WINNIPEG, Manitoba – The trade winds blew through here in February as the Jets and Sabres swapped the likes of Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford in addition to a bunch of prospects. Those kinds of deals don’t happen much anymore. Neither does what went down early Wednesday night. It was a good old-fashioned hockey swap. One for one.
But a pair of top-five picks? Future star for future star? It could shape two franchises for several years.
It was pretty clear Ryan Johansen was on his way out of Columbus. But it was an absolute stunner to learn Seth Jones was leaving Nashville. Calling a winner in this one could take a long time.
Johansen, remember, quickly ran afoul of John Tortorella from the new coach’s first game with the Blue Jackets because of his lack of conditioning. His allergy to backchecking didn’t help the situation either but that doesn’t change the fact the No. 4 overall pick in 2010 is a supremely talented skater with great hands and the kind of player most any team would want.
That’s particularly true for the Predators, who have been back-end heavy for many years. Much like the Sabres built from Ryan Miller out, Nashville has gone heavy on goaltending (Pekka Rinne) and defense, with the likes of Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Jones. It’s not a great blueprint for success. If you’re not strong down the middle, you generally don’t go far in the postseason. especially in the Central Division. How are the Predators are going to get past, say, St. Louis or Chicago and perhaps even Minnesota without more help down the middle?
Said Nashville GM David Poile upon making the deal: “Today, in my belief, we accomplished something we haven’t been able to do in 18 years of our history, and that’s to acquire a No. 1 center.”
The Predators, remember, have an interesting history on this front. They drafted second in their 1998 expansion year, watching Tampa Bay take Vincent Lecavalier at the gathering in Buffalo while they landed current Sabres fourth-liner David Legwand. Now they get a guy who already has a 71-point season in the NHL and is signed for the next two years at a super-reasonable $4 million cap hit.
You have to wonder if the Blue Jackets will have seller’s remorse some day, like the Bruins have had in dealing both Joe Thornton and Tyler Seguin. But in Jones, a player who was widely expected to go No. 1 in the 2013 draft, they have the kind of top-pair defender they’ve lacked. Jones is a restricted free agent after the season and will be due a nice payday.
Columbus will be giving Jones big minutes the rest of the way against top competition to see how he fares; Ryan Murray has never been the kind of defenseman people thought he would be after being taken No. 2 overall in 2012, nor is Jack Johnson that guy. Jones didn’t have to be in Nashville but now will get plenty of opportunities in Columbus. The Jackets, meanwhile, get a player with nearly 200 games of NHL experience already.
There could be more of these kind of deals coming too. The Jonathan Drouin soap opera became white-hot in Tampa Bay last week when the Lightning sent the No. 3 pick in 2013 down to Syracuse and his agent, Allen Walsh, promptly made public the trade demands he first made to the team in November. Now we see what Tampa GM Steve Yzerman does with this one. Drouin and coach Jon Cooper have never seemed to mesh but it seems plausible many suitors will take a wait-and-see attitude with Drouin, watching his AHL games to see that he remains healthy and is productive.
The Islanders are still shopping Travis Hamonic, who wants to go home to Winnipeg. The Jets are said to be balking at sending blueline star Jacob Trouba back in return while still trying to decide what to do with defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.
Slate does no favors
The Sabres’ current road trip is yet another example of the utterly bizarre schedule the NHL handed them this year. Chicago-Winnipeg-Minnesota, then back home for two games on a back-to-back against Boston and Washington - and then back out on the road all the way to Arizona and Colorado? Would have made far more sense to just stay out here for a five-game jaunt.
But you can add that to these oddities: A stretch of seven November games where six were against St. Louis, Dallas and Nashville; a Western Canada roadie where the normal Edmonton and Calgary duo was split by the hike out to Vancouver; eight games in 14 days prior to a week-long Christmas break; and, next month’s California sojourn that’s no dream because the Anaheim-Los Angeles portion is split by the club having to find the way to San Jose.
Maybe you get an oddity or even two like that a season. But to get every single one? Suffice to say, you hear plenty of chatter - and some of it is from folks in other cities - that the league gave it to the Sabres on the schedule front this year as a payback for their tank. You got Jack Eichel? Fine, now go play this schedule.
In fairness, there are schedule vagaries all the time, in large part from arena availabilities and team requests. But there’s no denying this slate is terrible on many fronts.
Isles adjusting routine
The Islanders went 13-7-2 in their first 22 home games at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn but most of the players still live out on Long Island and the home game-day routine was arduous: Players would take a train to the arena, have their morning skate, meet the media, eat in the locker room and then get day rooms in a nearby hotel. They would essentially leave their homes in the 9 a.m. range and often not get back to them until nearly midnight.
Predictably, they have tired of the arrangement. The team said Thursday it will now switch the morning skates back to the practice facility in Syosset and the players will then simply have to take a late-afternoon train to the arena. Montreal, Washington and the New York Rangers are among teams with similar setups, with their morning skates at the suburban practice facility to avoid a long jaunt into a crowded downtown for the brief workout.
“It’s something we discussed in summertime in our meetings,” coach Jack Capuano told reporters after practice Thursday. “Whatever it takes to make the guys feel comfortable and be prepared for 60 minutes, myself and the coach staff will adopt anything we have to do.”
“There’s the ups and downs of the season,” said captain John Tavares. “Just because you go to Brooklyn twice on the train in the morning in the preseason and stay in a hotel and it feels great, now in January it may not feel that way. We’re just trying different things.”
Step up for Grier’s brother
When the Miami Dolphins promoted Chris Grier to general manager, the move resonated to Buffalo not just because it was an AFC East rival of the Bills. Grier just completed his 16th season with the Dolphins, the last nine as director of college scouting, and he’s the brother of popular former Sabres forward Mike Grier.
Grier started with the Dolphins in 2000 as a scout after serving in the same role for five years with New England. Mike and Chris Grier’s father, Bobby, has been an NFL executive since 1993. The Patriots let both him and his son go after the 2000 season and Bobby Grier has worked since then in the pro personnel department of the Houston Texans.
Around the boards
• You want a big difference between the Leafs and Sabres right now? Look at their play against the West. The Leafs entered Saturday’s game in San Jose 11-6-1 – tied for second in wins among Eastern teams against the other conference. The Sabres enter Sunday’s game in Winnipeg just 5-8-3.
Until Thursday’s 2-1 loss in Los Angeles, the Leafs had gone a remarkable 7-0 against the Kings, Dallas, St. Louis and Nashville. The Sabres are just 2-4-1 against those teams.
• As good as Calgary was playing at home, with a franchise-record 11-game win streak in the Saddledome, it seemed like the Flames would be set up as a clear favorite to finish second to Los Angeles in the Pacific. It hasn’t happened that way. They’ve suddenly lost three of their last four at home, including Thursday’s 2-1 loss to Arizona, and meet San Jose Monday and red-hot Florida on Wednesday before heading out on the road for five straight. And they’re just 6-11-2 away from the dome, leaving them to battle just to crack the top three of the league’s weakest division.
• You don’t know the name Mark Lewis but if you’re old enough to remember all those Stanley Cup games in Edmonton in the 1980s, you know the voice and it still resonates today. But the legendary public-address announcer of Rexall Place announced last week he’s retiring after 35 years at the mic following this season and won’t make the transition with the team downtown to its new home, Rogers Place.
Lewis’ booming, high-pitched voice perfectly enunciates Edmonton with three specific syllables every time he says it. He became a fixture in the city and well-known across Canada announcing the goals for Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson during the glory days.