Well, the days are finally starting to get longer, the hockey is getting more serious and the trade deadline is looming with all its inherent speculation and crazy rumours. I hope the players who say they don't listen to rumours or read the sports pages these days (hello, Michael Ryder) really mean it. Because if, as a fan, it's hard to think of anything else, I can imagine how much more distracting all the talk is for players.
Will Bob Gainey move Ryder? Will he package Chris Higgins, picks and prospects for Marian Hossa or Olli Jokinen? What about the goaltenders...can Yann Danis or Jaroslav Halak bring something useful at the deadline? The questions are many, and as each day without any action passes I find myself scouring the web, even...God forgive me...reading Eklund for any hint of a juicy rumour. And I'm not the only one. Fan forums (fora?) and blogs all over the place...even legitimate media...are rife with speculation. It's distracting us from the fact that the Habs are only three points out of first in the East and could overtake Ottawa with a couple of good games this week. It's also making us overlook the contributions our players make in favour of speculation on what they might be worth on the open market and whom the team might acquire in exchange.
So, it's time to take a deep breath and channel Patient Bob for a moment. First, we must understand that Gainey never makes the trade everyone thinks he's going to make. Second, the trades he does make at the deadline tend to either add necessary pieces at cheap prices (Balej and a second for Kovalev), or exchange extraneous pieces for building blocks for the future (Rivet for Gorges and a first).
Focussing on what the team really needs right now, the priorities are obviously a big scoring winger to play with Koivu, a fourth very strong defenceman and a big, shut-down centre who's good on the draw. Of those needs, we then have to examine what Gainey can afford. Goalscorers with size are at a premium. They're what every team needs, and any good ones potentially on the market, like Hossa is rumoured to be, will cost young, talented roster players, picks and prospects, with no guarantee he re-signs after this season. The other needs might be more affordable, but before giving away assets, Gainey should look at options that cost the least first.
For low cost (just money, not money AND players) I advocate looking for free agents first. What's Danny Markov doing in Russia right now? He'd fit nicely in the number four defence slot next to Hamrlik and would help a lot for a playoff run. I'd also throw some money at Forsberg and see what happens. If free agents aren't available, then it's time to look at a trade.
I think if there's only one deal to be made before the deadline, it should be for a real shut down centre. The problem the Habs are running into repeatedly, especially when Carbonneau insists on linematching, is that the Smolinski line is out there against the other team's top line. Smolinski isn't the complete waste of space he was impersonating for a good chunk of the season to date. But he's no Guy Carbonneau either. The Habs need the guy Smolinski was supposed to be when Gainey signed him. I don't know who's available in exchange for Mathieu Dandeault or Michael Ryder and a pick, but if he's out there, I expect Gainey to land him.
That's the trade to which we can realistically look forward. I know the talk this year is that the East is wide open and the addition of a big gamebreaker could mean a guaranteed trip to the finals. But Gainey isn't going to trade players he's carefully cultivated for years for an UFA like Marian Hossa. He isn't willing to part with the price of an Olli Jokinen. If he can steal an underachiever for cheap, he might. But anything other than the quiet addition of a fourth d-man or checking centre would be not just surprising, but a good reason for me to have to use the crash cart I'm keeping in the closet for the playoffs.
So while we obsess over every scout spotted in the Bell Centre pressbox and every whisper of Ryder for Tanguay, we can rest assured that Patient Bob is quietly improving the team he's quietly built. It's not very exciting for flamboyant GM wannabes, but it's better for the heart. And it's certainly better for the team on the ice, which is turning out to be providing all the excitement we really need.