How the NHL's Balance of Power Shifted After a Crazy Deal-Filled Day

Adrian Dater@@adaterNHL National ColumnistJanuary 7, 2016

Philadelphia Flyers' Steve Mason makes a stop against Columbus Blue Jackets' Ryan Johansen in a shootout during an NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015. The Blue Jackets won 3-2. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
Paul Vernon/Associated Press

Three years ago Wednesday, the NHL's last lockout ended, and there was joy among hockey fans. On this January 6, another lockout of sorts ended, and there was more joy.

Nothing gets hockey fans quite so amped up as trades, and Wednesday brought nearly as many trades (two) as there previously had been all season (five, but two of which involved minor leaguers only). Plus, there was a big-name free-agent signing.

The NHL's official trade deadline isn't until 3 p.m. Eastern, Feb. 29, but contending Stanley Cup teams got a big head start with good-sized transactions, with the biggest being Nashville's trade of young, promising defenseman Seth Jones to Columbus for young, promising center Ryan Johansen. Los Angeles acquired former No. 1 draft pick (OK, from 1998, but still...) Vincent Lecavalier in a package deal with Philadelphia, and Washington signed former Kings and Flyers center Mike Richards.

Did any of the trades shift the balance of power in the two conferences? We'll see, but it's hard to believe the Predators, Capitals and Kingsall of whom would have made the playoffs had they started Wednesdayare not better teams now than they were Tuesday.

Let's start with the big one, the Johansen-Jones deal: I give the edge to the Predators on this, because they had enough other assets like Jones to be able to part with him for an asset they didn't have enough of—quality centers. 

Nashville already has two All-Stars on defense in Shea Weber and Roman Josi, plus two other good D-men in Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis. Jones, the fourth overall pick in the 2013 draft, was probably not going to see top-two D minutes for a good while with Weber and Josi around.

Meanwhile, Weber and Josi were Nashville's top two scorers entering Wednesday. The Predators' top center of late has been veteran Mike Ribeiro, hardly the kind of No. 1 guy you'd feel comfortable entering the playoffs with in a brutal Central Division that includes top centers such as Jonathan Toews, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene and Mikko Koivu.

Now, Nashville has a guy in Johansen who is only 23, posted 71 points (26 goals) last season and, despite a bad overall team season in Columbus and a seemingly distant relationship with coach John Tortorella, still has 26 points in 38 games. Now, he comes to a team that really wants him—a team right in the thick of the playoff hunt. 

“A lot of good players come through here, and we’ve had some good centers, but I think we have a chance here to have truly a No. 1 center, something that we’ve been coveting for a long time,” general manager David Poile said in a conference call, per Teresa M. Walker of the Associated Press, via the Washington Post

Poile acquired Peter Forsberg, a pretty good No. 1 center, from Philadelphia in 2007 at the deadline, but it proved just a rental and Nashville lost in the first round of the playoffs. Now, he has the kind of younger No. 1 pivot he can build his team around, in exchange for the kind of asset he already had. 

As promising as Jones remains, there are some who feel he has underachieved since having a huge buildup leading up to his being drafted. He's been a very good player at times, on good teams. But has he been the kind of dynamic player many expected?

The truthful answer is no. He has one goal, 11 points and a minus-five rating after his first 40 games. He hasn't been asked to be a big offensive player, with Weber and Josi around, but people expected more than one goal in a half-season for a kid with his supposed talent.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Yet, defensemen historically take longer to develop than forwards, and Jones is still only 21. He is an excellent skater and has proved he can play at the NHL level. His Corsi For Percentage is a very good 57.7, according to Hockey-Reference.com. Can he become that dynamic No. 1 defensemen he was always supposed to be? He has a much-better chance of that now with a rebuilding Columbus team; that's for sure.

Nashville now has a player up the middle who can make a difference, and those are about as hard to find as No. 1 defensemen. They're a better club now.

Sep 21, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers center Vincent Lecavalier (40) during a preseason game against the New York Islanders at PPL Center. The Flyers defeated the Islanders, 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

With the other two deals, be careful before you laugh off either Lecavalier or Richards as being too washed up to make any difference. A lot of people thought Marian Gaborik was washed up, too, when Kings general manager Dean Lombardi acquired him from Columbus at the deadline in 2014. All he did was score 22 points in 26 playoff games and help the Kings win a Stanley Cup.

Has Lecavalier, 35, already seen his best days as a player? Not much question about that. But the Kings have a funny way of turning around guys' careers of late. Not only did that happen with Gaborik, but don't forget about Jeff Carter either. Plenty of people thought he was too selfish to win, and that was two Stanley Cups ago. 

Maybe the Los Angeles sun and coach Darryl Sutter's skillful ways will rejuvenate Lecavalier for a good second half and playoffs. He has always been a gamer, but injuries and age have diminished his skills. But here is a fact: He has scored 20 or more goals in 13 of his last 14 full seasons. I think he has one more good run in him. On a team with Anze Kopitar and Carter already up the middle, he gives L.A. more premium depth that could be very valuable come playoff time.

Mar 28, 2015; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Los Angeles Kings forward Mike Richards (10) in the first period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. The Minnesota Wild beat the Los Angeles Kings 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

And Richards? That's the biggest gamble of all in Wednesday's frenzied activity, but it's not like the Capitals had to give up much to get him. They simply gave him a one-year, prorated $1 million contract as a free agent. His off-ice troubles from the past year, including an arrest for alleged illegal possession of a controlled substance at the Canadian border last summer, have been well-documented. 

He has not played an NHL game since April 9, and the Kings demoted him at one point to the AHL because of a decline in play. But now he comes to Washington with a chance to prove everyone wrong by showing that he has his head on straight again and can make a winning difference. The Caps needed more depth at center, especially with Jay Beagle out six weeks following hand surgery, according to Christian Post contributor Jude Abastar, and Richards can definitely provide some quality if he's anywhere near the player he once was.

Yeah, his offensive stats went down, but the fact is he was a very key player on two Stanley Cup-winning teams. He played for a Cup in Philadelphia in 2010 and won a gold medal with Canada the same year. He's been a winner everywhere he's been. His big contract was likely a large reason why the Kings wanted to get rid of him.

Am I saying he'll be the Mike Richards of old? No. But I don't see why he can't give the Caps 10-15 quality minutes a night and be a good faceoff guy, a good penalty killer and a guy who can chip in with a goal every now and then. 

Do these deals put pressure on the other NHL Cup contenders to make moves of their own? Most likely, yes. Maybe Chicago and Dallas feel the need to beef up a bit more on defense now that Nashville comes in still loaded on D and with Johansen at center? Maybe Minnesota and St. Louis figure they need to add more offense to counteract Nashville's move? Ditto Colorado, just four points back of the Predators for the final wild-card spot.

In the East, Washington seems like a clear favorite to at least win a conference title, having added Richards to an already-good offense for nothing in return. That puts pressure on other Eastern GMs to do something. Because, as they well know, fans love trades. There's something about changes of uniform in hockey that gets people all excited.

And finally, on Wednesday, such excitement was back.

Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Adater


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