Predators’ hands may be tied before NHL trade deadline

The Avs' Paul Stastny could be a pre-deadline pickup for the Predators, who can only deal a 'no-movement' asset like David Legwand (right) for other active NHL players (no draft picks or prospects).

At the NHL trading deadline of 2012, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile was in a clear position to buy.

Last year at the same time, he was in a clear position to sell.

This season, nothing much is clear.

Entering Monday, the Predators remained four points out of the final wild-card playoff berth in the Western Conference and a variety of factors are tying not only the hands of Poile but also those of his potential trading partners, which could make for a quiet trading deadline when it passes on Wednesday (2 p.m. Central).

"I like a lot about our team," Poile said. "… I don’t see right now … us doing anything but we all know everything happens at the deadline."

Let’s start with what Poile favors: First, he like the idea of goalie Pekka Rinne returning from injury, possibly this week, to play for the first time in more than four months. He has called Rinne’s return the best possible trade deadline acquisition he could make.

Second, he has carefully transformed the team’s defense corps since the departure of Ryan Suter (2012 free agency). Also gone since then are Hal Gill, Kevin Klein and Francis Bouillon. New blueliners include Michael Del Zotto, Seth Jones and Mattias Ekholm, all 23 or younger. Poile does not want to touch his young defense. He wants to maximize their potential.

He also does not want to harm his roster. Center David Legwand, who has played with the franchise in every single season of its existence, is a pending unrestricted free agent. Legwand has a no-movement clause, which Poile said Legwand has yet to waive.

Poile realizes that trading Legwand, tied for the team lead in points, would weaken the Predators since there is no "hockey trade" available — one that would bring players of equal value in return; buyers tend to only want to move draft picks or prospects, not roster players.

"If you tell me I’m getting a first-round and second-round pick, that’s one thing," Poile said. "If it’s a third-round pick, that’s another. We’re four points out of the playoffs. If I trade (Legwand), it’s going to weaken our team. There’s not a hockey trade out there. I have no ability to trade him anyway."

Poile said the possibility of re-signing Legwand, 33, who is in the final season of a six-year, $27 million contract ($4.5 million average), rests partly on the Predators’ budget for next season, which presently remains undetermined. One factor involves the potential additional revenue of reaching the postseason.

"Talked to the agent many times, talked to David," Poile said. "He would like to re-sign here. We’re not in a position right now to be able to do that based on a couple of factors … like our budget that we’re looking at for next year and also it’s based on whether we’re a playoff team (or) not a playoff team, what changes we want to make? … I have no ability to trade him. He has not given me any right to trade him. As I stand right now, we’re four points out of the playoffs. I think he’s going to stay here and maybe the best news would be we make the playoffs and we re-sign him."

One potential trade the Predators could make for Legwand could involve Colorado center and pending unrestricted free agent Paul Stastny, who is in the final year of a five-year, $33 million contract ($6.6 million average). The 28-year-old was on the U.S. Olympic team, of which Poile served as general manager.

That underlying issue — finding potential trading partners — is a difficult one for many teams. Only Calgary and Edmonton are out of the race in the West. The Predators are locked into what amounts to a five-team battle for the final playoff spot, with Dallas, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Phoenix — virtually eliminating all as potential partners.

That means more potential trade partners exist in the Eastern Conference. But even there, four or five teams still have a shot to qualify and would not want to part with a player when making a final push for the playoffs.

The salary cap has also curtailed player movement. The new collective bargaining agreement, signed in January 2013, cut the salary cap to $64.3 million from the prorated $70.2 million of the 2012-13 campaign. Numerous teams had to cut down to get under this season’s cap and still have little room in which to maneuver or take on salary.

According to the Web site, which tracks NHL salary information, 17 teams have had to use the long-term injured reserve provision (players designated as LTIR do not have their contracts count against the cap) to get under the cap and carry a full roster.

While a couple of also-ran teams have big names to move — notably, Buffalo wing Matt Moulson and New York Islanders wing Thomas Vanek — don’t expect the Predators to get involved in the sweepstakes. Those teams apparently want a number of top young players and/or high-round draft picks.

While Nashville was in a stage in 2012 to make those kinds of deals — acquiring Paul Gaustad, Gill and Andrei Kostitsyn — because it thought the Stanley Cup was in reach, that’s simply not the case this year.

"I don’t want to put future assets to get those type of players," Poile said, speaking generally.

On the flip side, Poile wouldn’t address the notion of dumping under-performing players such as forwards Colin Wilson, Viktor Stalberg or Matt Cullen before the deadlie. That trio has a combined 20 goals in 166 games. In a sense, that’s what Poile did last year when veteran right wing Martin Erat, who had four goals in 36 games, requested a trade and the Predators sent him to Washington for prospect Filip Forsberg.

Presently, the Predators only have 12 healthy forwards right now, but Nick Spaling is expected to return soon from injury. Forsberg has eight goals and 10 assists in 29 games with Milwaukee (American Hockey League) and could be an option to call up. So could Colton Sissons (20 goals with Milwaukee), Taylor Beck (12) and Austin Watson (14).

While the Predators’ scoring has improved in the season’s second half, Nashville still ranks 23rd in that category. Poile knows it has to improve — whether it’s from players within the organization or by bringing in outside assets.

"With a healthy Pekka Rinne, I really like our goaltending and with our defense after acquiring Del Zotto, I would like to see if we could keep that intact for the next few years," he said, "So, I really like those parts of our game. I think our forwards are still a work in progress, and I think we need to improve there, mostly, obviously, on the offensive side of it."

So while Nashville’s Central Division counterparts might pull off blockbusters, like the St. Louis Blues’ deal for Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller and forward Steve Ott (last week), the Predators might be sitting this one out.

"One of these teams that are playing lights-out aren’t going to be around in the second round," Poile said of potential first-round matchups between Chicago and Colorado, which, respectively, own the NHL’s third- and sixth-best records overall. "That’s how strong our division is. We have a ways to go. Right now we’re below the line, meaning we’re not a playoff team. We weren’t a playoff team last year. We’ve got a ways to go to improve our team."