Players to watch as NHL trade deadline approaches

Anybody trying to come up with a top 10 list of players to move on or near the Feb. 28 NHL trade deadline has had to change it on the fly.

Hands up — how many people thought Erik Johnson, the first overall pick of the St. Louis Blues in the 2006 NHL entry draft, would be dealt for Chris Stewart, who has the hands to be a 40-goal scorer? That was a bolt out of the blue, two very good young players traded.

Did anybody have Johnson or Stewart on their to-go list? Not a chance, but here’s three that were, and long before deadline day:

Every scribe had Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Tomas Kaberle on their list. Gone to the Boston Bruins. His name was out there for about six years. It took a shorter time to trade Wayne Gretzky in 1988.

Everybody had Blues captain Eric Brewer on their list because he was a rental D-man and playing very well. Off to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

We all had Kris Versteeg on a top 10 list because he was making too much money in Toronto and Leafs general manager Brian Burke knew he couldn’t play on their top line. Dancing off to the serious Stanley Cup contender Philadelphia Flyers.

Even the lesser names like Blake Wheeler, who’s on my list, are already gone. He’s now an Atlanta Thrasher. How do you think those insiders on TSN and Sportsnet who have a whole trade deadline broadcast day to fill on Feb. 28 are feeling? Tough to talk for an hour about an even lesser light such as Brad Winchester if he goes to the Canadiens because they need some truculence on their forward lines.

So, here’s my top 10 list a week before the deadline. Just don’t save this story and stick it on your fridge. The names could change overnight.

1. Brad Richards, centre, Dallas Stars. He’s the best player on the board, a top 10 NHL scorer, but he’s nursing concussion-like symptoms after a harmless-looking Sami Pahlsson hit. He’s an unrestricted free agent July 1. Do Stars give up season and deal him and risk losing him for nothing this summer? The betting is they keep him.

2. Ales Hemsky, Edmonton Oilers (right-winger). On a hot streak, with nine points in his last five games. He’d look great with the Los Angeles Kings or the Columbus Blue Jackets. He would cost the Oilers a first-round pick, at least a third and a very good prospect — unless centre Brayden Schenn was in the picture and that’s doubtful. Defenceman Colten Teubert is probably in play, however.

3. Bryan McCabe, Florida Panthers (defenceman). He has a no-trade clause, but the Panthers captain, whose contract is up on July 1, might waive it if he was going to a team like the New York Rangers who need help on the power play. Panthers look like they’ll miss the playoffs for the 10th straight year. Panthers looking for young help. Would the Rangers move defenceman Michael del Zotto or college first-round centre Chris Kreider to Florida?

4. Chris Phillips, Ottawa Senators (defenceman). He has told general manager Bryan Murray he’d rather be part of a rebuild, never having played for another team since being their No. 1 draft pick in 1996. He has a no-trade clause, but if the Montreal Canadiens come calling, why would he turn that down? It’s close to his home. He would cost a first-rounder for sure, probably a second-rounder, too, as a shutdown guy even though he’s a rental.

5. Dustin Penner, Edmonton (left-winger). The Oilers are small at forward and he’s their only real big man, but his contract is up after next year, as Hemsky’s is. The Canadiens, who only have Max Pacioretty and Benoit Pouliot with any front-line size, and the Leafs, with Penner’s old Ducks GM Burke, are sniffing around.

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