As early as last Summer, the talk started about the possibility that the Washington Capitals might be looking to move veteran center Michael Nylander. The logic of the rumors was pretty inescapable: after re-signing a number of players including left wing Alex Ovechkin and defenseman Mike Green to big long-term contracts, the team was set to be hard up against the salary cap in 2008-09.
There were a number of changes on the ice that also pointed to Nylander's possible departure. Foremost of those was the emergence of rookie Nicklas Backstrom as a legitimate #1 center, a role he suddenly grew into with Nylander lost for half of the season to a shoulder injury.
Toss in the surprise acquisition of Sergei Fedorov at the trade deadline, and all of a sudden the team was very deep down the middle, but lacking any salary space it could use to make room with the big club for younger players like winger Chris Bourque and defenseman Karl Alzner.
The problem became all the more obvious in recent weeks when the team, hit hard by injuries on the blue line, opted to call up the unheralded Tyler Sloan from Hershey in favor of the more expensive Alzner.
Over the last few days the talk has been getting louder still, with reports pointing to Nylander's return to Chicago, a city he played in between 1999 and 2003. The price: Dustin Byfuglien, a converted defenseman who had proven his worth as a power forward. It's a deal that makes sense for both teams.
Over the past few weeks, Nylander has gradually worked his way down the depth chart to the team's fourth line, this after enjoying a relatively fast start to the regular season. Recently made a healthy scratch against New Jersey, it hasn't exactly been a state secret in Washington that Nylander wasn't in head coach Bruce Boudreau's good graces anymore.
In Chicago, Nylander would quickly step into the role as the team's #2 center, a job that's more or less been vacant since the Blackhawks dealt Robert Lang to Montreal for -- you guessed it -- salary cap reasons. As for Byfuglien, while Washington's power play has improved of late, it still has the tendency to get a little too cute for its own good, relying on making one more perfect pass instead of tying defenders up in front of the net and firing away. Adding Byfuglien and his 6'3" 247-pound frame to the team's first power play unit certainly could help simplify things.
But as much as Chicago might covet Nylander, it can't afford him without clearing more cap space, which is why we're probably hearing the names Cam Barker and Brent Sopel mentioned as being included in the deal, and even talk of sending free agent goalie acquisition Cristobal Huet and his ridiculous contract to the minors in order to make room for Nylander. On the Washington side of the equation, adding Sopel or Barker to the mix would also foil the team's additional aim of clearing some cap room of its own -- something that's led James Mirtle to reasonably conclude that a third team might be involved in the deal..
Late word out of Dallas last night had both Byfuglien and Sopel scratched from the lineup before the Hawks played the Stars, while Nylander took to the ice for the injury-ridden Capitals in Los Angeles and had an assist in a 5-2 loss to the Kings. Stay tuned.