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Coldhearted: Battle of the Trading Deadline

The last-minute deal-making, the ever-wilting Leafs, and the rest of the week in the NHL

A couple of days after Monday’s trade deadline I was talking to a hockey writer who laughed about the predictable and familiar rhythms of an NHL season. “I just love how the trade deadline flows so seamlessly into ‘Which coach is on the hot seat?’” he said.

But more on Ron Wilson in a bit. For months, the trade deadline has been the prism through which to view a player, a team, an NHL season. Who would be the buyers, shedding draft picks for a big “win now” addition? What basement teams would auction off their big guns to the highest bidder? Who would be the dark horses, the throw-ins, the busts, and the steals?

Like any event that’s too hotly anticipated, though, the deadline didn’t exactly live up to the hype. Most teams stood pat, and almost all teams stayed stubborn, with prices high, players untouchable, and nowhere to meet in the middle. Still, it’s worth looking at some of the trade day stories before we move on to the last full month of the regular season. There were winners, there were losers, and there were some good old-fashioned hockey trades.

THE WINNERS

RYAN SUTER’S NO. 1 SUITORS: One of this season’s most intriguing storylines has been the way Nashville GM David Poile has played the aggressor as he attempts to transition the Predators from a respected and commendable (but, all too often, one-and-done) franchise on a shoestring budget to a beefy, high-profile legitimate Cup contender with the payroll to match. It’s a tricky situation for the GM, who began the season with two of his best players (goaltender Pekka Rinne and defenseman Ryan Suter) pending unrestricted free agents and a third (blueliner Shea Weber) slated to become a restricted free agent after being awarded a one-year deal in arbitration last summer. Poile has navigated what could easily have become an uncomfortable sideshow of a season by setting one course and sticking to it. He wants to prove that the team is committed to doing whatever it takes (read: spending) to contend, plain and simple.

So far, this has meant signing Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension back in November — the largest contract ever awarded by the once-frugal Predators, and one designed to show that ownership means business. Poile didn’t stop there: He was one of the most active GMs on and around an otherwise quiet deadline, trading for lumbering defenseman Hal Gill last week and then, on Monday, adding a pair of forwards in Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad.1 While all this came at a hefty cost — Nashville sent a first-rounder to Buffalo for Gaustad, causing low whistles all around the league — it’s a calculated cost. Not only did the Predators pick up a guy perfectly suited for the playoffs, but they prevented Western rival Detroit from getting him instead. (They similarly kept Hal Gill out of a jealous Chicago.)

And what’s more, they sent a clear signal to the franchise’s players and fans. Poile — who has spoken all season of his desire to re-sign Suter (even as Suter has remained a bit more coy) — didn’t mince words about his intentions. “Obviously, we hope the moves today show Ryan and all of the players on our team that the ownership is committed,” he said on Monday. “Signing Ryan Suter would be a huge sign for our whole franchise and our fans … hopefully a good playoff run will get Ryan signed up.” Regardless of what happens for the Predators, the story at the start of the season for the franchise was that its ownership was giving it a green light to finally spend market-level cash to retain and attract the best players. Poile has shown that this was not hollow talk. He is operating with all his cards on the table, and on deadline day, at least, he had the winning hand.

THE TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (IN JUNE): Of the 27 trades made from February 17 to the deadline, the Tampa Bay Lightning were involved in more than a quarter. The team’s busy GM, Steve Yzerman, displayed an impressive mix of restraint and purpose in what could have been a knee-jerk environment for the Lightning. After making it to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Tampa has struggled defensively and in net this year, and despite a recent stretch of good play — and despite having the NHL’s leading goal-scorer in Steven Stamkos — they will probably not make the playoffs this season.

While Tampa was in a similar situation to a great number of other teams at the deadline (just close enough to ostensibly make a run for it; just far away enough for those hopes to seem silly), Yzerman straddled the line in a way few other GMs were able to do. He made it clear early on that he was not going to be holding a fire sale or shipping out older stars out of desperation, but he also wasn’t so reluctant to make a trade that he did nothing at all. Unlike several other teams (see below), he wrung value out of pending unrestricted free agents, like forward Dominic Moore and defenseman Pavel Kubina, that he could have lost for nothing this summer. He made many small moves, even orchestrating a three-team trade, that resulted in a stockpile of draft picks2 and defensemen — versatile chips that the Lightning can either retain or package for, say, a goaltender in the days leading up to June’s draft. For a team like Tampa Bay, who outperformed last year but were underwhelming this season, it’s good to have someone like Yzerman provide such equilibrium.

