What’s the Matter With the NHL Trade Market?

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Wednesday marks one of the most anticipated days of the hockey calendar: the 2014 NHL trade deadline. That means the league’s 30 general managers have less than a week left to work the phones in an effort to reshape their rosters for the playoffs.

This year’s deadline could be shaping up to be a busy one, at least according to the omnipresent rumor mill. Martin St. Louis and Ryan Kesler may have asked for trades, and the Rangers are apparently all but certain to move captain Ryan Callahan. Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller should be on the move, too. It could all make for a fun day, which would be a nice change after a recent trend of deadline-day letdowns.

If history holds, we should expect to see a few dozen deals between now and next Wednesday. And they’ll all probably fall into one of these three categories:

• Rental deals, where a bad team trades one of its better players to a contender for futures, conceding it’s unlikely to win now but is hopefully speeding up the arrival of the day that it will. This is where players like Miller and Vanek should come in, along with plenty of third- and fourth-line depth guys.

• “We have no choice, so we’ll take what we can get” deals, where circumstances force a team into moving an asset for 70 cents on the dollar. Callahan, Kesler, and St. Louis could highlight this category.

• A guy you’ve never heard of for another guy you’ve never heard of.

None of it will be new. The NHL has always featured plenty of these types of trades, and probably always will.

But there’s another type of deal that used to rule the NHL’s trade market, and it was by far the most fun: the actual honest-to-god hockey trade, in which there was a good player (or more) on both sides of the ledger. These deals weren’t about rentals or rebuilds or kicking the can down the road. They were two teams, both trying to get better by aggressively addressing areas of need.

Remember LaFontaine-for-Turgeon? Hawerchuk-for-Housley? Chelios-for-Savard? Clark-for-Sundin? The six-player Ron Francis deal between the Whalers and the Penguins? The 10-player Doug Gilmour deal between Toronto and Calgary? Going back even further, the six-player Esposito-Park deal between the Rangers and the Bruins?

Those are just a few examples of the types of true blockbusters hockey fans used to wake up to. And they were, to put it bluntly, awesome. Seeing two NHL teams step up and slam their cards down on the table was great fun, and throwing around rumors and possible scenarios was, too, because there was always a chance it could actually happen.

In contrast, there have been 31 NHL trades made since September 1, which sounds like a lot. But look at this list. Forget about blockbusters — how many of those trades are even interesting? Not many. And how many include a star player going each way? None at all, unless you’re feeling charitable to Matt Moulson. The rest are all cap headaches, castoffs, and future considerations. If the NHL had banned trading during the 2013-14 season, at this point the league’s balance of power wouldn’t be noticeably different at all.

So, what happened? What killed the art of the blockbuster in the NHL? There are a few suspects, and we’ve rounded them up below.

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The Salary Cap

Well, duh. The cap is the big factor that always comes up whenever trades are discussed. At this point, it’s practically mandatory that any story that mentions a trade must include an obligatory reference to how the salary cap makes everything so much harder for everyone.

In a salary-cap world, where so many franchises are tight against the upper limit, the thinking goes, teams are essentially forced to balance the dollars on either side of a deal as much as possible. That severely limits their options. And that’s especially true if they’re trying to deal a star player who has a big cap hit.

There’s no denying the cap has been a major factor in slowing the trade market. But when you look at the actual numbers, it’s hard not to wonder if its influence is being overstated.

For one, unlike the NBA, the NHL doesn’t have any complicated rules and exceptions about how salary balances out in a trade. If two teams want to swap an $8 million player for a $1 million one, then they can either afford it under the cap or they can’t. The rules are pretty basic.

But isn’t the problem that nobody can afford to make a move? Well, yes and no. For all the talk about everyone being up against the cap, the truth is that many teams aren’t. Half the league has at least $5 million in cap space today, and a third of the league has at least $10 million. (As always, all cap numbers are courtesy of the indispensable CapGeek.) Of course, many of those teams are working against their own internal budgets, but teams have always done that. If a team like Florida or Ottawa that’s always crying poor can’t afford to make a deal, that’s hardly the salary cap’s fault.

