Yesterday was the NHL’s trade deadline day. If you’re not familiar with it, deadline day is the one date on the hockey calendar when fans from around the world come together, gather around their TV and computer screens, and spend hours talking about all the trades that were made over the previous week that resulted in nobody who’s any damn good being left for the final day.
So yeah, yesterday may have been a bit of a bust. But if so, it was largely because the league’s GMs had been so busy over the previous week. Before we turn our attention to the stretch drive, let’s hand out some awards for this year’s deadline maneuvering. We’ll define our cutoff for a “deadline” deal at the last seven days, which works out pretty well — after a week or so without any moves at all, the trades started up again on February 24 and continued at a pretty steady pace right through yesterday.
Biggest Trade: The Rangers and Coyotes Pull Off a Blockbuster
While yesterday saw 24 deals come in before the deadline, none was bigger than Sunday’s trade between the Rangers and Coyotes. That one saw New York acquire Keith Yandle along with Chris Summers and a 2016 fourth-rounder, with John Moore, prospect Anthony Duclair, a 2016 lottery-protected first, and a 2015 second going to Arizona.
Yandle is a top-pairing defenseman. He’s also signed through next year, and with the Coyotes agreeing to eat half his salary, he’ll represent phenomenal value for the Rangers’ tight cap situation. But the price was high, costing the Rangers an excellent prospect in Duclair and yet another first-rounder to add to the long list they’ve traded away in recent years. In a league where everyone always seems to be hedging for the future, the Rangers are going all in on the short term.
And you know what … I like it. This team went to the Cup final last year, and could have won it with a little more puck luck. The Eastern Conference remains wide open. They have a pair of aging star forwards in Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis. And maybe most importantly, they have a generational franchise goalie who turned 33 yesterday. Goalies age in unpredictable ways, and maybe Henrik Lundqvist is a Hasek type who’ll be good forever. But maybe he’ll be like most guys, which would mean he has only a few elite-level years left. And if so, now’s the time for his team to swing hard for the fences.
If the Rangers don’t win a Cup over the next two years, it’s possible we’ll all look back on this deal and call it a disaster. That’s the gamble. But there’s such a thing as a smart gamble, and I think the Rangers made one here.
Most Surprising Theme: All of Those First-Round Picks
It’s a mantra that has been beaten into fans’ heads over recent years: In the salary cap world, you win by building through the draft. Trading is hard. Free agency is awful. You need to hold on to your picks, draft well, and then turn those prospects into serviceable NHLers who can fill out your lineup on cheap entry-level and bridge deals. The days of flipping first-rounders for rentals was supposed to be over. It had to be.
And yet when the deadline appeared on the horizon, NHL GMs started tossing first-round picks around just like they used to do in the good old days. Going back to the David Perron deal on January 2, seven teams included first-round picks in trades. That development was especially surprising given how deep this year’s draft is expected to be.
None of those picks is likely to be a lottery pick — in fact, teams like the Kings and Rangers have now taken to lottery-protecting their choices.1 That’s been standard practice in the NBA for years, but it’s a relatively new tactic in the NHL, one that could make first-round deals even more common in years to come.
Sometimes to ridiculous extremes.
Draft picks outside the top five or 10 may be somewhat overrated these days, and the drop-off down to the end of the round is steep, but it was still surprising to see a quarter of the league moving their top picks, often for short-term rentals. If the trend continues, it will be good news for next year’s sellers.
Most Perplexingly Quiet Team: Boston Bruins
The Boston Bruins are hanging in the playoff picture by a thread, they’re just coming off a depressingly cold stretch of games, and their CEO has made it clear that failure is not an option. And yet when the dust had cleared on Monday afternoon, all GM Peter Chiarelli had managed to do was add Brett Connolly, who didn’t come cheap, and swap depth guy Jordan Caron for depth guy Maxime Talbot.
There’s no doubt that the Bruins were in on bigger deals, and sometimes there’s just not a fit no matter how much you may want to find one. Maybe Chiarelli deserves credit here for refusing to make a panic deal that would hurt the team in the long term just to save his job right now. Or maybe he just played his cards wrong. Without tapping his phones, we don’t know. But the Bruins were expected to be right in the middle of things, and instead they mostly stayed nailed to the bench.
Least Perplexingly Quiet Team: San Jose Sharks
It’s been a long time since anything the Sharks did made much sense, so here we are. Going into the day just two points out of a playoff spot but struggling badly, the Sharks responded by doing … pretty much nothing. Maybe less than nothing, since they moved out two quasi-useful players in James Sheppard and Tyler Kennedy. But a team that went into the day seeming like a classic “shoot or get off the point”2 team instead chose to stay the course. What course is that? Nobody knows anymore.
Smartest Rental: Jeff Petry Goes to Montreal
That’s the Canadian version of that expression.
Petry was basically a prototypical Marc Bergevin pickup: not especially flashy, relatively cheap, and one that fills a clear need without disrupting the rest of the roster.
This is where you could make some sort of remark about Petry being a prototypical Oilers move, too, as they unload what is arguably their best defenseman while getting only a second-round pick and conditional fifth-round pick back. We won’t go that far, but let’s just say that the reviews have not been kind.
Most Unexpected Yet Somehow Perfectly Sensible Deal
Easy call here: It has to be the trade that saw Toronto send David Clarkson to Columbus for Nathan Horton. That deal caught everyone off guard, since Clarkson has the worst contract in hockey and was considered all but untradable, and Horton’s career is probably over thanks to back problems.