SKITTISH RANGERS FANS: The speculation about a possible blockbuster trade for Rick Nash made the days leading up to the trade deadline particularly tense for Rangers fans — many of whom began to have flashbacks to the team’s more trigger-happy era. With New York leading the Eastern Conference using a lineup that has been slowly and methodically assembled over the last several seasons, the idea that GM Glen Sather might disrupt everything to obtain Nash seemed short-sighted at best and potentially crippling at worst. Can you imagine the side-by-side cap hits between him ($7.8 million a year through 2018) and Brad Richards ($6.7 million through 2020) alone? The combination of scuttlebutt and some of Sather’s past moves created a situation in which a big trade seemed all too certain. And so when the trade deadline came and went, it almost felt like the Rangers had engaged in a transaction by virtue of not having done so.3 Welcome to the team, Brandon Dubinsky!

THE LOSERS

THE NASH EQUILIBRIUM: On the subject of Nash (and let’s hope this is the last time we discuss the guy until after the Stanley Cup has been lifted), it’s kind of amazing to think about how, in the span of just a few months, Columbus has gone from being a potential playoff bubble team to a raging vortex of injuries, suspensions, accusations, unhappiness, and utter incompetence. And now even Rick Nash is getting sucked into the death spiral. On Monday, shortly after the 3 p.m. deadline passed, Columbus GM Scott Howson addressed the media. “With respect to Rick Nash,” he said, “he approached us and asked us to consider trading him. We agreed to accommodate his request as long as we could get a deal that would provide us with cornerstone pieces to help us compete for a Stanley Cup championship in the coming years. It did not happen by 3 o’clock today.”

They were the weary and frustrated words, no doubt, of a maligned GM who had spent his last several weeks unsuccessfully shopping a player that as recently as, like, December was still the building block of the entire franchise. They were also a strong departure from the status quo, in which both the Blue Jackets and Nash had remained diplomatically mum about who broke up with whom. But as the old prisoner’s dilemma goes, keeping mum isn’t always a sustainable action.

Howson has been taking most of the heat for his revelations — “I just think it was the right thing to do,” he said in his defense, adding, “it’s the truthful thing to do.” Nash, on the other hand, has built up a significant cache of goodwill in Columbus, and it’s going to take more than publicly wanting off the team to diminish fans’ esteem for him. (Most Blue Jackets supporters probably wish at this point that they could be traded as well.) Even the organization remains largely supportive of Nash: “Despite the recent sniping, they are grateful for his decade of service,” wrote Elliotte Friedman.

Still, I don’t think he should go totally blameless here. On the one hand, Nash says all the right things — that he wishes to help the team, that by trading him for a package of assets the Blue Jackets will be able to fully rebuild, that Columbus fans are exceedingly patient and simply the best, and that he’s still captain, still playing hard, still doing the job he’s getting paid big bucks to do. On the other hand, though, by sticking to a short list of teams to which he’d be willing to move,4 Nash is making it difficult for Columbus to effectively seek out the highest return. The 27-year-old is well within his rights (and his contract) to make such stipulations, but at some point his actions will begin to speak louder than his words.

THE TALKING HEADS: Trade day is practically a national holiday in Canada, where two dueling networks were offering a cumulative 14-plus hours of programming in advance of the 3 p.m. deadline. Unfortunately for TSN and Sportsnet — which featured, between the two of them, various desks, rooms, and sets populated by analysts, “trade breakers,” Twitter-reader-out-louders, and past and future GMs, there wasn’t really all that much to discuss. (As Pierre LeBrun pointed out, “the trades that weren’t pulled off had sexier overtones than the ones that were actually registered.”) Just 16 transactions took place on deadline day, same as 2011 but down sharply from the 31-trade 2010 deadline. The conventional wisdom was that this was an outcome of increased parity, though Ryan Lambert argued it actually stemmed from something much more surprising in our beloved NHL: increased GM prudence. The slow trade day pace, combined with the wall-to-wall media coverage, meant that a lot of time was spent watching paint dry.

