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Top Shelf: Trade deadline is game time for NHL GMs

Jay Bouwmeester can be a UFA this summer and his 31 points in 60 games would be a welcome addition to any club. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Jay Bouwmeester can be a UFA this summer and his 31 points in 60 games would be a welcome addition to any club. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

There’s a basic human principle that keeps poker tables populated and fantasy leagues full; deep down inside, everybody likes to believe they’re smarter than the person next to them.

Some conceal it with self deprecation, others with a series of silent smirks, but there’s no denying most people put themselves ahead of their buddies when constructing an internal Dean’s List, often with blatant disregard for reality.

In that vein, every time a hockey poolie pulls the trigger on a successful transaction, it reinforces their belief that, if not for a few unseen ruts in the ice, they could be the one rebuilding the Toronto Maple Leafs right now.

For everybody who wants to be an NHL GM but isn’t, February is the most fun time of the year. But for the guys with the actual, you know, qualifications and experience to lead a big-league club, this is a trying season.

Think you’ve got all the angles covered? You can spot anybody’s tell? Then maybe you won’t mind telling Florida GM Jacques Martin what the heck he’s supposed to do with Jay Bouwmeester - a 25-year-old defenseman still growing into his game and vital to Florida’s playoff chances - who will almost certainly leave for nothing in the summer if he’s not dealt within the next week.

Maybe you’ve got some great synonyms for ‘long-term interest’ and ‘future of the franchise,’ because if Martin tries to sell those phrases to Panther fans again as justification for trading another young star, he might end up on a fan boat to nowhere.
 
Buffalo GM Darcy Regier could likely use some advice, too. Some have already chimed in with their two cents about what a team that’s playing without its star goalie and best forward should do with talented center, Tim Connolly. He’s the guy who, when in the lineup, dipsy-doodles with the best of them, but could bolt in the summer as a UFA the minute somebody dangles a contract to his liking.

Should Regier ignore the fact Connolly has played no more than 63 games in a season since the lockout and lock him up as Buffalo’s No. 1 center? Should he move him now in return for something, anything, with the knowledge his injury-riddled team doesn’t have a realistic shot at securing a playoff spot?

Or maybe he should keep Connolly around, hope his Sabres squeak into the playoffs and just pray July 1, 2009 isn’t reminiscent of July 1, 2007, when Regier watched his top two pivots – Chris Drury and Daniel Briere – drive the first luxury vehicle they could find out of Buffalo.

If Ned Flanders was Regier’s neighbor, he’d tell him that’s a dilly of a pickle.

Not every dilemma revolves around free agents. What’s Boston GM Peter Chiarelli thinking these days? His team is having a dream season, has a death grip on the East’s No. 1 seed and no glaring areas of weakness.

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But the desire to tweak is tough to quash. If Edmonton is offering up Erik Cole, why not nab him? He’d help replace the injured Marco Sturm’s production, has a Stanley Cup on his resume and relishes playoff-style hockey.

It comes down to asking price and messing with that volatile entity known as team chemistry. Oh yeah, and don’t discount another basic human trait: letting the actions of others severely influence your own decision-making.

Just ask somebody who’s been through this mess before, former Tampa Bay GM and current THN blogger Jay Feaster. He knows that when it comes right down to it, free agent status and team needs don’t always dictate moves. Sometimes it’s just a good old-fashioned reactionary reflex; sort of the front office equivalent of an unnecessary retaliation slash.

“We can talk about how there won’t be as many big deals this year; yes there will,” Feaster said, “because once that one big domino falls, look out.”

There’s an inherent problem in the dynamic of being a GM in that the time it takes to build a winning team isn’t always available to you. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t be operating under the constraints of knowing you’re in a results-based business with severe consequences and, often, unrealistic expectations.

Sometimes you make moves more with an eye to saving your job than setting a franchise up for years of success. Quite frankly, survival still trumps all instincts on the gamut of human emotions and GMs are no exception.

The men who make and break deals probably feel a bit like Johnny Cash around the deadline, walking the line between long-term growth, immediate needs and pressures both internal and external.

And no matter where you are in your hockey pool, it’s a job you probably wouldn’t want any part of – at least, not for the next seven days or so.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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