CHICAGO – The strongest gusts of activity ahead of the NHL entry draft had very little to do with the teenagers waiting to be called to the stage at United Center.
There were trade winds blowing throughout the Windy City after a league-wide roster freeze was lifted on Thursday morning, and the possibility for some fireworks certainly seemed present with Round 1 looming on Friday night.
The early days of this off-season have taken on a different feel because of the Vegas expansion draft. Indeed, Golden Knights general manager George McPhee remains a key player this weekend since he’s still got 12 defencemen on his roster and has had extensive talks with all 30 teams in recent weeks.
“We have to move some contracts,” McPhee said Thursday night.
He’s not alone. There are some intriguing names out there.
Matt Duchene may finally be moving on from the Colorado Avalanche, if the whispers are true, and there remains plenty of smoke around Montreal Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk. New York Islanders defenceman Travis Hamonic’s name continued to dangle out there even after the team acquired Jordan Eberle from Edmonton.
Vegas could still part with veterans such as Marc Methot and Alexei Emelin. The Minnesota Wild were contemplating a trade involving one of their promising blue-liners – either Marco Scandella, Mathew Dumba or possibly Jonas Brodin.
Trades, we have come to learn, are difficult to pull off in a league choked by the salary cap.
But it should help that the upper limit has been bumped to $75 million for 2017-18 and a few franchises managed to unload unwanted contracts to Vegas in expansion.
There was also a sense that the market had been freed now that McPhee isn’t completely ruling the kingdom. He did a masterful job of making sure teams did business with him, rather than each other, in the lead-up to the expansion draft and it slowed the anticipated redistribution of players.
“Now that that’s all done with, it opens a new phase here,” said Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving.
“As with a lot of my counterparts, we were talking a lot about expansion draft,” added Ottawa Senators GM Pierre Dorion. “I think now that the expansion draft has been gone, regular trade talk will come back on.”
The draft is still fundamentally about the kids. All of the best organizations in the league are built on homegrown talent and, even if top prospects Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick aren’t on the same tier as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, they’re going to provide a boost to New Jersey (No. 1 pick), Philadelphia (No. 2), Dallas (No. 3) or whoever else might end up with them.
Treliving pointed out that there are still “really good players” in this draft class even if most will need extra seasoning before they’re ready to make an impact in the NHL.
However, we are often enthralled by the here and now, and this is basically a 10-day window where teams can attempt to get better immediately. Think about it: The period to have discussions with free agents opens after the draft and the large majority of signings are completed by July 2 or 3.
We typically see trades during this same stretch, but not many happen once you get to mid-July and beyond.
There is a lot of pressure to make something happen if you’re, say, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello and shopping for a defenceman. The Canadiens, Oilers and Flames could use one, too.
Habs general manager Marc Bergevin conceded “I need help everywhere” and sounded a lot like a man who had been burning up the phone lines in recent days.
So here we are at hockey’s version of an industry-wide conference, with team executives, scouts, coaches, agents and reporters all descending on the same place. The official order of business is the draft itself – a life-changing day for many young men – but the focus could change quickly if the GMs have their way.
You get the sense that a lot of groundwork has already been laid on potential deals. Perhaps, when commissioner Gary Bettman steps behind the microphone on Friday night, he’ll have a few opportunities to utter his patented draft-night phrase.
“We have a trade to announce…”