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Hockey Ops: 'Deadline Day' deal breakdown

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild
By Tom Lynn

Assistant General Manager/Hockey Operations
As the last week before the 2009 NHL Trade Deadline approaches (March 4 at 2 p.m. CST), it is instructive to look at this event in an historical context before attempting to divine how this year’s event will unfold.

The NHL helps, sending out a media packet of all of the information on trade deadlines past, although it only addresses those trades made on the “last day,” and not some of the blockbusters that occur in the weeks and days before.  Hence, the information guiding this analysis is focused on those trades occurring on the last day. Trades made on trade deadline day have increased since the Wild joined the League in 2000, most markedly so in the seasons since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed in 2005. There were 17 trades in 2001 and 2002, while there were 25 trades each of the last two seasons on trade deadline day.

What will happen this year? Like predicting the stock market and the weather, no one really knows, so we use the information we have to prognosticate the best we can.

There seem to be four general categories of trades this time of year. The Blockbuster trade (one of the top 10 forwards or defensemen in the League changes teams, or a top goalie). There are Significant trades, in which an impact Top 6 forward or Top 3 defenseman moves. The vast bulk of trades are Depth trades, in which teams make sure they have enough horses for the tough competition in the stretch and through a (hopefully) long run in the playoffs. Finally, there are always a number of Toughness trades, in which teams want to get tougher or grittier for the balance of the season.

* Blockbuster trades often occur at times of year other than the trade deadline (in recent years, Joe Thornton to San Jose in November 2005, Dany Heatley to Ottawa and Marian Hossa to Atlanta in August 2005). Top players more often are playing for successful teams, and those teams in a playoff hunt or with designs on a Stanley Cup are not itching to part with their best players. Occasionally, these players are part of a non-playoff picture, with the best recent example being Marian Hossa going from Atlanta to Pittsburgh last season.

On the whole, though, these trades are becoming rarer at trade deadline. This season there are really only two players of this caliber being run through the rumor mill, Chris Pronger and Jay Bouwmeester, and, from what their respective teams are saying publicly, we may well have a trade deadline without a Blockbuster trade.

Their rarity can, in part, be attributed to the Blockbuster trades of 2007, when Ryan Smyth went to the Islanders for the equivalent of three first round picks; Peter Forsberg went to Nashville for first and third round picks and two former first round picks (Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent); Keith Tkachuk went to Atlanta for first, second, and third round picks; and Bill Guerin went to San Jose for a first round pick, a player (Ville Nieminen), and prospect Jay Barribal.

Atlanta did not win a playoff game, the Islanders and Predators won one game apiece, and San Jose made a bitterly disappointing second-round playoff exit. As much as anything, these trades have had a chilling effect on the concept of Blockbuster trades, in which a team sacrifices its future for a single playoff run.

* Significant trades can occur when a team not in the playoffs wants to “get something in return” for a player who may elect to leave through free agency at season’s end. They also can occur when a contending team has such a strong need that it is willing to give up significant value to obtain the quality of player it needs.

These were more common years ago, as when the New York Rangers traded away Mike Gartner, Doug Weight and Todd Marchant to get the right mix of role players to win the Cup in 1994. In current times, parity has driven teams so close together in the standings (this morning there were four teams in the Western Conference with 65 points) that it is more difficult to assume the risk to take away from your team in a bid to improve it.

In addition, teams willing to trade Significant players right now are often willing to do so because the player is signed for future years at a high rate, meaning the team is trying to clear salary room. Since almost all teams seem to be trying to clear salary room for future seasons (or at least not add salary) in this current economic climate, this is probably the biggest single factor putting the brakes on Significant trades this year. These trades will only be made if the money conditions are workable for each team.

This was the case with Ryan Whitney going to Anaheim for Chris Kunitz -- Whitney has a cap hit of $4 million and Kunitz is at $3.75 million, both on similar long-term contracts. There won’t be many of these perfect marriages of need and cap hit in the player market. Could this change come trade deadline day? Certainly, as much as volume increases when the stock market starts to move up or down. But will something get the market to move by next Wednesday, and will it be enough to overcome the circumstances outlined above? Only time will tell.

* Depth trades may be the order of the day come next week. Teams looking to acquire a third- or fourth-line center, or an additional fifth/sixth/seventh defenseman to stock up against injury will most likely be the market-makers. These players usually move for mid-round draft picks or second-tier prospects, a price that teams are willing to pay right now. One of the considerations in these trades will be the player’s contract status -- if he is signed only through the end of this season, a player should have more value than if he is under a long-term contract. This is a stark contrast to earlier seasons, when in a salary market that inclined sharply every year, having a player’s cost “locked in” in future years was a bonus.

* Finally, the Toughness trades. These don’t make the biggest headlines, but in this climate are an anomaly, as they continue to occur at an increasing rate each season. It is strange, in that conventional wisdom holds that tough guys have less value in the playoffs, as benches are shortened and their ice time diminishes, and there are fewer fights in the playoffs than during the regular season.

However, 19 pugilists have changed teams at the deadline since the 2000 trade deadline. Only two moved in 2002, 2003 and 2004, but that number climbed to three in 2006 and four in each of the last two trade deadlines. Will teams buck conventional wisdom again this year and load up with toughness and grit? History suggests they will, although there will have to be a sufficient supply of those players whose contracts are expiring this year for it to work.

In the final analysis, it is possible that the biggest consideration at this year's trade deadline will be money rather than hockey, meaning that players’ salaries could be the determining factor in moves, even more so than their hockey prowess. For teams that have strong needs this time of year, they will have to either go without or pay a considerably high price in order to achieve what they want.

Previous editions ...

Feb. 9, 2009: Koivu's club team comes calling ... and chanting
Jan. 30, 2009: Relationships and deal-making
Jan. 29, 2009: Why Fritsche fits
Jan. 26, 2009: The Outliers: Three teams win at historic rate
Jan. 21, 2009: Thoughts about our team at the All-Star break
Jan. 2, 2009: On ... Marian Gaborik's surgery

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