THE HOARDERS: While Tampa Bay, as mentioned earlier, tried to squeeze value out of pending unrestricted free agents, several other teams with a number of expiring contracts on their rosters failed to make similar rental moves. The Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes were two such teams. While the Habs did make a few deals with Nashville for Gill and Kostitsyn, they also hung on to pending free agents like Mathieu Darche and Travis Moen. The Carolina Hurricanes, meanwhile, resigned two players who had been expected to be on the block (Tuomo Ruutu and Tim Gleason) and failed to transact UFA’s Bryan Allen and Jaroslav Spacek. The New York Islanders also took some heat for holding on to players ranging from Evgeni Nabokov to P.A. Parenteau to Marty Reasoner, Steve Staios, and Al Montoya. While the teams can still make trades in a few months for draft picks, it was frustrating for some fans to see a lack of trade volume, particularly once the Buffalo Sabres proved that if you ask for the moon — a first-rounder for Paul Gaustad — you might actually get it.

The Good Old Hockey Trades

TWO DEFENSEMEN, NO CUPS: The names: D Tom Gilbert to the Minnesota Wild straight up for D Nick Schultz to the Edmonton Oilers. The trade: This is as “hockey trade” as it gets — a one-for-one swap of two 29-year old defensemen, each with similar cap hits with two years remaining on their contracts. The winner: Short- and long-term, probably the Wild. The trade suggested that the porous Oilers were interested in obtaining a defensive-defenseman to shore up the blue line. But Gilbert was also the team’s leader in time on ice, and has higher upside than Schultz. From Minnesota’s perspective, the trade accomplishes two things: It brings in Gilbert, an offensively minded defenseman, to try to speed and pep up the Wild’s low-scoring offense, and it sends a message that the franchise is moving forward without looking back. No one had played more games for the Wild than Schultz.

PLAN B The names: Colorado’s F Daniel Winnik, F T.J. Galiardi, and a 2013 seventh-round pick to the San Jose Sharks for F Jamie McGinn, F Michael Sgarbossa, and F Mike Connolly. The trade: Sgarbossa and Connolly are both prospects, so the immediate move here was McGinn — a popular and physical third liner who had been having a breakout season for the Sharks with 12 goals and 12 assists — for Winnik and Galiardi, two depth players that the Sharks hope can bring penalty killing and overall peskiness to San Jose.5 The winner: In the short term, probably the Sharks, who had also made a big push for Rick Nash but were not willing to pay the hefty price, which reportedly included Logan Couture. In this smaller trade, they’ve sold relatively high on a player having a breakout season (last year McGinn had only one goal) in return for some much-needed depth and special teams expertise, which is crucial in the playoffs. In the long term, the Avalanche may well end up on top, particularly should the Sharks flop around in the playoffs and then end up losing Winnik or Galiardi in the offseason. (They are restricted and unrestricted free agents, respectively.) The Denver Post‘s Mike Chambers had positive things to say about the prospects, to boot.

ON A ROLE TO FILL: The names: F Cody Hodgson and D Alexander Sulzer to the Buffalo Sabres for F Zack Kassian and D Marc-Andre Gragnani to the Vancouver Canucks. The trade: Announced just after the clock struck 3 p.m. on Monday, this was probably the biggest-name trade of the day, with most of the focus on the Hodgson-for-Kassian part of the deal. Cody Hodgson, a Calder Trophy candidate and total nerd with 33 points this season, is undoubtedly one of the league’s hot young players, while Kassian, also a former first-round pick, is rougher both around the edges and on the ice. (He’s bounced back and forth between the Sabres and their AHL affiliate this season.) The winner: This trade fills immediate needs for both teams, although on paper Buffalo may have gotten the better long-term deal in acquiring Hodgson, a center they sorely needed. It’s an intriguing move by the Canucks, though, who liked Hodgson but didn’t have the right role for him in their highly stratified line deployment system. (There were rumors that Hodgson requested more playing time before he was shipped out, though his agent denies that it was anything out of the ordinary.) In Kassian, they have a raw, rough player who could settle in nicely to a physical and defensive-minded spot on the team.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

A simple way to ensure your goal will live on for eternity in the Coldhearted archives is to score it in such a way that any Pittsburgh Penguin fan watching immediately thinks precisely what announcer Bob Errey says: “Didn’t we see this in the first Stanley Cup run against the Minnesota North Stars? … That is so Mario-like.”

Mario Lemieux’s easy-weaving goal in Game 2 of the 1991 Stanley Cup finals is one of his most famous scores. (It was even slow-mo’d and reversed in one of my favorite NHL “History Will Be Made” commercials.) And so it was hard not to think about it as Evgeni Malkin played cat’s cradle with the Tampa Bay defense on Sunday.

While Lemieux’s goal came under much loftier circumstances, Malkin’s was pretty respectable in its own right: It was the second of three goals he scored in Pittsburgh’s 8-1 rout of the Lightning. The hat trick began when Malkin, who had gotten into a skirmish with Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson earlier in the game, scored on a low-angle slap shot and then glowered at the netminder. “I wanted him to see my face,” explained the sweet Soviet beast after the game.

