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From the Press Box: Loading Up To Repeat

Paul Bruno

Paul Bruno is co-host of the RotoWire fantasy hockey podcast, The Great Ones. He has been an accredited member of the Toronto sports media for more than 20 years. Paul also helps with RW's DFS podcast and is a contributing writer for RW NFL, MLB and CFL content. Follow him on twitter: @statsman22.

While trade deadline day itself was not full of big names on the move, the run-up to this period did see some solid moves made by contending teams. Let’s take a look at them and review the pending UFA list in light of those transactions – and others that did not happen.

Topping the list of UFAs who didn’t move is of course Steven Stamkos, whose situation has been highly publicized all season long. Publicly, he has stated his desire to be in Tampa and win a Stanley cup there. It seems a given that the Lightning will be in the postseason as one of the strongest clubs in the Eastern Conference. Tampa GM Steve Yzerman was not involved in any deals in recent days and has been idle in that regard for much of this season – but no fewer than 15 of Tampa’s current roster of 23 players will see their existing contracts expire between this season and next year.

Yzerman has clearly made the decision that he believes in this group and wants to give them every opportunity to go for the Cup now; he’ll deal with the consequences later. The Stamkos situation will be the key to determining the fates of many teammates – if he goes, there may be enough money to satisfy a number of other in-house contract situations.

The Bruins made a couple moves that are typical of clubs building up their rosters ahead of the postseason. They added winger Lee Stempniak, who’s reestablished his scoring credentials with 16 goals and 45 points in 63 games for New Jersey, showing that he’s still a capable top-six forward. Stempbiak signed a one-year deal for $850,000 at the start of this season, gambling on a belief that he could parlay a solid campaign into a better deal next year. With this trade, he gets the opportunity to strut his stuff on the playoff stage and should earn a nice raise for his efforts. The Bruins are already using him on their top forward line, so it’s clear they trust and believe in him.

Similarly, Boston acquired veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles for blue-line depth – he, like Stempniak, will see time on the club’s power play. The cost to bring in this pair of veterans was a minor league prospect and four early to mid-round picks over the next two drafts. That would appear to be a steep price to pay, but the Bruins have at least gauged that, apart from Washington, there’s no other dominant team in the East. At the same time, the Bruins were rumored to be offering Loui Eriksson, their own pending UFA winger at the deadline, apparently trying to swap him for other parts that could help immediately. That search was fruitless and GM Don Sweeney determined that the Bruins would be better off keeping him for their own playoff run. This outcome should be a motivator for Eriksson, who is enjoying his finest of three seasons with Bruins, having scored 49 points in 65 games.

For the first time in his tenure as the GM of the Florida Panthers, Dale Tallon was in position to be a buyer at this trade deadline. He’s built up this club with a series of shrewd draft picks and other player moves, with the result first place in the competitive Atlantic Division – and now he’s added to that mix with a trio of moves. The most significant impact should be on offense, as he brought in two of the most coveted targets. Jiri Hudler will start out on the first line and the top power-play unit, the same role he enjoyed in Calgary. Teddy Purcell, meanwhile, will be installed next to talented pivot Nick Bjugstad to boost a third line that could be among the best in the Eastern Conference. Tallon also added Jakub Kindl from the Red Wings, giving the Panthers an experienced depth player for the blue line.

The cost for adding these three veterans was two high draft picks in the upcoming draft and a lower pick in each of the next two years. At the very least, the club’s performance on the ice and Tallon’s efforts off the ice serve to give the Panthers a much more desirable profile to attract prospective free agents and even more paying customers. The evolution of this club is mirroring what Tallon produced in Chicago, and hockey fans know how that has turned out in recent years.

The Rangers came out of the trade deadline with Eric Staal, whose expiring contract represents the largest cap hit of any pending UFA at $8.25 million. They were in the fortunate position of being his only desired location if he was to be moved, simply because he wanted the chance to play with his brother Marc if he was going to leave Carolina and his other brother Jordan. The Hurricanes agreed to retain half of his cap hit for the remainder of the season. Even though he has only 10 goals and 33 points in 64 games this season, Staal can be expected to elevate his game after joining an Eastern Conference power that has a chance to make some noise in the playoffs. He’s been to the top of the mountain and his leadership skills will be of paramount importance.

Over in Los Angeles, the Kings also made a couple of moves, if only to keep pace with a couple of other teams who are expected to join them in a deep foray into the Western bracket of the postseason. Oddly enough, one trade even involved their rivals from Chicago. The Kings brought Rob Scuderi back for another tour of duty, hoping he’ll bolster the defensive posture of their second blue-line pairing alongside Alec Martinez, sharing the shutdown role against top opposing forward lines with the top unit of Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin. The addition of Kris Versteeg brings in an experienced forward who enjoyed lots of playoff success with the rival Blackhawks. He’s currently projected to work on the second scoring unit with Jeff Carter and Dwight King. The Kings added these moves to earlier acquisitions of Vincent Lecavalier, who’s been used in a third-line role, and blue-line depth addition Luke Schenn.

The other California teams were busy too. The Ducks brought on forwards Brandon Pirri and Jamie McGinn to give more depth to their offensive complement, which has been on fire ever since Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were separated. McGinn adds necessary depth on left wing, and when Pirri gets healthy, their offense should be able to roll out three capable scoring units on a nightly basis. In San Jose, the Sharks have to be thrilled with Martin Jones’ first season as their top goalie, but they brought in James Reimer to provide valuable insurance. In a second deal with Toronto, they also added Roman Polak, a tough defensive-minded blueliner, and Nick Spaling, an exceptional checking forward.

As for the Blackhawks, they are clearly intent on defending their 2015 Cup win and remain strong candidates for a fourth win in seven years after their own deadline moves. Including the exchange with Los Angeles that brought in Christian Ehrhoff to add puck-moving skills and defensive depth, they made five separate trades in recent days. They also added veteran Tim Jackman and Dennis Robertson for defensive depth, recalling how important that was in their Cup triumph last year, when they seemed to make alterations to that group on a nightly basis.

The Hawks’ higher-profile changes were on the forward lines, where they made a big splash in bringing back Andrew Ladd, who won a Cup in Chicago before he moved to Winnipeg five years ago. His return is expected to be a seamless one and is already off to a great start, as he already has a goal and assist in his first two games on a line with Jonathan Toews and Andrew Shaw. Not to be overlooked from that same deal is yet another experienced defenseman in Jay Harrison. Chicago also added forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise in a deal with Montreal that is designed to strengthen the bottom-six forward group. These moves represent the best work of any contending team to address needs and prepare for the playoffs, and they’re a loud signal to all comers that the champs are readying for a repeat performance.