The trade deadline has come and passed with a resounding thud across the league. This is the time of year when teams are supposed to load up for a playoff run, but with few impact players available, most teams were fine with just shoring up depth.
This was supposed to be a post about how much better every team got after the deadline (and we’ll get to that), but with so many inconsequential moves that becomes a little less important. The big news is instead about the two teams that did load up with a big splash, the best team in each conference. Both of which already were before the deadline.
Minnesota grabbed the best rental center on the market in Martin Hanzal at a hefty price and made their top nine forward group probably the deepest in the league. Washington shocked the world in grabbing the best defensemen available in Kevin Shattenkirk, giving them them the deepest defense in the East, maybe even the league.
Then there’s the reigning Cup champion Penguins who look just as good grabbing some much needed defensive depth, and the Sharks who made their own medium-sized play in acquiring Jannik Hansen. The road to the Cup likely goes through these four teams and I wonder if the reason things were relatively more quiet were because of that.
There’s not much point going big with a trade if the team isn’t a true contender, and it’s better to save assets and build for a better time. In years past, the amount of contending teams was arguably larger and cloudier with who they actually were. This year there’s a much bigger divide and a clearer gap, specifically with the Wild, Capitals and Penguins in my opinion (though, spoiler alert, I learned Thursday that my opinion is not shared by all my colleagues at THN). Combine that with the phoney parity at the bottom of the league and there weren’t too many true sellers.
Were teams afraid to go big on a deal knowing they’d still be huge underdogs? Or was there just no one worth acquiring that could bridge the gap between the contenders and pretenders? It’s likely a combination of both and once a front office sees the league’s best team get the best available player, it’s tough justifying even a small acquisition to even get marginally closer.
The same thing happened at the NBA’s trade deadline this year and that’s where my thought came from. The Finals go through Lebron James and Steph Curry and it’s even more of a foregone conclusion there. Teams couldn’t get close, so not much of a point spending to go from a 10 percent chance to maybe 15 percent.
The NHL is very different though and even a big mismatch in the playoffs is really only around 75 percent. Most series aren’t that far apart. Every percent matters in hockey, but it’s understandable if the prices were hard to justify given the talent available, and the disparity between the upper echelon and middle class.
Here’s how each team in the playoff hunt would fair against an average team in a seven game series, before the deadline and after, according to my model as well as some thoughts on the numbers behind the deals. Keep in mind that some teams may see their chances decrease after the deadline only because their strength is relative to the rest of the league and other teams may have jumped ahead of them.
1. The most striking thing about this chart is what was discussed earlier: how little the trade deadline mattered. The biggest difference here is Anaheim who replaces a sub-replacement level forward with a very effective Patrick Eaves, solidifying their top nine. That move pushed them up from 47.6 percent to 51.5 percent, or 3.9 percent in a single series. That’s pretty big for one player, and two other teams were above three percent (Washington and Minnesota), but everyone else gained about two percent or less. Our very own Ken Campbell talked about the lack of impact players being moved yesterday, and the numbers agree. Teams will take any boost they can get, and an extra two percent is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s hardly worth hyping up a whole day over.
2. Some might be surprised that Eaves was the biggest addition and not Washington landing Shattenkirk. There are a few reasons for that and it’s not because my model thinks Eaves is better, it doesn’t. But it does think the gap between Eaves and, say, Nate Thompson, is bigger than Shattenkirk and one of the guys on the Caps bottom pairing, which was already very solid. Those are things to consider in looking at team construction and player value as there are a lot of moving parts aside from how much a single player is worth. The other reason is that it’s easier to move up from 48 percent than it is from 69 percent.
3. It was the biggest move though for one very important reason: it pushed Washington over the edge against the Pens and made them the de facto team to beat. Some would argue vehemently that it was already the case before the trade, but I would disagree given the talent level on the Pens from top to bottom. It was close, but I would’ve sided with the reigning Cup champs. Not anymore. (And it’s a damn shame this is likely a second round series and not in the third – neither of these teams deserves to go home that early).
4. The other side of the sword is what happened to the Blues who drop nearly the exact same amount the other way and look very much like the worst team that could qualify for the playoffs, winning just 41 percent of the time against an average team. That is not a great number (and just imagine it against a juggernaut team like the Caps). They weren’t in a great spot to begin with and that’s what made moving Shattenkirk a necessary decision – this probably wasn’t a year where they would go far. Especially against the likes of Minnesota, Chicago and Nashville in their division. They can still make the playoffs, but don’t expect much if they do. It’s a far cry from where they were last season.
5. One of the bigger surprises here is probably where Toronto is and how much they improved by adding a fourth line centre. If it wasn’t for the shootout (a virtual coin flip) costing the Leafs so many points, they’d be second in the Atlantic and it perhaps wouldn’t be so surprising. But they’re actually a good team with a very deep forward corps. The only real issue was their fourth line center, Ben Smith, who is a big blackhole. Brian Boyle changes that and is a huge upgrade over him. The swing from one to the other is enough to be one of the bigger deadline additions this year and put them in a spot where they can potentially make some noise in a weak division.
6. I’d guess the next biggest surprise is why my model still likes Florida as much as it does. Look at their top nine and match it up against any other team in the league – it’s up there with the best. A healthy Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau do wonders for this team and they were surging right after their comeback, though they’ve fallen back since. They’re more likely to miss the playoffs than make it, but if they do, they’ll have big upset potential and won’t be an easy out.
7. Of course, I’m not doubting my model could have blind spots to certain teams and the Leafs or Panthers could be one of them. Switch them with the Rangers and I doubt many people think twice. But the reason for the Rangers “hate” is simply because they lack a true superstar up front. They’re deep, but none of their forwards can really carry the team like many others in the East can. They have Lundqvist, but he hasn’t been at his best this year and their D-corps isn’t great. On paper they look like an average team, and that won’t get them far in the playoffs. They’re 7th worst by Corsi and merely average by expected goals at 5-on-5. Those aren’t contender numbers and it’s why my model is so sour on them.
8. What could really help is changing the defensive mix. Acquiring Brendan Smith was a savvy move, but not if it’s at the expense of guys like Brady Skjei, Kevin Klein or Adam Clendening who have been solid this season. It should be Dan Girardi, or even Marc Staal, two guys who have been huge negatives toward driving play for this team for a couple seasons. I know they used to be very effective players, but those days are in the past.
9. The Senators made a big splash acquiring Alex Burrows and Viktor Stalberg, two guys who probably aren’t all that good, but are big improvements over what they were trotting out before. It turns the Sens into a team that would’ve likely got run over by many teams in the East into a team that might actually make it close in a first round loss. To their credit, they’re playing much better of late, but they’re kidding themselves if they think they’re closer to an above average playoff team rather than one of the worst at the dance.
10. One of the most interesting teams during the deadline was Montreal. I am not entirely sure what they were up to. They added some solid defensive depth in Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson, but then they turned around and grabbed not one, not two, but three sub replacement guys to rotate in on their fourth line while shipping out a decent player in Sven Andrighetto. The biggest deadline move wasn’t the Ducks adding 3.9 percent of win probability in a series, it was Montreal losing 4.3 percent going from Andrighetto and David Desharnais to Dwight King and Michael McCarron (who was already there). If they actually end up dressing Steve Ott and Andreas Martinsen over another useful forward, that number could be even worse.