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NHL GMs facing big questions heading into final weekend before deadline

Time is ticking for NHL general managers.

As the league heads into the final stretch before Wednesday's trade deadline, several are still pondering key questions that will help determine how big the fireworks will be during the NHL's annual swap meet.

The most difficult decision facing many of them is whether to hold on to a player with an expiring contract and risk losing him for nothing in the summer. In some cases, that means a GM might be negotiating a contract extension with a player while simultaneously taking trade offers on him.

Even if there aren't contract talks, it's not always an easy decision.

Florida Panthers GM Jacques Martin arguably faces the most interesting of those choices with defenceman Jay Bouwmeester. But what about Minnesota Wild GM Doug Risebrough and top goalie Niklas Backstrom (not to mention injured forward Marian Gaborik)? Or how about Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier and centre Tim Connolly?

Each of those teams enters the weekend in playoff position, but none is a lock to stay there over the final six weeks of the season. That tends to complicate decision-making.

At least Martin has made it clear what it will take for him to deal one of his top players.

"If we trade Jay Bouwmeester, we need to have somebody in return to help our club going down the stretch," he said this week.

That kind of move would see him assume the dual role of buyer and seller.

One interesting trend this year's deadline should bring is a little role reversal for a number of teams. Columbus is expected to be among those looking to add pieces while the likes of Colorado and Toronto will be selling.

Evidently, parity is a reality in the post-lockout NHL.

On the surface, there wasn't much more than a lot of talking going on Friday. Philadelphia saw two players get plucked off the waiver wire as Montreal claimed forward Glen Metropolit and Vancouver grabbed defenceman Ossi Vaananen.

And Ottawa Senators goalie Martin Gerber passed through re-entry waivers, meaning he'll likely play out the rest of his contract in the American Hockey League.

One of the more interesting moves next week won't involve a trade. The Dallas Stars are expected to place Sean Avery on re-entry waivers Monday, giving the 29 other teams a chance to revive his NHL career.

Avery's agent Pat Morris believes his client is ready for a return.

"I think an absence tells you what the game means to you," said Morris. "He had to get his personal life straightened out, which I think he's done."

As usual, the bulk of the trades swung before the deadline won't be the type that generate big headlines. Veteran players like Bill Guerin, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi and Ian Laperriere are all likely on the move as rental players.

The bigger moves are more likely to come from general managers who decide they'd rather get something in return for players that could leave as free agents in the summer. That's why trade rumours persist around guys like Bouwmeester, Toronto's Nik Antropov, Chris Neil and Filip Kuba of the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton's Erik Cole.

One team that won't be unloading any of its big names is the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Some reports have suggested that star forwards Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier might be moved to help cut costs. But owner Len Barrie flatly denies that speculation.

"We paid $110 million (in cash) . . . we put into this deal," Barrie said Friday in Vancouver. "That's the highest in the history of the NHL. I think we've made every payday - every bonus. We actually paid the bonuses early. It's kind of entertaining to listen to all of the speculation. ...

"I don't see anything going on (trade-wise) - not one piece that we have in place that we want to move. Will we do some small things? Yeah."

Ultimately, it's a day built on moves both big and small.

There have been 25 trades at the deadline each of the past three years, prompting television networks to continue expanding their wall-to-wall coverage of the event.

Despite uncertain economic times, many are expecting a similar amount of movement again. One reason for that is because a GM's job description remains constant.

"The pressure doesn't change," said Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. "It's unrelenting, unremitting.

"Therefore, the temptation to add to your team or take from your team at the deadline - regardless of the price - is always there."

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With files from Monte Stewart in Vancouver.

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