Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher was kind enough to let me sit in his office on Wednesday, the last day that National Hockey League teams were able to make trades.
I was prepared for non-stop phone rings, berating of other general managers and sly fibs to mislead the New Jersey Devils into giving up Zach Parise for a sixth round pick in 2014.
Instead, some typical quotes I heard coming from Fletcher’s office were “there’s been a lot of kicking tires,” “it’s been quiet here,” and “does Jimmy John’s deliver? That might be our biggest move all day.”
Thus, the last thing I expected to hear from Fletcher minutes after 2 PM when the deadline closed was, “that was a gong show!”
Before we get to why it was a gong show, let’s set the stage of what trade deadline day looks like. I walked into Fletcher’s office at 8:30 AM to find Fletcher behind his desk watching TSN’s “Tradecentre” coverage of deadline day. Apparently, he prefers TSN’s coverage to ESPN’s NHL trade deadline coverage. Go figure.
Fletcher had already been joined by his trade deadline team: Assistant General Managers Brent Flahr and Tommy Thompson, Houston Aeros General Manager Jim Mill, NHL scout Chris Kelleher, Director of Scouting Blair Mackasey, Hockey Operations men, Chris Snow and Shep Harder, a cashed box of doughnuts and a tub of coffee.
As the workday began, a few calls trickled in to Fletcher’s work phone and cell phone. Not surprisingly, most seemed to come from Eastern Conference general managers. And, most were “kicking tires,” trying to find out who was available on the Wild side.
Part of the deal of Fletcher letting me in the office for the day was the stipulation that I am not allowed to name names. In fact, as he was re-filling his coffee, Fletcher wanted to make sure I wasn’t naming any GM’s that called, or he “might get kicked out of the GM fraternity,” he joked.
But obviously Eric Belanger was a topic of discussion as evidenced by his trade to Washington for a second round pick in this June's draft.
For almost the entire day, other teams initiated the discussions that Fletcher had. Very rarely did he call to inquire about players, unless those calls were made when he stepped out periodically. All of the calls were cordial, calm and straightforward. It seemed as though honesty was the prevailing theme as teams talked. It didn’t appear that anybody was trying to “pull a fast one” on anybody else.
Perhaps my desire for controversy had me hoping for a “You can go to hell, and I’ll see you there,” or a “Don’t call me, I’ll call you…sometime around NEVER o’clock!”
But trade deadline deals are different from other deals. These trades are typically made as short-term fixes for playoff contenders. In a year like this, there are still very few teams that aren’t in contention.
Fletcher would hear every offer, and then discuss it with his team. The calls came in spurts, and all were considered. Some were immediately nixed by the group, but all required some research as to what assets a team might have that would be worth going after.
In the later morning, Mill worked his cell phone to entertain a possible minor league deal involving one of his top players with the Aeros. It didn’t happen.
As offers came in and other NHL deals were made, Snow and Harder would update the War Room boards. The boards are 30 white boards with every team’s depth chart with removable names. Each name has a grade next to it ranging from A+ to F, as well as the cap hit for that player. Again, I won’t name names, but I only saw one “F” player in the entire room. Most were in the C to B+ range, and the players you’d expect to be A+ players probably are.
Early in the day, Snow came in with handouts of the cap situations for each team in the League. As each potential deal came in, those packets were poured over feverishly as they figured out what other teams were trying to accomplish.
With about three hours before the deadline, Fletcher was still unsure where the day would take them.
“I wish I could tell you we’re going to do something,” he told the group.
Shortly after, he received a call from an Eastern Conference team about interest in a current Wild player. Fletcher told him he needed to think about it. That offer, which I'll refer to as “Deal One” would continue to evolve and would be very interesting late in the day. It was clear that Fletcher was intrigued.
Very few deals thrown at the Wild, with the exception of Deal One, involved NHL-ready players coming to Minnesota. Teams were looking to acquire Wild players, but only looking to give up draft picks or prospects.
Fletcher looked at each deal from the Wild’s perspective, and from the other team’s. He would discuss the situation out loud, trying to acknowledge what the other teams were trying to do, and he discussed options within the group.