It was the second goal, though, that drew an “MVP” chant from the crowd at the Consol Energy Center. Malkin, who is first in the NHL in overall scoring with 79 points, is indeed part of an MVP discussion that at this point has turned into something of a two-horse race between him and Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. (If their recent one-on-one matchup were to settle the vote, though, it would be no contest.)

If Malkin’s goal was the best of the past week, the most crucial may have been this one from Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, who finished off a late Capitals comeback. Down 2-0 Tuesday night, Ovi streaked down the left side and unleashed a shot that went five-hole on Evgeni Nabokov for the much-needed 3-2 win. Like Malkin’s, Ovechkin’s goal was one that reminded wistful viewers of a halcyon past — except that in this case they weren’t harking back to a former team hero. No, Tuesday night’s goal was reminiscent of nothing so much as Alex Ovechkin’s old self.

Piling On the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

Wednesday night’s game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks was a battle between two teams anxious for the dreary month of February, already one day too long,6 to finally come to an end. The Blackhawks had been the dogs of the dark month’s early hours, losing six straight to hit a league-worst nine-game winless streak midway through February.7 The Leafs, meanwhile, outscored their opponents 12-3 to win three straight during the first week of the month — before going 1-9-1 and dropping from seventh to 10th in the Eastern Conference.

No other team’s odds for a playoff berth have plunged so precipitously of late as those of the Leafs. Toronto is now just one point up on Tampa, a team that has struggled all season and used the trade deadline as an opportunity to reposition, reconsider, and retool.

The Leafs, in contrast, have looked more like a deer in headlights:8 unmoving, flatfooted, by all appearances staring straight ahead, but not necessarily seeing. With goaltending a huge problem for the Leafs, it seemed notable last week when Brian Burke changed his we’re-not-in-the-market-for-a-goalie tune and said that he would in fact be considering offers. But nothing got done, and in the Leafs’ first game after the deadline the team lost 5-3 amid “FIRE WILSON” chants aimed at Ron, the head coach.

If the Leafs do wish to fire Wilson, it’ll cost them. The coach signed a two-year extension in December that he cheekily announced on Twitter on Christmas morning, a move that local beat writers, with whom Wilson already had a contentious relationship, found obnoxious. (True confession: I laughed.) Wilson’s few defenders argue that it’s hard to do much with a Toronto team that maybe just isn’t that fearsome or good. Still, when a team has gone 1-9-1, with the latest effort being Wednesday night’s 5-4 regulation loss to Chicago in a game the Leafs led 3-1 late in the first, it’s getting harder for fans to tolerate the front office remaining so inert.

Burke is scheduled to speak on several panels at this weekend’s MIT Sloan School of Business Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. One of them, which couldn’t have come at a more perfect time and which I cannot wait to attend, is called “Franchises in Transition.” “Win now or build for the future?” asks the panel’s description. “Topics will include changing the culture of the organization, rebuilding a roster to compete, overcoming pressure from the media, fans, and star players, navigating the intricacies of the salary structure to ensure long-term success, and balancing business and team perspectives.”

Sounds like a good one. I’ll let you all know if I see Damien Cox or Steve Simmons trying to climb in through the window.

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • Is this the not-so-secret Twitter account of Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo? Harrison Mooney says yes.9 If he’s right, Luongo seriously just became my new favorite player.
  • Jeremy Roenick has had his share of tense moments with Eddie Olczyk on the NBC Sports Network’s studio show, but last night he got into an argument with co-host Mike Milbury over head shots that was so heated it nearly devolved into head shots itself. (The impetus for the verbal altercation was a rough hit by Dallas’s Eric Nystrom on Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang that sullied an otherwise sterling Penguins-Stars shootout game last night.) While it wasn’t pretty, it was at least entertaining.
  • Breaking sports news video. MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL highlights and more.

