With parity at its zenith, Vegas looming and a so-so 2017 draft class, figuring what to do at the NHL swap meet has never been harder.
While the trade deadline tends to be one of the biggest TV days of the hockey year, its actual impact has long been exaggerated. Of course it would be glib to point out only one team – the eventual Stanley Cup winner – can really “win” the deadline, but it’s also inaccurate. That’s only true if you’re considering the “buyer” teams. The “seller” teams can also really benefit if their GMs play the field right.
Parity wreaked havoc on the trade market for most of this season, and perhaps with the blockbusters of the summer (Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson), that was to be expected. But with very few teams truly out of the playoff picture and the deadline approaching, GMs have to be cagey this season.
The Buffalo Sabres, for example, were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference as February began, but the rebuilding team is still only a hot streak away from wild-card contention.
“In the calls I make and the ones I take, I inquire about buying and I also listen to what people are asking for,” said GM Tim Murray. “So I’m kind of on both sides of the fence.”
An important reminder for teams that aren’t at the top of the standings is that building a franchise takes many careful steps, and a quick score at the trade deadline must be evaluated against long-term desires.
“Last year, as far as selling, I would have listened to anything reasonable, no question,” Murray said. “I definitely wouldn’t have bought anything that would have gone away from the plan, and I’m not sure I would this year, either. If I’m going to buy someone, I’d obviously like them to be young and someone we’d have around for awhile, but that’s not always easy.”
Figuring out exactly when your team has become a buyer or seller can be tricky, too. Ray Shero had some great deadlines as a buyer in Pittsburgh, but now he’s seeing the other side in New Jersey, as the Devils try to find their footing.
“Last year in New Jersey was the first year I really sold, and we took it all the way to the end with guys like Lee Stempniak,” Shero said. “We played Cory Schneider every game, but we just couldn’t get there. If we were five points in, it might have been different, but at the time it felt like the right thing to do and, in retrospect, it was definitely the right thing to do, so there are a lot of factors in play.”
Shero did end up dealing Stempniak to Boston, getting a fourth-rounder in 2016 (goalie Evan Cormier) and a second-rounder in 2017. The Bruins, incidentally, ended up missing the playoffs.
Another complication this season involves the Vegas expansion draft. Teams are limited in the amount of players they protect, but they must also have a certain threshold of eligible NHL players to expose. That means guys on expiring contracts aren’t as valuable as they would be in previous years.
“If you can get a real good player, you’re going to get that player,” Shero said. “But it’s happened a lot during the season where one player has a contract for next year and if he plays eight more games this season, he’s a guy we can expose, and we didn’t have that before. Teams are constantly evaluating.”
Even those on the waiver wire can be more valuable right now. Part of the reason they have been on waivers in the first place is contract status, but now another franchise may seek them out in order to expose them to the Golden Knights in the summer. On either side of the ledger, GMs and their fellow team execs are keeping constant tabs on their expansion draft situation, including the criteria of whom to expose.
And while the deadline is seen as a time for short-term gains, that’s mostly from the perspective of fans and the players. For execs, it’s all about the long term.
“The trade deadline gets overblown,” Murray said. “Sellers can certainly acquire assets that help you on draft day, and teams that are playoff bound realize it and try to give their team a jolt, but it’s not a blockbuster, long-term solution. Draft day is still the day.”
Which is why it’s interesting to see so many draft picks and prospects tossed around in deals. Unfortunately for buyer GMs, it’s the price of business. The important thing to do is never look back. With draft picks, that’s not as difficult, because every team has a very different list heading into the day. So when Shero acquired Marian Hossa from Atlanta in 2008, the 29th overall pick became Daultan Leveille for Atlanta – but the Pens wouldn’t have necessarily picked the Michigan State commit had they held on to that selection.
“The prospects you kinda know,” Shero said. “With the Jarome Iginla deal, we traded Kenny Agostino and Ben Hanowski to Calgary and they never really ended up playing, though Kenny is doing great in the minors this year. But they were assets in a deal. Same thing with Angelo Esposito (in the Hossa deal). You don’t hope they go to the Hall of Fame, but you hope they do OK. Hopefully it works for both sides.”
According to one director of scouting, the fact 2017 is seen as a down draft year is already affecting trade deadline preparation. A first-rounder in 2017 isn’t expected to have the same impact as the player chosen in the same range last year, so if your team sells off a roster player to say, Chicago or Pittsburgh at the deadline, that 28th overall pick is probably worth the same as a mid-second-rounder or worse in previous years. This is information GMs request before they seriously hit the phones.
“I still think the draft is the biggest day for us, no question,” Murray said. “You’re building your future. You look back at the history of the draft, and there’s a big difference between teams who kill it and teams who have a bad draft. Those decisions impact you for 20 years.”
Though the NHL’s parity has caused a logjam for deals so far, it only takes one or two moves before a flood is possible. The best GMs will be thinking about their short-term needs without mortgaging their future, and if it all works out, they’ll get a parade at the end of the journey. For everyone else, the gun sights turn to next season.