But even the teams that do spend close to the cap can have more room than you’d think, at least by the trade deadline. The cap is prorated over the course of a season, so a team acquiring a player tomorrow is responsible for only the last two months of this year’s hit. Even big-dollar players can fit into many teams’ caps by the deadline with little if any salary coming back.

For example, there are 24 teams in the league that have enough room to add a $3 million player at the deadline. That’s 80 percent of the league (and the Flyers and Sharks are just short). Even supposedly “capped out” teams like Boston, Toronto, and Vancouver have at least that much room to work with. Granted, $3 million won’t get you a superstar these days, but you’d think it would be more than enough room for a creative GM to get to work.

And all that’s true without factoring in that teams can now retain salary when trading a player. This was a change Brian Burke lobbied for, in the hopes it would make it easier for GMs to make deals. The new rule came into effect last year, and has been used a handful of times, most notably when the Sabres traded Vanek to the Islanders. But overall, it hasn’t seemed to loosen the trade market significantly.

It should go without saying that teams that plan to spend near the cap still need to watch their dollars carefully, especially when it comes to long-term commitments (though that doesn’t seem to stop them from going crazy during free agency). But the truth is that as the season goes on, the vast majority of teams in the league have the cap room to make significant deals.

And yet they rarely do. The cap is a major factor, but something else must be going on.

All That Fake Parity

The trade deadline used to be all about buyers and sellers. Teams that considered themselves legitimate Cup contenders looked to load up for the stretch run, sacrificing picks and young players in the process. Teams that were out of contention would look to kick-start a rebuild by dealing veterans for futures.

And it all worked well enough … as long as there was a roughly equal number of buyers and sellers on each side. And there usually was, until the combination of the salary cap, shootout, and loser point created the Age of Artificial Parity.

Today, there are an astounding 25 teams who are either in a playoff spot or sitting within five points of a wild-card spot. Not all those teams are contenders in any rational sense — the odds of the Predators climbing past five other teams to claim a spot are virtually zero — but they’re close enough that it’s a hard sell to a fan base to throw in the towel. And even some of those remaining five teams are still delusional enough to think they can make a run.

When your only sellers are the very worst teams in the league (which, by definition, won’t have many good players to move), the law of supply and demand kicks in, and asking prices for the few valuable targets go through the roof. The buyers get scared away, and we wind up with the recent trend of quiet trade deadlines.

But what about the rest of the year? Why can’t good teams trade with each other, based on areas of need or other factors? As it turns out, a GM looking to make a move has another problem to deal with.

No-Trade Clauses

The dreaded NTC (and its even more obnoxious sibling, the no-movement clause, which prevents a player from even being demoted) isn’t a new feature of NHL contracts, but it has become more common in the cap era. With limits now in place on both salary and term, an NTC is one of the few carrots a GM can dangle in front of a potential free agent. The players like them, and many GMs seem to treat them the way a car salesman treats rustproofing — as a cheap freebie they can throw in to close a deal.

Except, of course, that there’s nothing free about them, at least in terms of opportunity cost. A few well-placed NTCs can cripple a team’s ability to make a deal, as most memorably demonstrated by the 2008 Maple Leafs, whose entire rebuild strategy was torpedoed when the so-called Muskoka Five collectively decided to stay put, apparently costing the Leafs a young Jeff Carter, among other deals.

So how many of these cursed things are in play this year? A lot. According to these lists compiled by TSN.ca, there are more than 160 players with at least some form of NTC or NMC on the books. That’s nearly a quarter of the league, and it’s a list that’s obviously weighted heavily toward the better players.

Not all those players are off the market, of course. Players can waive an NTC, and often do. And many of today’s NTCs only offer partial protection, usually when a player submits a list of teams he doesn’t want to move to. But they’re still a complicating factor that limits a team’s options, and one GMs of past eras rarely had to deal with.

Then again, those GMs of the past had a different problem to deal with that today’s don’t. And it turns out to be yet another issue that’s helping kill the trade market.