  • The Wild signed young defenseman forward Charlie Coyle to an entry-level contract, adding to Minnesota’s already-deep pool of top prospects.
  • Here’s a really fun look by Adrian Dater of Sports Illustrated about the olden days in which everyone smoked. My favorite part: “Chicago’s Denis Savard scored 473 goals during his 18-year Hall of Fame career despite a habit that was estimated to be at least a pack a day. His Blackhawks linemates, Steve Larmer and Al Secord, also were big smokers, which contributed to their nickname of ‘The Party Line.’”
  • Actually, nope, I changed my mind. This is my favorite part: “Anyone who covered the NHL when Al Iafrate played from 1984 until his retirement in 1998 as a San Jose Shark probably saw him sitting on a chair outside the dressing room with his shirt (and sometimes pants) off, puffing away.”
  • A few weeks after Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff and Edmonton coach Tom Renney were injured at the rink, San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan was felled during a game. (In the hockey hype cycle, this ought to technically qualify as an “epidemic,” no?) The errant stick of Minnesota’s Marco Scandella hit McLellan in the head on Sunday, causing concussion-like symptoms that have kept him out of the Sharks’ last few games. The Sharks’ Jamie McGinn, whose check on Scandella caused the flying stick, was traded out of San Jose (to the Avalanche) on Monday. “I hope I didn’t get traded because of that hit,” McGinn said to McLellan upon learning he had been traded, according to an interview he gave the Mercury News‘ Mark Emmons. “Todd told me, ‘C’mon, Ginner, you know me better than that.’”10
  • Fun with numbers: According to the official real-time statistics compiled by the crew at the Blue Jackets’ arena, Columbus out-hit Detroit 33-2 during Tuesday night’s game, a number that brought laughs even from Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. (For a team that was supposedly being knocked around the entire game, the Red Wings did pretty well to win the game 5-2.) While hits may be something of a subjective number, the scoring of assists is governed by particular rules — rules whose absurdities Tyler Dellow points out in his illustrated analysis of each and every assist that has been credited to the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson, who leads the league this season with 51 helpers. Next, he should do an investigation on the generous Madison Square Garden definition of a “save,” but you didn’t read that from me.
  • James Mirtle compiled a Google Doc of the average heights, weights, and ages of all 30 NHL teams. A few takeaways: Given the two teams’ success this season, it’s kind of scary that the Rangers and Predators are among the league’s youngest; the L.A. Kings are tops in density, as the NHL’s second-heaviest team but only middling in height; and Montreal is the shortest team, Buffalo is the lightest, the Pope is Catholic, and Gary Bettman is polarizing.
  • I don’t entirely understand what’s going on, but Octagon hockey agent Allan Walsh, who represents a 16-year-old Czech player named Vladimir Zigmund, is not happy that Zigmund’s team’s owner, Miroslav Vanek, insisted the youth terminate his relationship with Octagon and Walsh. In a Twitter rampage on Wednesday, Walsh compared Vanek’s move to “North Korean tactics” and “gangster tactics,” concluding: “We are going to take back Czech Hockey and emancipate young players from the tyranny of people like Vanek.”
  • Of all the teams fighting for the playoffs, the Calgary Flames may have the toughest slate of weekend games. The Flames, who are currently in 11th place in the Western Conference and three points out of a spot in the postseason, will play three games in four days, starting with a Thursday-night matchup against the red-hot Phoenix Coyotes.11 Games on Friday and Sunday against the Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars, two other bubble teams in the West, could mean four-point swings in the standings — huge moves in a race this close. (Other big games among middling teams over the coming days include Thursday’s big Southeast Division matchup between Florida and Winnipeg; Friday’s Devils-Capitals game; Saturday’s Freeway Faceoff between the Anaheim Ducks and the L.A. Kings; and a meeting between Colorado and Minnesota on Sunday.
  • Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

    Vernon Fiddler sounds like the name of a scheming Dickensian sidekick, or maybe a tabloid headline during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But the actual description of him — “a once-undrafted NHL player who seems to have developed a pretty on-target impression of Kevin Bieksa’s complainy-face” — fits pretty well too.

    Late in the first period of the Dallas Stars’ Sunday contest against Vancouver, cameras caught a highly unusual sight: Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault catching a scorching case of the giggles on his bench. The source of his snickering? The Stars’ Fiddler, who skated by the Canuck bench and began aping the grumpy facial expressions of Kevin Bieksa.

    The two have a history, noted the Windsor Star, and Bieksa later tried to downplay the impression. “It was kind of funny for the first five, 10, 15 seconds, and then after a while I started to wonder if there was something seriously wrong with this guy,” he said. (Seth McFarlane’s ears just perked up.) But hey, if it causes the normally stoic Vigneault to lose it like that? I say go for whatever works. Sometimes it’s Angry Bieksa, and other times it’s as simple as ripping newspaper into shreds.

    Hockey Haiku

    Mayhem and violence!
    Ron Artest would get along
    With Mike Milbury.

Filed Under: Art, General topics, Movies, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports, Ted

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes