Thursday, January 30, 2014

What to expect when you're expecting moves geared toward a playoff push

There is nothing that the upcoming three-game California-based road trip that kicks off tonight in Anaheim will reveal about the current Philadelphia Flyers roster and coaching staff that hasn't been exposed already.

Those of us with astute minds have been waking up every morning the last week or so, and scanning social media during the day and evening hours, looking for that inevitable deal that might serve to provide a suitable rudder for Craig Berube's club.

But it's highly unlikely any significant move will be made from the braintrust on South Broad Street before the NHL pauses for its Olympic Break at the end of next week. A trade embargo will be enacted during the time the Sochi Games are contested, so that eliminates two weeks from the calendar where otherwise idle hands might steer clear of the Devil's workshop.

That lack of initiative on the part of GM Paul Holmgren may spell doom for the club's playoff hopes.

At least from the standpoint of need, the mathematics of a trade are simple. The Metropolitan Division is crowded in its middle, with just six points separating second place from seventh place. Out of this morass, only two playoff berths are guaranteed, with two more wild card spots on the line and four more teams competing for those final slots.

Failing to deal in this slim nine-day window (which was a two-week window not so long ago) and letting the club play its schedule out as is, given the roller coaster ride through the season's first 54 games, is completely inadvisable.

After treading water for half of the season, Columbus gained a player without the benefit of a deal -- a healthy Nathan Horton -- and has gone 9-4-0 since then to become a serious postseason contender. Detroit will have some combination of, if not all five players who missed Tuesday's shutout loss (Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Bertuzzi, Franzen, Howard) returning by the final segment of the season.

Holmgren cannot afford to bank on injuries and poor play affecting other clubs, and not moreso than his own, for the remainder of the year. Once the league returns from Russia at the end of February, it's a shotgun finish where the other 29 general managers will be working feverishly to upgrade their club or get fair return in selling mode. The screws of any potential deal will be at their loosest point during this period, and if the Flyers are to gain that player or players who will make a difference, the voices on the other end of the telephone line are most reasonable right now.

Aside from that, why risk valuable games down the stretch breaking in a new player while playoff position slips away? Bringing in new blood now provides the rest of the coaching staff and team to acclimate themselves to the new addition. There are six games remaining before the break and every point is valuable, too valuable to risk standing pat.

Before any potential deal is consummated, remember that there are certain criteria the Flyers front office will use to ensure they are making that mythical best move to help the organization.

A) "Fair Value" -- Karmic retribution from Keith "The Thief" Allen's days still hangs over this organization's head, and in the cutthroat business of winning, there will be no sparing Philadelphia's feelings when Holmgren gets on the horn looking for upgrades because he's dealing from a position of great need.

You think he's trying to fleece the other guy? Hell yes. But the "other guy" has grown significantly wiser over the years, so Homer is left explaining away some deals that were and even more that weren't with the code words of "fair value" or "giving our team the best chance to win." And in some cases, left in front of the cameras barely able to contain his own emotions.

That has meant a series what can best be described as low-risk, high-reward trades where a body is dealt for a draft pick. There hasn't been a single transaction where three players have changed hands under Holmgren since Luke Pither was sent to Carolina for Brian Boucher and Mark Alt a little more than a year ago. You have to go back to the Richards-for-Simmonds/Schenn shocker on June 23, 2011 for a deal of some consequence involving three actual humans.

Since the onset of play once the NHL returned from Vancouver, Holmgren has pulled off 15 trades where at least one pick was given up for a player, and several times in that frame where multiple draft picks were released -- a prime example of which was sending both second-and-third-round slots to Dallas in exchange for everyone's favorite whipping boy Nicklas Grossmann in February of 2012.

Holmgren's made trades with 22 of the remaining teams in the NHL, which leaves only a small fraction that haven't gotten a feel for how he does business. Of those, Montreal, Boston, Ottawa, Washington and New Jersey are conference rivals with playoff seeding on their minds and won't simply give in to whatever's on the table.

B) Inter-conference Trading Partners -- The club's last significant non-free-agent-based person-for-person swap with another franchise inside the Eastern Conference came when James van Riemsdyk was shipped up to Toronto on Draft Day (June 23) 2012 for Luke Schenn. The last one before that was Simon Gagne to the Lightning for Matt Walker in July of 2010.

Counting the Downie-for-Talbot swap, since Holmgren was given full control in October of 2006 he has made 58 deals. His most favored trading partners have been Nashville and Columbus (7) and Tampa Bay (7). A distant second is Anaheim (5), then Los Angeles (4), with Calgary and the Islanders clocking in at three apiece.

Including Columbus and Detroit, which up until this season were Western Conference clubs, 38 transactions occurred between the Flyers and a team from the opposite conference. That strategy was formulated to ensure no deal comes back to haunt the Flyers in the form of a certain tradee playing spoiler for playoff seeding or helping the new club take down his old mates (a la Ruslan Fedotenko) ad has largely been successful.

Safe to say, with the Bolts in line to receive an automatic playoff bid standing second in the Atlantic Division and with the impending return of Steven Stamkos after the Olympics, Holmgren and Steve Yzerman aren't going to burn through their long-distance minutes.

Edmonton and Phoenix have long been rumored to be moving pieces or putting veterans up on the trading block. Nashville's relationship with the Orange and Black has soured since the Shea Weber debacle, but business is business, and if a deal is amenable, the Music City will hum with anticipation. A dark horse is Ken Hitchcock and the Blues, who may need that indescribable something to put them over the top against Chicago and Colorado. The last time Philly and St. Louis worked a deal was during the Bob Clarke era, when Eric Weinrich was recycled for a fifth-round pick in February of 2004.

C) Cap considerations -- Chris VandeVelde was placed on waivers Wednesday afternoon, and if he goes unclaimed by posting time as is expected, the Flyers are still on the hook for his salary when he gets sent back to the Phantoms. It would be easier for Holmgren to propose a meaningful deal with a portion of Double V's $550,000 price tag off the books if another team claims him.
  
The Flyers are looking at three restricted free agents (Brayden Schenn, Erik Gustafsson and Michael Raffl...five if you include the recently activated Marc-Andre Bourdon and yo-yo Tye McGinn) along with six UFA's (Steve Downie, Adam Hall, Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, Hal Gill and Ray Emery). From that list, it's simple process of elimination who is most likely to be brought up in trade talks and who is most likely to be dealt when the pressure is on.

Call me crazy, but perhaps the rationale behind alternating Meszaros between healthy scratch and offensive dynamo, is to keep his "hot streak" fresh so that any potential deal includes at least a high-level, young player of either skating position and a high draft pick.

With their current 25-man roster, the club has almost $2.4 million of wiggle room, plus only 15 players guaranteed to be under contract next season.

The time is right for something to go down. Recall in earlier years the seemingly-lopsided deals for Dale Hawerchuk and Tony Amonte which lifted above-average Flyers teams to division titles and high seedings.

That was in the old four-division format where teams with losing records made the playoffs. There is no luxury for patience in today's NHL, and in a conference where 13 of 16 clubs have "winning" records as of today. Fear of a mistake cannot be an option, because the worst thing to do at this stage is nothing.
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