The Death of the Holdout

Under today’s CBA, classic holdouts are essentially a thing of the past. Sure, you’ll occasionally see a young restricted free agent stay home while he waits for a new deal, à la P.K. Subban or Derek Stepan. Those aren’t really even holdouts, though — the player just doesn’t have a contract. It’s not like they’re allowed to play without one. Occasionally a player under contract will threaten a no-show — Dany Heatley comes to mind — but’s it’s become exceedingly rare.

But several CBAs ago, contracts could be torn up and renegotiated at any time. And that meant star players could just walk away from a team — or at least threaten to — if they decided they didn’t like their deals. Often, that’s exactly what they did. And when it happened, it wasn’t long before a team might decide to get on the phone and find a trading partner.

It isn’t mentioned much, but many of those big deals from the ’80s and ’90s were forced by a star player walking out on his team. The Islanders traded Pat LaFontaine to the Sabres largely because he’d gone AWOL and was vowing to sit out the entire season. Hall of Famers Paul Coffey and Mark Messier were both moved by the Oilers while they sat at home. Gilmour announced his intention to walk out on the Flames in midseason, shortly before they traded him to the Maple Leafs.

These didn’t quite end up being the sort of “no choice” scenario we mentioned earlier, since back then, it was considered acceptable to let a star player sit out for a while in hopes he’d change his mind. But it was close, and more than a few blockbusters from past eras were nudged along by exactly this sort of power play.

So today’s GMs have to deal with the cap and no-trade clauses, rarely have players forcing their hands, and don’t want to be sellers because they think they can still sneak into the playoffs. No wonder we don’t see as many blockbusters as we once did.

Still, you’d think a GM who really wanted to make a major trade could find a way to get it done. Unless, of course, he didn’t really want to at all.

Human Psychology

If you’ve read up on pop psychology, you’re aware of the various cognitive biases that often prevent human beings from making the best possible decisions. Some of them point to reasons a typical NHL GM may prefer not to trade after all.

Loss aversion describes how we tend to be more concerned about what we might lose in a transaction than what we might gain, while the related endowment effect describes our tendency to place more value on what we already own than what we could acquire. The end result is that even if we believe we’re probably going to get a better deal, we’re uncomfortable with pulling the trigger because we don’t want to be wrong.

If the typical NHL GM is a normal human being (and let’s concede that in some cases, the jury is still out), then these biases would also apply to them. All things being equal, they’d prefer not to make major trades. After all, if you blow a draft, nobody will know for a few years. If you screw up on a free agent, at least you didn’t give up any assets. But if you come out on the wrong end of a blockbuster trade, it can cost you your job.

Obviously, human psychology didn’t suddenly change over the past few years, so none of this is new. But maybe NHL GMs never liked big deals in the first place, and were only making them because it was considered part of the job description. Once the landscape started to shift in all the other ways we’ve described, they were more than happy to throw up their hands and say, “Gosh, we just can’t do it anymore.”

Your team might not be making any trades because your GM might just be a big wimp, is what I’m trying to say.

Is There Hope?

So with five factors all working against the league’s trade market, is there any chance we’ll see a return of the NHL blockbuster someday? Maybe.

First of all, I’ve written this post, so there’s a good chance of there being a half-dozen huge deals in the next few days to make me look dumb. But beyond that, the league’s better-run teams are slowly but surely figuring out how to deal with a constantly rising cap. The salary-trading provision is still fairly new, and teams are getting a better handle on it. And at some point, fans have to figure out that the NHL’s beloved parity isn’t all that it seems to be, and start calling B.S. on teams that swear they have to stand pat because they’re still contending.

And remember, it’s a copycat league. All it would take is one smart and aggressive GM to wheel and deal his way to a Stanley Cup, and everyone else might start feeling the pressure to get to work.

As fans, we can only hope. Trading used to be fun. With any luck, someday it will be again.

Filed Under: NHL, Trade Deadline, Ryan Callahan, Ryan Miller, Martin St. Louis, Hockey, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, sean mcindoe, Ryan Kesler, Vancouver Canucks

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at his blog, Down Goes Brown. His first book, The Best of Down Goes Brown, was released last September.

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