But the Blue Jackets knew something the rest of us didn’t, and it was the details that made it all make sense: Horton’s contract was uninsured. That meant they were stuck paying him roughly $25 million over the next five years, even though he’d almost certainly never play. That was pretty close to what Clarkson was making, so it made sense for the Jackets to flip Horton for a guy who’d at least suit up. Meanwhile, Horton’s spot on the long-term injured reserve list means his contract won’t count against the cap.3 That didn’t matter much to Columbus, since they’re not a cap team, but it was perfect for the Maple Leafs, who eventually will be. Somehow, both teams won.
It’s technically more complicated than that, since LTIR exemption doesn’t kick in unless a team is up against the ceiling, but it’s close enough that fans can just go with “LTIR means no cap hit” and not be far off.
The deal was so good that some are trying to argue that it should save Leafs GM Dave Nonis’s job. He was considered a dead man walking in terms of his future in Toronto, as you’d expect from a guy who built a capped-out, last-place team. But the Save Dave movement is now in full swing, even though most seem to agree that the whole trade fell into his lap after the Blue Jackets came up with the idea. That sounds ridiculous — I’d love to have a job where forcing my employer to write off $25 million was considered a success — but it’s an argument for the offseason. For now, let’s just enjoy the fact that two of the biggest negative value guys in the league could be swapped one-for-one, and everyone was happy.4
Well, almost everyone.
This section is basically mandatory in these sorts of posts. Here are the deadline’s five biggest winners:
5. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers came into the day just six points out of the wild card. Normally, that’s the kind of spot that lets GMs play the “Oh, we’re still in the race, we’d better sit tight or maybe even load up” card. Not Ron Hextall. He recognized that his team isn’t good enough right now and set out to start fixing it. That takes some guts, especially in a tough market like Philadelphia, and it’s a sign that the rookie GM is on the right track.
4. New York Islanders
They didn’t do much because they didn’t need to do much. But every conversation I’ve had about them over the past month has at some point featured the words “… but I’m worried about their goaltending.” Jaroslav Halak is good. He’s fine. He’s had dominant playoff runs before. But he has struggled at times this year, and the Islanders didn’t have a viable backup. By landing Michal Neuvirth from Buffalo, they bought themselves a very cheap insurance policy.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
Did they overpay for Braydon Coburn? Probably. But like the Rangers, the Lightning have a window open right now. And unlike the Rangers, they’re stacked with enough young talent that they’re practically playing with house money at this point. And man, that blue line looks good right now.
2. Chicago Blackhawks
This one obviously comes with an asterisk, since the Hawks are a weaker team today than they were a week ago. That’s because of the injury that has sidelined Patrick Kane for the rest of the season and well into the playoffs. You can’t replace a guy like Kane, but you can reload as best you can, and adding Antoine Vermette and (especially) Kimmo Timonen did that. The Hawks will be in tough position to emerge from the Central, but now they have a shot. And if they’re still alive when Kane makes it back, look out.
1. Arizona Coyotes
The spiraling Coyotes aggressively unloaded players, shipping out Keith Yandle, Vermette, and Zbynek Michalek. In each case they extracted excellent value, and they can now boast one of the top prospect lists in the game. Oh, they also made their current team way worse in the process, which is also good, since they’re giving the Sabres all they can handle in the Great Tank Battle of 2015. Right now, no rebuilding team invokes a “these guys are going to be scary good really soon” vibe quite like the Coyotes.
Honorable mentions: Anaheim, Montreal, Winnipeg, and adorable 11-year-old Jordyn Leopold.
This is always a tough category, but I know you won’t let me get away without it, so let’s get it over with. Just know that I reserve the right to be wrong about all of this and deny I ever said it.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets
We’ll give them karma points for the Leopold deal, but the rest of their week was disappointing. The Clarkson deal made sense, but at the end of the day it’s still a trade for David Clarkson. And moving James Wisniewski and a third-round pick to Anaheim for a middling prospect, a late second-rounder, and the AHL-bound Rene Bourque was an underwhelming return. In a league where everyone else seems to either be loading up or stripping down, taking a few baby steps back feels like the worst possible result.
4. Edmonton Oilers
While just about every other bad team in the league was at least raking in futures, the Oilers couldn’t do much of anything. Granted, they did get a first for David Perron back in January. But this week, in a supposed seller’s market, they were largely missing in action.
3. Boston Bruins
Look on the bright side, Bruins fans: Your inevitable first-round opponents in Montreal just added a guy who once got his ass handed to him by Phil Kessel. So you’ve got that going for you.
2. Calgary Flames
If we’re just looking at the transaction page, the Flames may have been the only playoff team to come away from the deadline worse than they started, thanks to deals that sent Curtis Glencross and Sven Baertschi out of town for picks without any players coming back. Those were the sort of patient, long-term moves that a realistic team has to make, and ordinarily we could defend them.
But then came the late-day bombshell that captain Mark Giordano will miss the rest of the season. Unlike the Kane injury in Chicago, there’s no recovering from this one, and the Flames went about their business as if they knew it. GM Brad Treliving did what he could, and it will probably help in the long run. But no team had a worse few days than the Flames, and it’s not close.
1. Deadline day itself
Maybe our hopes were too high, especially after all the big names who moved on deadline day last year. Maybe parity and the salary cap really did ruin everything. Maybe the whole thing needs fixing. Or maybe we just need to get used to seeing the fun spread out over a few days instead of crammed into a few desperate final hours. But yesterday ended up being a bit of a dud, just like we’d all figured it might.
Oh well. At least there were llamas.