The going rate was a package that included at least one first-round pick and a combination of young roster players, prospects or more draft choices.
|Will Toronto deal captain Mats Sundin? (Getty Images)|
Problem was, they turned out to be temporary rentals for the Nashville Predators, New York Islanders and Atlanta Thrashers, and none led his new teams beyond the first playoff round before leaving after the season.
Even so, those deals seemed to set the price bar for this season's trade deadline, particularly for impact rentals. But few are available this time and with less that two weeks to go until the Feb. 26 cutoff, there are conflicting views about whether the market will be as vibrant.
It's not particularly good news for those teams with the potential to cash in, but the new reality is an NHL now in the midst of its own sub-prime mortgage crisis, created by a salary cap and still having at least two-thirds of the teams with realistic playoff hopes. And it's making everyone approach what should be the most frenzied time of the year somewhat tentatively.
"Teams are going to have to make harder decisions about trading first-round picks and real good prospects," said Detroit GM Ken Holland, who tends to be a buyer at this time of year. "We're starting to get a real feel that the back end of your roster has to be cheaper players. If you don't have those players through the draft, through development, where do you get them?"
In some cases, you just wait for the July 1 free-agent market to open, something Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell will have to do if he can't -- or won't -- trade Marian Hossa by the deadline. It's a dilemma for Waddell because Hossa is an obvious rental target after rejecting several Atlanta extension offers, and along with Toronto captain Mats Sundin, one of the few players capable of bringing the kind of return Forsberg and company did last year. But Atlanta is still in position to repeat as Southeast Division champ and maybe get its fans excited for a change. Trading away a star just to recoup something at this juncture isn't likely to help that cause. That's particularly true if the return for Hossa is mainly in futures.
"If we're just looking at draft picks, we've got to take a step back and say, hey, those draft picks are going to be valuable to us three, four years from now, and you're not even sure what you're going to get in the draft," Waddell said. "I believe we're in a position to repeat and Hossa is one of our most important players, so we're utilizing him as much as we can to try to make sure that we stay in contention.
"If you end up trading a player for lesser players right now, it makes more sense to keep the players for as long as you can to try to establish yourself within your division."
In other words, unless Waddell is overwhelmed with an offer, he is prepared to let Hossa help the Thrashers go as far as they can and then let him leave for nothing if need be. Anaheim GM Brian Burke said that's going to happen more often in the future.
"I think people better get used to guys walking at the end of their contracts with the cap system," Burke said "You get the most out of a player and if he does walk, that frees up assets we have as a manager."
Of course for those who accumulate enough of them, like Nashville last season, there are still probably some deals to be made in the coming days. Sundin remains a potential short-term option for teams in search of an impact forward, and so does veteran Los Angeles defenseman Rob Blake. But both are pushing 40 and want to return to their current teams after the season, so the cost-benefit equation comes into play.
"I think you just build your team to get into the playoffs every year and go from there," Philadelphia Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said. "Stanley Cup winners come out of nowhere. You just never know."
That's why Holmgren was able to reap a serious bounty from Nashville for Forsberg. The Predators appeared to be Stanley Cup contenders and had an abundance of young players to go along with a deep farm system, and they thought Forsberg was the missing piece for a title run. He wasn't and it cost Nashville Scottie Upshall, a prospect who was a recent first-round pick, and a first- and third-round draft choice. Presumably that might lead to a little wariness among the buyers who have to weigh a short-term gamble against the need to keep an eye on the future, and so far it has. But don't bet on it lasting, Burke said.
"You've generally got a window on a team where you say in this period of time, we have a shot at winning, and if you're realistic, there's never more than three or four, maybe five (years) in that window," Burke said. "When you're in that window and you have the assets and ability to win, you've got to try to win.
"That's why we as a group make horrible, horrible decisions at the trade deadline. We make more mistakes then than we make the whole rest of the year combined."