For example, one team desired a current Wild player, and offered up a prospect the Wild brass had little interest in. Fletcher broached the idea of replying with a list of five prospects they’d be happy with getting, and then having the team select one to give up.
At 11:30, Fletcher, after numerous conversations with Washington, gave the go-ahead for the Belanger trade. After getting off the phone, Fletcher joked with his crew, saying “Is everyone okay with that deal…now that it’s done?”
The completed deal set off a series of to-dos, as Flahr, Harder and Snow worked to make sure all of the required paperwork was sent to the League. The deal was completed, but Fletcher made sure that the team did not announce it until he had the chance to speak to Belanger over the phone. The Wild was practicing at the Pengrowth Saddledome at the time the deal was completed, but Head Coach Todd Richards eventually pulled Belanger off the ice, and Fletcher went into a separate conference room to tell him what had just transpired.
After that, things settled significantly. It was becoming apparent that there wouldn’t be a blockbuster deal today. Fletcher said there was certainly more excitement on deadline day before the League implemented the salary cap, but I still found it fascinating to see how offers and counteroffers were made.
The group watched TV and waited for more calls to come in. It didn’t appear that any would, other than “Deal One,” offered by the Eastern Conference team. Then, another Eastern Conference team came calling for a current Wild player with an offer for a low level draft pick. We’ll call that one, “Deal Two.”
Fletcher continually asked his group what they thought about Deal One. Deal One was asking for a Wild player in exchange for a third round draft pick and a current NHL roster player. Deal Two asked for a Wild player in exchange for a late round draft choice. It became apparent that neither would be accepted as presented.
Fletcher seemed most concerned about Deal One. He called Richards again to get his feelings on the deal.
In the final hour of the deadline, Fletcher got back to both teams with counteroffers, both of which asked for higher level picks than previously offered. Both teams listened to the counteroffers, and said they’d get back.
The “Deal Two” team offered a higher pick, but only by one round – still a very low-level pick. The team involved said they had already given up too many draft picks in coming years and couldn’t afford to give up another. The Wild staff agreed that the reward was not enough to give up a player that is a significant presence in the locker room, and can still play a major role in a playoff push.
Deal One was a different story. Fletcher and his team were having trouble coming to a consensus of whether or not it was going to be a good deal if the counteroffers were rejected and they had no choice but to take the previous offer.
Fletcher had his team type up a submission in case the deal was accepted and they had to rush the paperwork in.
The “Deal One” team called Fletcher and rejected the counteroffer, but said they would call back, which they did. The only problem was it was three minutes before the deadline. With just three minutes before the deadline, the “Deal One” team called back with the addition of an extra fifth round pick to the offer. Fletcher didn’t have time to consult. He immediately looked at the clock and said, “You’ve got a deal. We’ve got to get this in.”
A scramble ensued as the team had to fax in the confirmation of the deal. The other team involved was required to do the same thing. Fletcher immediately sent an email to the League, but what matters is when the fax from both teams comes in. If one of the faxes from either team shows up late, the deal is not allowed. This can be problematic when several teams from around the League are trying to get their deals submitted as well.
As 2 PM passed, Fletcher waited to hear whether or not the League approved the deal. Nobody was certain if the fax had time to get there. Fletcher said his email was sent at 1:59, but he wasn’t sure if that would suffice had the faxes not been received.
That’s when he looked at the people in the room and laughed, “What a gong show!” He went on to admit that he had never been a part of a scramble in the final minutes like that. “That’s what makes this day so fun.”
At about 2:15, a League representative called Fletcher and informed him that the paperwork did not get to him in time. The deal was off.
Fletcher did not seem upset in the least. He understood the League’s position, and then called the other general manager to let him know it was rejected. Both shared a laugh about it.
With that, the Wild had their team for the remainder of the year. They lost a strong player, but added an asset, and also developed an opening for current players to play larger roles. By my count, four Wild players and one minor leaguer were asked about, and one was dealt.