There's one player whose inclusion in a trade would be so significant that the rebuild in Columbus could be fast-tracked. But that player isn't going anywhere.
GM Scott Howson has consistently said that captain Rick Nash, who would immediately become the most sought-after player at the deadline if things changed, isn't on the trade market. This weekend, the Columbus Dispatch's Aaron Portzline reported that following ownership meetings, the conclusion was that president Mike Priest and Howson's jobs are safe after this season. While changes will be made heading into next season, they won't be the kind of seismic shift that means trading your franchise forward. Instead, it'll be more along the lines of a goalie addition and potential coaching change.
That said, Howson will be active before the Feb. 27 deadline. He has to be. We exchanged emails Sunday night, and he said he still doesn't have a sense as to when the activity will happen -- now or closer to the deadline -- but it's coming.
If he can move goalie Steve Mason, he'll do it. But Mason's contract and underperformance make that a tough sell. So does Kristian Huselius' long list of injuries, including a lower body injury that has him out of the lineup. Again.
So whom does that leave? These are the five best Columbus candidates to be on new teams when the dust settles.
1. Jeff Carter, C -- Carter is out with a separated shoulder, but the team remains hopeful he'll be back shortly after the All-Star break. Between the shoulder and a foot injury, it's been a rough first season in Columbus for Carter, who still leads the team in power-play goals (five) and trails only Nash with 10 goals despite playing just 30 games. Teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Chicago, Toronto, Nashville and Detroit are looking to add top-six forwards, although many of those GMs would prefer to add a pending UFA rather than a center signed through 2022 on a deal worth $5.27 million annually.
Nash wouldn't mind more time with Carter to try to make things work but understands it's not his call. "It was one of the most exciting times in franchise history when we made that trade," Nash said of the deal that sent Jakub Voracek, a first-round pick (Sean Couturier) and third-round pick (Nick Cousins) to Philadelphia for Carter. "I've always said I don't try to play GM or try to make those decisions. Scott does a great job with that. It's a tough job to do."
2. Vinny Prospal, F -- Prospal is the more traditional pending UFA veteran forward who usually gets dealt at the deadline, and there's a lot to like for contenders. He's been productive this season for the Blue Jackets, with 30 points in 47 games and playoff experience during his time with Philadelphia, Ottawa, Tampa and the Rangers. He'd be a natural fit back in New York, where he knows John Tortorella well from their time together with the Rangers and Lightning.
3. Derick Brassard, C -- He's an interesting one. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 draft is the kind of player who could end up blossoming on another team. In dealing Nikita Filatov and Voracek, Howson has shown that he's not afraid to cut bait with former high-end prospects, but Brassard has played better under new coach Todd Richards, who upped his ice time.
"Honestly, I'm just having fun playing my game. Don't worry about anything," Brassard said. "The team is playing better too. Guys are playing with energy; we're working hard. I think it reflects on everyone's game."
He's learning to deal with the trade rumors that grew even more heated after his agent, Allan Walsh, hammered former Columbus coach Scott Arniel with a statement in early December. "It's been probably three months; it's always on my mind," Brassard said of trade talk. "Who knows what's going to happen? If it's me, it's me. When you're not winning, teammates are leaving. Whatever happens, happens. You can't control that."
He'd be a great fit in Chicago, where GM Stan Bowman has shown an inclination to trade for players midseason who have years remaining on their contract. The Blackhawks have the need, assets and salary cap space to add Brassard, who comes with a cap hit of $3.2 million through the 2013-14 season.
4. Antoine Vermette, C -- Vermette is another player who wouldn't be the typical rental, with an annual average salary of $3.75 million through 2014-15, but there's enough demand right now for top-six talent that he could be an interesting option for contenders. He's had a rough year, with 19 points in 47 games, but before this season had been one of Howson's best transactions, acquiring him in a deal that sent Pascal Leclaire to Ottawa. Like Brassard, Vermette is playing some of his best hockey of the season right now. He has four points in his past five games and has been strong in the faceoff circle, where he's won at least 60 percent of his faceoffs in every game during that stretch.
5. Samuel Pahlsson, C -- A pending unrestricted free agent, Pahlsson hasn't had any serious conversations with Howson about staying in Columbus beyond this season, making him a strong candidate to be moved before the deadline. He's the kind of depth forward contending teams love to add for a playoff run. He can bolster a penalty kill, win faceoffs and knows what it takes to win a Stanley Cup from his time as a key member of the Ducks team that won it all in 2007. "We haven't had a fun year, [but] I can't say that I want out," he said. "I want to be here and win games here. If they trade me, that's what happens." While he doesn't want to leave, rejoining a playoff race is appealing to the longtime winner. "That's where everyone wants to be; that's where everyone in this room wants to be," he said. "We're not, we're not happy about it. All I can do is take it as it comes."