Close your eyes for a moment, and roll your mind back to a trade deadline day morning two years ago, a time when the Florida Panthers were somewhat relevant, and so was Jay Bouwmeester. I want you to concentrate so hard that you can see Pierre McGuire’s face turning several shades of red as he fantasizes about Bouwmeester’s 1999 season with the Medicine Hat Tigers, and you can read Eklund’s eight tweets sending the defenceman in eight different directions.

Bouwmeester was due to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2009, and it was clear he wouldn’t re-sign and stay in the Sunshine State. But the Panthers were well within range of a playoff berth. Beyond the unlikely but still possible shot at a championship, it was a major marketing opportunity for a team that had qualified for the post-season only three times in its 12-year history.

Fan interest was rising, and it was hardly the time to cut the franchise player loose. From a business standpoint, trading Bouwmeester was senseless, but from a hockey standpoint, pushing for the eighth seed to get pummelled in the first round and then letting him walk was equally puzzling. Still, Florida chose door No. 1, and luckily Bouwmeester has since tanked in Calgary.

Beaming back to present time, Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk faces a similar dilemma with Brad Richards. The directions of the two franchises may be reversed, with the Panthers trending upwards ever so slightly at the time of their Bouwmeester decision, and the Stars now struggling after being the darling of the Western Conference for much of this year. Throw in the variables of a questionable ownership situation in Dallas, Richards’ no-movement clause, and the lingering concussion symptoms that have the veteran out indefinitely, and Nieuwendyk has a serious headache of his own.

Acquired two years ago from Tampa Bay, Richards will be an unrestricted free agent in July. His 63 points leads the Stars, numbers that Nieuwendyk made a step towards retaining by clearing $2.5 million off of his payroll after the deal he swung with Pittsburgh this past weekend. Richards is currently making $7.8 million, and has reportedly laid out a few preferred destinations if he hits the open market.

He’s also said he wants to stay in Dallas, and Nieuwendyk wouldn’t mind having him around for a few more years either. But the uncertainty surrounding the team’s ownership makes the GM unsure of how much cash he’ll be able to throw at Richards. It’s a mess that may hinge on two measly games.

The Stars have scuffled epically, and have lost 12 or their last 14 games. The latest loss–a 1-0 shutout defeat against the Devils–especially stung their pride. Mired in the mess that is the wacky west, the Stars are currently in 11th with 68 points, but are therefore only two points out of fifth. Nieuwendyk said that “all options” remain open today during an interview on NHL Live!, and the Western Conference landscape after Dallas’ games this week against the Red Wings and Predators may heavily influence his direction.

Choose wisely, Joe, because a healthy Richards won’t perform the same Houdini act Bouwmeester has made famous.

And the rest…

  • ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun thinks that if Richards’ health isn’t deemed to be a concern this season, and if he agrees to waive his no-movement clause, and if Nieuwendyk decides to move his top scorer (did I get them all?), then the Kings are in play. Also, if Richards does becomes available in July, the Rangers and Leafs will be the primary vultures circling their free agent catch.
  • The Leafs also reportedly remain on the John Michael-Liles watch, but now the Sabres have jumped in too.
  • It just wouldn’t be trade deadline time without Cory Stillman’s name bouncing around. Pittsburgh is the latest potential destination for the Panthers forward.
  • Blackhawks GM Steve Bowman is looking to add blueline depth in the form of a physical defeceman who can kill penalties.
  • General managers who follow Brian Burke’s philosophy of overloading on petulance will be throwing themselves at Chris Neil, who may be the next head to be placed under Bryan Murray’s guillotine in Ottawa.
  • Oilers defenceman Ladislav Smid continues to hear all the rumours, but he’d like to stick around in Edmonton.