Although I predicted the Flames would be shopping Ian White shortly before the recent deal that saw him and Brett Sutter dealt to Carolina for Anton Babchuk and Tom Kostopolous, the resultant swap strikes me as somewhat confusing – at least from a Flames perspective.

Disentangling the particulars of the trade is complicated, for a number of reasons. First, and frankly least relevant, is the fact that Darryl Sutter’s son Brett was included in the transaction just a short time after being charged with assault due to an off-ice, cabbie-punching incident. Flames assistant GM Jay Feaster has publicly stated that the deal was in negotiation before Brett’s brush with the law and the incident was in fact a potential obstacle, not a catalyst. Whether he’s being honest or not and the Flames threw Sutter the younger in order to get him away from the spot-light in Calgary is moot in the end: he was a player on the fringes of the Flames roster and his presence wasn’t going to have much effect one way or the other.

The meat of the trade is clearly Ian White for Anton Babchuk. The former was a key piece of the bombshell Dion Phaneuf deal last year, but his stock in the organization had begun to sink rapidly this season. In part because of his short, one-year commitment to the Flames and pending unrestricted free agency. In addition, Calgary recently extended Mark Giordano for four years at slightly over $4 million per year. That contract, when signed, instantly punched Ian White’s ticket out of Calgary – the only question was how long he’d remain with the club.

In a column this morning, Eric Duhatschek questions the impetus for dealing White now, particularly in a trade that was – at best – a lateral move for the team:

Defencemen such as White that can play top-four minutes are usually at a premium at the trading deadline – and by then, the Flames would have had a clearer idea if they are a playoff contender or an also-ran once again. As it is, they’ve shuffled off one of their few useful trading assets too soon, someone they might have been able to flip for a younger, blue-chip prospect if they’d showed the requisite amount of patience.

It’s arguable whether White’s stock would have increased over the course of the season to the degree the Flames would have been able to demand a blue-chip prospect in return, but Duhatschek raises a cogent argument: why did the Flames deal a potentially valuable asset now when demand would have increased closer to the trade deadline?

As an explanation, some may point to White’s struggles for the Flames this season. In 16 games, he had just two goals and six points and was a terrible -10. White’s performance suffered from a couple of issues early in the year, neither of which were really under his control:

1.) He was mis-cast as a Robyn Regehr’s partner. On many nights, the two were facing the opposing team’s best players. That’s a tough gig for anyone and a bit over White’s head. It’s a certainty that Anton Babchuk – a third pairing, PP specialist – won’t be put in a similar role.

2.) The bounces have been cruel. His PDO is currently 92.0 thanks to an on-ice SH% of 3.70 at five-on-five and a on-ice SV% of 88.3. In contrast, his PDO was 98.9 last season and that was after spending half the year on the dreadful Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s simply no way the percentages continue to be that cruel indefinitely.

It’s a good bet White’s results will rebound eventually. In addition, the club could have pulled him out of the fire by bumping him down the depth chart a tad. So White’s struggles likely weren’t all that relevant (beyond convincing the club that Giordano was the guy to commit to long-term, of course).

Also confusing is the inclusion of Tom Kostopolous in the swap. The Flames are currently choked with third and fourth line players: Craig Conroy, Stefan Meyer, Brendan Morrison, Tim Jackman, Mikael Backlund, David Moss, Curtis Glencross, Ales Kotalik and Raitis Ivanans. The latter two are injured at the moment, but even before their return the Flames will have eight bodies competing for six spots. Once Kotalik and Ivanans leave the infirmary, it turns into an even more crowded log-jam. Stefan Meyer can probably be returned to the AHL without incident, but that will hardly clear up the congestion. As such, it’s an open question where Kostopolous will play in this line-up. Or if he’ll play at all. Another curious wrinkle: Kostopolous is signed through next season and therefore increases the Flames already league-leading cap commitment in 2011-12 to nearly $57 million. So while they save some cap space in the short term, Darryl Sutter actually marginally increased his cap dollars for next year, despite the fact that Kostopolous’ skill set is entirely redundant.

Of course, the Flames are a team with an incredibly fuzzy current cap picture given their expensive roster and bevvy of players on LTIR. There’s a distinct possibility the team needed to clear some cap space for the return of Ales Kotalik (reportedly in early December) which may have been the true impetus for rushing Ian White to market. Unfortunately, the rules governing LTIR exemption and day-to-day cap functions of a club spending over the ceiling are so byzantine that I couldn’t possibly say whether this is accurate or not.

In short: the return for the Flames was marginal in the short-term and perhaps detrimental in the long-term, given their cap situation. They made a lateral move at best on the back-end, added to na overabundance of players at the bottom end of the their roster and perhaps sold an asset in Ian White at a low value point.

It’s not a trade that will make much of a difference one way or the other, but it’s probably another paper-cut to an organization that is suffering from a number of self-inflicted wounds this year.