The National Hockey League’s trade deadline hits at 3pm EST on Wednesday, and it is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing deadline days in recent memory. As NHL teams are categorized as either buyers, sellers, or sideline watchers based on their playoff positioning and overall team make-up, their fans and hockey followers across North America gear up in anticipation of the annual “deadline frenzy.” Who will be moved? Who will make the biggest splash? Which team will land that siginificant, to use Bob Gainey’s term, “impact player” that puts their team into that upper echelon of Stanley Cup contenders?
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Last year, the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired the missing piece of the puzzle when they acquired Atlanta Thrashers winger Marian Hossa along with Pascal Dupuis in exchange for a package two roster players, a high-end prospect, and a first-round pick. GM Ray Shero paid a high price, having to outbid many other interested teams, but Hossa was instrumental in Pittsburgh’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals. However, this year the Penguins are paying a price for the trade; Hossa signed with Cup winners Detroit on July 1st, and the loss of Christensen and Armstrong has hurt their depth. The “rental player” concept is one with high risks and rewards; unfortunately, more often than not, in the effort to win it all now, teams sacrifice a large part of their future. Imagine if the Nashville Predators had not traded for Peter Forsberg—Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, and two high-draft picks would have all remained with the Predators.

This year, there is an additional twist to all the rumours that will further complicate any potential trades—the salary cap situation. Many teams are right up against the cap and will be frustrated in their efforts to acquire a big-name player unless they are able to trade dollar-for-dollar, a prospect unwelcome to most teams in the “sellers” category. Philadelphia is one such team. Currently sitting fourth in the East, the Flyers are in need of strengthening their defence as well as their goaltending, as both Martin Biron and Anterro Nittymaki have had their struggles this season. They have been rumoured to be interested in Atlanta’s Kari Lehtonen; however, the return of Daniel Briere has pushed them to the very upper limit of the salary cap and already forced them to put two solid NHL players on waivers and send another to their AHL affiliate to accommodate Briere’s large salary cap hit. Moving a pick and/or a prospect only will not work for the Flyers if they hope to pick up a missing piece of the puzzle. And with the cap rumoured to stay even or perhaps drop next season, other teams will be reluctant to part with their younger, more inexpensive, players.

So just who are the buyers and the sellers this year? A quick glance at the NHL standings reveals that there are only perhaps seven teams that are definitively in the latter category. With under 20 games remaining in the NHL’s regular season, most of the teams feel they still have a chance to squeak into the playoffs, and only few have accepted the difficulty of their situation. We can say for certain that Toronto, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and the New York Islanders in the East, and Phoenix and Colorado in the West, will be moving out assets as they attempt to rebuild for the 2009-10 season. There is no shortage of attractive assets on those teams. As this article is being written, Bill Guerin is heavily rumoured to be on his way out of Long Island to an Eastern contender, a savvy veteran who will provide leadership and grit to any team he joins. Toronto GM Brian Burke has essentially stated that anybody not named Luke Schenn could be made available. Faced with a daunting salary cap situation, GM Bryan Murray in Ottawa may field offers for one of their “Big Three” of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, and Daniel Alfredsson (of the three, the only one with a no-trade/no-movement clause is Spezza) as Ottawa, for the first time in many years, approaches the deadline as sellers.

The list of teams looking to fine-tune their rosters by March 4th is very much a case of the rich looking to get richer. The Boston Bruins have all but locked up top spot in the East, but have been rumoured to be pursuing another highly-skilled forward for the playoffs. Erik Cole’s name has been mentioned. The Canadiens have been attempting to land Tampa’s Vincent Lecavalier for months, looking to bring in the type of franchise player unseen in Montreal since the days of Guy Lafleur. The Vancouver Canucks, winners of the Mats Sundin Sweepstakes, may be looking for an additional tool to take on the likes of San Jose and Detroit in the playoffs.

And there are many big game hunters potentially on the market this year. Free agency is looming for Minnesota’s often-injured superstar Marian Gaborik, Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester, and Toronto’s hulking winger Nik Antropov. Their respective teams have a tough decision to make—should they move these assets for an attractive package of picks & prospects, or tough it out in the hopes of re-signing them and risk losing them to free agency? There are also other very good players that could be moved at the deadline this year, including Chris Pronger, Keith Tkachuk, Olli Jokinen, and dare we even say it, Ilya Kovalchuk, whose contract expires in 2010? All the answers will be known at 3:01pm on Wednesday.

There will be no shortage of places to get those answers. In what is emerging as an unofficial national holiday for hockey fans, the major sports networks across Canada will all be providing extensive trade deadline day coverage. TSN will start its TradeCentre ’09 broadcast at 8am EST and run it until 5pm, featuring its high-calibre coterie that includes Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger. Sportsnet will begin HockeyCentral Deadline ’09 at the same hour with its excellent panel of analysts including Darren Millard and Nick Kypreos. And The Score, who started the phenomenon of covering trade deadline day, starts its coverage at 10am with Hardcore Hockey Talk hosts Steve Kouleas and Steve Ludzig.

If you’re at work, have no fear! The Internet will also be home to the frenzy of information, rumours, and wheeling & dealing on deadline day. All of the major networks discussed above will be streaming their broadcasts at their respective websites, along with providing real-time updates on their trade trackers and SMS messaging services. But the Internet also offers new venues and glimpses into what might be. There is a multitude of top-shelf rumour websites that all seek to deliver behind the scenes information and breaking news. Yahoo’s popular Puck Daddy blog will be running at full speed, HockeyBuzz will strive to bring you the (E5) before the networks, Spector will give you the usual top-notch reporting and analysis, and there are many, many more sites out there for your information consumption needs.

And we here at SCF will be getting in on the fun. The Hockey Chat forum will be a digital playground for its members this Wednesday. In addition to opening up a “Trade Deadline Day Discussion” thread to talk about all the activities of the day, the rumours, and the rumblings, we will also post separate threads for each trade shortly after it breaks. This will allow followers of a particular team to branch off into their own discussions without having to sift through all the other posts in the general thread. We likely won’t be breaking any news, but definitely come on by for some good-natured discussion of the trade deadline moves by your favourite team.

Also, keep your eyes on the Contests Forum for an exciting trade deadline-related contest!