 million will remain on his contract, and nearly every perceived contender should want to participate in the bidding war to acquire him. Though he’s certainly lost a step, the soon-to-be 37-year-old Sundin remains one of the game’s most dynamic forwards. And given the Leafs’ situation, it’s expected that he will waive his no-trade clause if the team decides to deal him away.

And as for possible destinations for the super Swede, the options are virtually limitless. He would be a great fit alongside Markus Naslund in Vancouver. He would help the goal-starved Sharks immensely. The Eastern Conference-leading Senators’ one weakness is their dependence on their top line; adding Sundin would change matters dramatically. And the NHL-leading Detroit Red Wings’ roster is littered with Sundin’s teammates from the 2006 gold medal-winning Swedish Olympic roster; Sundin would fit in perfectly there as well.

With the standings so incredibly close, the anticipated Sundin trade could have an enormous impact on the ultimate outcome. And so, while the Leafs evaluate their options over the coming weeks, speculation will reach a fever pitch not only in Toronto but also in up to 20 other NHL cities where Sundin might soon be donning the home team’s sweater. There may be a shortage of sellers with the league’s unprecedented parity. But if Sundin is made available to the highest bidder, there will be no shortage of intrigue. Let the speculation begin!

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