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Pre-draft trade buzz an indicator of evolving NHL landscape with cap

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - With the hockey world descending on the Staples Center for the NHL draft, the league's next group of young stars won't be the only ones in the spotlight. An evolving landscape under the salary cap will be as well.

The signs of a changing system have been evident not only in the unusually high number of deals consummated ahead of Friday's first round, but also in the nature of the buzz still lingering.

One thing most of the names who are said to be available have in common is that they're carrying a significant contract—Boston Bruins forward Marc Savard (owed US$30 million over next six years) and goaltender Tim Thomas ($5 million cap hit for three years); Edmonton Oilers defenceman Sheldon Souray ($5.4 million cap hit for two years); Ottawa Senators forward Jason Spezza ($7 million cap hit for five years); and Dallas Stars forward Mike Ribeiro ($15 million over three years).

The list goes on and on.

A number of general managers have arrived in California with hopes of getting out from under the weight of cap-crippling contracts for either financial or competitive reasons.

"Managers seems to be a little more proactive this year," said Oilers GM Steve Tambellini, who holds the No. 1 selection in the draft. "If there are players out there and teams that have a hardship with regards to the cap and you can solve a problem now, you'd rather do that than have to wait until (free agency opens) July 1. ...

"If you can solve some of your issues now, most managers would like to do that and get it done."

Nothing hammered that point home more than seeing the Chicago Blackhawks ship Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel to Atlanta just two weeks after they helped the team win the Stanley Cup. The work continued for GM Stan Bowman on Thursday as he sent Colin Fraser to the Oilers—another small part of the effort to help get the team under the US$59.4-million cap next season.

While the moves didn't come as a surprise to members of the organization, they still felt a little bittersweet.

"Obviously there was a lot of talk and you get asked that question throughout the year, but now it's come right up to that point where it is time," Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith said this week in Las Vegas. "Our cap situation everybody knows about, I guess we can't keep everybody. It's unfortunate that it has to be like that because I think we have a great group of guys and a great team.

"We could have probably been together a long time but just the way the cap is now, it can't happen."

Welcome to life in the new NHL. The league has now played five seasons with a salary cap and more and more bad contracts get added to the system with each passing off-season—not to mention the hefty raises young stars have been given coming out of their entry-level contracts.

The scariest thing for fans of the Blackhawks is that the team likely isn't done with its purge. You can add Philadelphia, Calgary and Detroit to the list of those who will probably have to be creative with their cap situation this summer.

It could make for a very interesting draft weekend as team's look to get to work as soon as possible. That is especially important in a year where the free agent class is viewed as weak—and was weakened further Thursday when forward Patrick Marleau re-signed in San Jose and defenceman Johnny Boychuk re-upped in Boston.

No wonder there's so much trade buzz.

"It's not overblown," said Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke. "It's a combination of the guys being in one place and being around the draft where you've got assets. ... Now guys are saying, 'OK you can get a second-round pick in this deal.' Well, OK, that's a timely thing.

"That's 72 hours from now and that's important."

With a fairly strong draft class headed by forwards Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, Tambellini said the asking price for a first-round pick was pretty high.

Burke is never shy to pull the trigger on a deal but he won't necessarily do it here. As of Thursday afternoon, he'd received four concrete trade offers for defenceman Tomas Kaberle (who has one year left at $4.25 million), but doesn't feel any urgency to get something down this weekend because he's not looking to get a draft pick back in return.

The Leafs GM is on the lookout for a forward who can fill a scoring role and is willing to deal almost any player on the team.

"When you finish 29th your list of untouchables should be pretty goddamn short," said Burke. "And it is."

Every manager has brought his own shopping list to Los Angeles for the first ever draft to be held in California. With BlackBerrys buzzing and speculation building, there was an energy in the air on Thursday.

"This is why the draft is exciting," said Burke. "There's a lot of activity, you get all these people in one place. It's a time of great hope for our league. We see these great young players coming in—every guy we draft we think is going to play even it though a lot of them never do—and everyone gets to stand up and hug their mom.

"It's cool, the draft is cool."

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